Can climate change, sexism or racism become art?  Art Basel faces the challenges of the 21st century

Can climate change, sexism or racism become art? Art Basel faces the challenges of the 21st century

At best, art functions as a time machine: through the eyes of the painters and sculptors in front of us, we can go back in time, learn something about history. And in its radically contemporary version, the shapes and images demonstrate an ability to predict which themes will determine the course of events to come. With 289 galleries from 40 countries spread over a two-story building, the world’s largest contemporary art fair, Swiss Art Basel (opened to the general public this Tuesday 14th between Thursday 16th and Sunday 19th) An appointment that seems to condense both facets, each of them separated by the suspension of a few escalators.

On the first floor, where the most consolidated and influential galleries in the world are grouped (including this year the Spaniards Juana de Aizpuru, Elvira González and Elba Benítez), the wooden sections of the exhibitors have little to envy to the walls Modern Art Museum, full of works of the most famous artists of 20th century art history: Basquiat, Miró, Warhol, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Picasso, Balthus, Matisse, De Kooning, Dubuffet, Bacon, Giacometti… On the second floor, recent, fresher and above all innovative projects dedicated, the space is more open in every way and the air blows through the aisles of today, that state full of challenges such as the climate crisis, racism, sexism, war or, even worse, the survival of our species.

Artwork by artist Joachim Koester entitled Work by the artist Joachim Koester entitled “Cocaine #2”, from 2019. Galerie elba benítez

Overflowing is a word that seems appropriate not only because of the overwhelming number of visitors (significantly larger than on the top floor), but perhaps above all to describe the atmosphere that prevails in the main area of ​​the fair, in the lower part, given the size of the works on display , which in many cases take up all the space available to each gallery. It seems clear that in this spiral of chaos called the world, people are looking for certainties to hold on to, and in the realm of art collecting, that means large-scale works by established artists. The bet is so fixed that the same name is occasionally repeated with similar pieces in different stands: the smiling portraits by Alex Katz (whose retrospective has just opened at the Thyssen), the copper floors by Carl André (who owned the Elvira González gallery and also the American Mnuchin), the dizzying mirrors by Anish Kapoor (displayed in at least three stands)…

As well as paintings, paintings and more paintings – equal parts abstract and figurative, each wider and taller, some suitable only for their size to be placed in museums or palaces – from time to time there will be among the exhibitors in this area a few photos, a lost collage, very few installations. There’s more room for sculpture in a presentation that’s as conservative as it is overwhelming for its quality and showiness. Some pieces are as iconic as Louise Bourgeois’ spider Maman, whose pointed legs scraped the ground and covered the lively chattering groups like an umbrella at the Hauser und Wirth booth, a multi-venue gallery celebrating its 30th anniversary , by selling for $40 million (38.2 million euros) cost this classic piece that haunts the streets of several cities around the world, including Bilbao.

Mark Spiegler, the show’s global director, which has franchises in Hong Kong, Miami Beach and a new location in Paris opening in October; hence the redundancy of naming this event Art Basel in Basel – acknowledging that painting is a genre that is always “selling faster”. “Although I am confident that all formats will achieve good results,” he said in the fair’s presentation, solidifying the strikingly optimistic vision of the report that Art Basel produces annually together with its sponsor UBS, The Art Market, a regularly cited Document from the media, which in its latest episode provides data such as a 29% increase in sales for 2021 to 62,000 million euros after a decade of recession that ended in 2020.

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After the canceled 2020 edition and the postponed (from June to September) 2021, Spiegler celebrated that “now the art world is coming back with a vengeance”. Hardly anything can be felt from the effects of the pandemic beyond the online sales rooms, which remain in place to support face-to-face sales. “We’ve gotten back to normal,” the director attested, “but sub-optimal for other reasons, most notably the brutal Russian invasion that brought war back to Europe.” In addition to several demonstrations of “solidarity” with Ukraine, Art Basel has sponsored a concert by Russian group Pussy Riot, “one of the most critical voices of the Putin regime”, scheduled for this Wednesday, and no one from Russia has been banned for it , in the words of the director, “we shouldn’t judge people by their passport”. In any case, no pro-Putin artists are on the program and Russian galleries and collectors have long since fallen out of the orbit of the fair, so no dilemmas either. “We never invite collectors who could face sanctions,” Spiegler explained.

View of Carlier Gebauer's gallery stand.View of the booth of the Carlier basel gallery

After a period focused on increasing women’s representation, this year it is the turn of countries in the Global South to enter the field. “The art world has become more permeable for perspectives that have been marginalized by culture and the market for a long time,” says Spiegler, pointing out that galleries from Senegal, Angola and Saudi Arabia are taking part for the first time. Although there are some African rooms on the first floor, it is on the second floor where the diversity of origins the fair aspires to is more clearly visible, with some interesting rooms, such as the Guatemalan Ultraviolet Projects, India’s Chemould Prescott Road and Kosovar LambdaLambdaLambda. Another representative of the sparse Spanish presence in Basel is the Travesía Cuatro gallery with works by Mateo López, Sara Ramo and Ana Prata.

What happened to the NFTs? Art Basel partners with Tezos, a platform that provides the infrastructure to mint them. The company, which is presenting several lectures on this technology, has a booth where visitors can create them. According to The Art Market report, NFT sales grew from €4.4 million in 2019 to €10.6 billion in 2021, and while only 6% of dealers sold them, 74% of major collectors acquired them. In other words, the omens are good. In a recent interview with this newspaper, Spiegler himself predicted that the future will be digital, a prophecy that has hung over the cultural sector for years and which, although it has partially come true in music, cinema, books and also in art , has never stopped delivering a final blow to tangible reality. Based on what was on display in Basel, collectors are still looking for physical works to hang. Not only that, you also want them enormously large.

Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson's piece 'Take Me To Another World' (2021) on display at London's Hollybush Gardens gallery.Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson’s piece ‘Take Me To Another World’ (2021) on display at London’s Hollybush Gardens gallery.

belief in errors

An earlier version of this article said there were four Spanish galleries at the fair, when in fact there are six.

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