For all of the concerns about the state of the art market, collectors were out in force at Art Basel this year, and importantly they had brought their chequebook with them.
Within a few hours of the fair opening, David Zwirner had sold a Gerhard Richter canvas for US$20 million and an early work by Sigmar Polke for US$10 million, while Blum & Poe had sold a Yoshitomo Nara for US$2 million to a public collection in Asia and Lisson Gallery had sold an Anish Kapoor for 450,000 sterling to a Chinese private institution. Many galleries reported sales in the high six figures or above a million US dollars, and not just on the first VIP day.
But what about the quality of the artwork on offer? There were as usual plenty of 20th century masters, from a US$7 million Pablo Picasso and a US$1.25 million Frank Stella to so many Alexander Calder mobiles, one gallerist remarked you could mount a show. Jeff Koons, whose recent US$91 million Rabbit made the most expensive living artist at auction, appropriately send his love to art collectors with a huge Sacred Heart at Gagosian gallery.
But the most exciting development was the number of fresh artworks addressing today’s zeitgeist, from concerns about global warming and reflections on capitalism to strong statements about the #MeToo movement.
While in the Unlimited section of the fair (for works to big to fit in a gallery booth), selfie takers congregated around Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco’s Tin Man of the Twenty-First Century (2018), a 3-meter high sculpture of President Donald Trump as the heartless character from The Wizard of Oz, a more subtle political statement could be find in the nearby The Safe, a daring political installation by Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem alluding to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Visitors were locked one by one into a soundproof padded white cell with an inmate’s bed, a long stainless steel autopsy table and a subtle Saudi flag in reversed form on one wall. With only 40 seconds to pick up one of the rubber stamps bearing a statement about violence, dip it in red ink and leave an imprint on the wall (while also taking the obligatory photo), the art installation gave a visceral feeling of foreboding, leaving visitor with an accelerated heartbeat.
Two #MeToo art installations that had been astutely placed side by side showcased how very different artistic approaches on the same subject can be equally effective. Alicia Framis’ Life Dress (2018) took on poetic and humorous approach to the issue, having created couture dresses out of airbag material that the wearer could inflate to protect herself from harassment, while Andrea Bowers’ installation Open Secret (2018) was a methodical/frontal and factual documentation of 200 sexual harassment and assault cases with details of each case listed on long strips of red paper. Unfortunately, the work proved controversial for all the wrong reasons, as the artist had used a picture of one of the #MeToo victims without her permission (that panel was promptly removed after a flurry of twitter comments).
Opposing capitalism to Buddhism culture, Chinese artist Xu Zhen presented Nirvana (2019), a site-specific installation of roulette and baccarat tables whose surface was created with sand mandalas (possibly an allusion to fortune build on quick sand) that would be erased at the end exhibition, an interesting reflection on the vagaries of easy made wealth.
There has always been an intertwined relationship between the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, with artists selected for the Italian spectacular often also featuring at the Swiss art fair’s booths, and this was certainly the case this year as many galleries capitalised on the Venice buzz. Collectors could pick a taxidermy flamingo by Laure Prouvost (the star of the French Pavilion at Venice), geometric sculptures by Eva Rothschild (Irish Pavilion) or a large cut-out sculpture of a black Hulk by Arthur Jafa, who took home the prestigious Golden Lion award for best artist in the biennale’s central exhibition “May You Live in Interesting Times.”
Amongst the fair’s offering there were a few head-scratching pieces, often related to urinals – Marcel Duchamp would be proud. Amongst them a work by Bethan Huws, that put a toilet seat under a huge glass dome filled with polystyrene flakes, transforming into a snow globe of sort when the piece was spun – probably not something collectors will want to put on display in their living room.