Marc Séguin, Portraits of Evil (2010). Human ash & charcoal on canvas, 30″ x 24″. Image credit: Charest-Weinberg Gallery, Miami.
Whatever the chosen treat was for those attending the monumental visual carousel known as Art 41 Basel (sales, new collectors, contacts, party companions or employment/internship opportunities), a great deal of running around was done to get a taste of it. Even navigating the complex, two-story Messeplatz exhibition center prompted the show’s producers to create an interactive ‘app’ for iPhone users. The humming crowd of patrons carrying their bubble-wrap totes and blessed VIP cards (I discovered there were more than sixteen versions of such), could put anyone’s head into a spin.
Ice-cold conversations among wealthy collectors coupled with an overwhelmingly stoic, restrained Swiss demeanor would feel particularly oppressive to someone having only experienced Art Basel Miami Beach, thus far (leave the flamboyant, loud shenanigans in the Miami Beach Convention Center version, please). Noises no louder than a murmur could be heard through the streets, and there was almost complete silence on the down-to-the-second punctual public trams.
Esko Männikkö, Untitled (from Blues Brothers series), 2010. C-print with artist’s frame, edition 1/5, 34.6″ x 46.1″. Image credit: Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin.
Yet, the gravitas of this contemporary art event was crystal clear. While there was an absence of the laugh-out-loud, easygoing spirit in our own Convention Center, the academically lush landscape of internationally respected artists and professionals spoke volumes. Quietly intense sit-downs were visible as collectors engaged directly with gallerists, curators and consultants to carefully evaluate their forthcoming purchases. Young writers, critics, students and enthusiasts intently took notes in their Moleskins, carefully inspecting each work as their brains physically swelled from information overload. Throughout the fair and the city of Basel, major showings of Rodney Graham, Matthew Barney, Gabriel Orozco, Basquiat and Felix Gonzalez-Torres were as intellectually challenging as they were outwardly enjoyable. In short, this is why Art Basel is the ‘real one’: the scale is daunting, but it stretches from the lofty buyers down to the wide-eyed students experiencing new creative frontiers.
Eftihis Patsourakis, Erase 17 (2007). Oil on photograph, 9.5″ x 12″. Image credit: Eleni Koroneou Gallery, Athens.
Prices graciously ranged from digestible editions to towering blue-chip masterpieces. Monumental original works claimed pre-recession prices, from $1-15 million netted by dealers such as White Cube (for Damian Hirst’s nine-foot-wide jewel vitrine ‘Memories of Love’) , Hauser & Wirth (for Paul McCarthy’s ‘Sleepy’ sculpture from his ‘White Snow’ series) and Paris/Miami-based Perrotin (for Takashi Murakami’s bronze ‘Yume Lion’). Even with the money flowing freely from veteran and nouveau-riche buyers, gallerists interacting with unknown guests were still polite and informative. As most people tell me I look no older than sixteen, I fully expected to be shoved aside as the ‘adults’ made inquiries; yet not once was I treated as flighty or insignificant when I displayed genuine curiosity.
With so many lectures, satellite fairs and public art projects to be taken in, this felt like an initiation, a rigorous test to my mettle as a member of the contemporary art community. Passing the test was fulfilled by having informed conversation with gallerists and curators, engaging directly with speakers during Art Conversations, and above all, remembering that gaining information was the endgame. Conversely, Miami Beach Basel seems like a circus rather than an education with its celebrity sightings, wild spending reports and tabloid-worthy hotel parties. There is a clear difference between the ‘tourist’ attraction (I think you know which one) and the seminal cultural event that is Art Basel. Simply being there made me feel as I had graduated into an overwhelming, but rewarding world. I can hear the Universe say, ‘So what? Now you want a cookie?’ Yes, I certainly do, thanks[.]
This post was contributed Shana Beth Mason.