It is very well impossible to review two of the biggest art fairs taking place this week, Art Basel and Liste, neither is it possible to give you a summary that would do justice to the diversity of works, artists, positions. What I will do instead is give you three loosely connected observations on art fairs that are based on looking, reading, lots of talking with gallerists and artists and some of the more witty remarks that were part of all this conversing.
‘Visiting art fairs is like hearing your parents having sex’
John Baldessari’s famous comment on the awkwardness of visiting art fairs, came up on the first day. You know your parents do make out but you’d rather not think about it. Let alone hear it. Visiting an art fair has the same effect on many artists but also on a lot of people working in non-commercial parts of the art world. We know we need the sellers and buyers (now more than ever, with budget cuts sweeping through Europe) but we rather stay away from it all.
There are enough good reasons not to stay away. First of all, it is important that the commercial part of the art world and the non-commercial, more or less independent part, stay friends and understand each other. We need collectors, buyers and sellers for those artists and artworks that we value and show in the independent sectors because we are often unable to pay artists enough to sustain their practice. We need the market to support autonomous, rigorous, experimental artists’ practices.
Liste is definitely the place for that. The young art fair shows younger galleries, with more experimental programs and artists who are not yet completely canonized. Almost all of the 64 participating galleries (of which 4 from the Netherlands: Ellen de Bruijne showing Falke Pisano and Erkka Nissinen, Jeanine Hofland with Maarten Overdijk and Rebecca Digne, Martin van Zomeren with Navid Nuur and Martijn Hendriks and Wilfried Lentz with Christian Friedrich and Rubén Grilo) have very strong presentations. And this is no small feat, given the tiny to small spaces they have at their disposal and the competition from surrounding galleries.
Art Basel also promotes young artists, through the so-called Art Statements program for example. In this section of the fair, 27 solo projects by young artists are spotlighted (three of them by Dutch galleries: Motive Gallery with Aurélien Froment, Diana Stigter with Amalia Pica and Upstream showing León & Cociña), selected from more than 300 applications. Some of the artists at Liste are also showing within the context of these Art Statements (Zin Taylor or Aurélien Froment for example), reinforcing a certain feeling of overlap. But there is a big difference: while Liste is almost casual and rather relaxed, Art Basel breathes money. The experimental projects are bigger, simply have more space and sometimes feel a little out of place within this slick and money-infused context.
‘Let’s not confuse the artworld with the art’
During the opening days hotness seems to count more than anything else. Is an artist hot? Is he being pushed? Is it happening? The rush, the pushing and shoving, the arguing and bargaining, the adrenaline, they are indispensably part of the first days of a fair, but they are also slightly scary mechanisms circling around this hotness thing. To make sense of all these new artists entering the arena, gallerists need to curate and contextualize. Hotness only lasts so long after all.
This brings us to another reason to stay involved. Art fairs have been moving more and more into the ‘discursive’ or independent field. Telltale signs are the curated shows, art talks, conferences, performance and film programs, commissions etc. Art fairs are now performing some of the functions of the museum or the independent art space. Art Basel has, next to the Art Statements, also the curated Art Unlimited show with works that ‘surpass the possibilities of the conventional gallery booth, showcasing outsize sculptures, video projections, installations, (…) and performance art.’ This year, Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer curated the 17.000 square meter hall with, indeed, a lot of outsized sculptures (the only Dutch participant is Germaine Kruip, represented by London-based gallery Approach). This is art on steroids, as someone sighed next to me. Big, bigger, biggest. Overwhelming, decadent maybe but also thrilling.
Next to this big curated show, Art Basel also hosts an Art Feature program with 20 gallery-curated projects that again promise the visitor ‘a space for the discovery of new talent’ (Dutch artist Navid Nuur has an Art Feature with the gallery Plan B from Romania), a film program, the Art Basel Conversations that ‘stage discussions about current aspects of the international artworld’, a Salon Program curated by Maike Cruse that is just that little bit more contemporary, ‘focusing on the most current artworld themes’ (italic’s mine). Liste is more modest with a performance program curated by Burkhard Meltzer that deals with symbolic and economic exchange; the core of any fair, yes, but also a timely subject in other respects.
‘It’s a show about nothing’
(a line used by Larry David pitching a new show with no plot or story in Seinfeld)
They say the white cube is the most forgiving space for showing art. Even bad works of art can look good in a white cube. The reverse seems to be true for the art fair. Even good works of art can look bad at an art fair. At most fairs, you might feel that you need to shield your eyes every so often to block out the ‘bad stuff’. Not at Liste. You can, with a little lenience, approach the fair as one big exhibition presenting what is happening right now in contemporary art.
The scale and diversity of Art Basel is, as opposed to Liste, very unforgiving (Annet Gelink is the only Dutch gallery participating in the gallery section). It is a harsh place to show art. It is also a harsh place to look at art and appraise it. Although there is more physical space than at Liste, there is less mental space to take it all in. It is simply too much and too diverse. There is no bigger story being told here. Liste shows you a generation, Art Basel shows you whatever sells. Although there are good things being sold, amazing things even, the overall effect is that you end up feeling as if there is nothing to see. The positions cancel each other out. The options become interchangeable. If all of this can happen at the same time in one week in one building, then is anything (substantial, meaningful) happening at all? Is this a show about nothing? Is there a story, a plot line?