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Art Basel and the Venice Biennale coincide in the calendar every second edition but also in many other ways. It seems evident that what separates art fairs from biennales is beginning to be very unclear. Venice is remarkable for its form of particular (non) financing. While Art Basel needs conceptual pieces, in order to remain at the forefront of the universe of art fairs. In the current edition of Art Basel, many of the pieces on show question the artistic context, the practice, processes… aspects that could easily be explored in the context of a biennale.
An artist receives a commission to do a video about Zuidplein, a fairly impoverished shopping centre in the south of Rotterdam. As soon as he arrives, the artist, Erik van Lieshout, begins to talk casually to the regulars: pensioners who go there to pass the time, sales assistants, clients, unemployed youths, security guards, managers…before then occupying an empty shop. His shop proposal, off the wall for the centre, displays an amalgam of diverse plastic remains, packaging or dry sheets and even giant images of a controversial politician, Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in 2002 or the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. Different themes appear during 49 minutes: the distrust that art generates in environments where there are other issues, the ease with which the media ridicule any immersion of art into real life, the difference between the proximity of the personal dialogue, the reaction that the art installation provokes, art professionals expressing their concern about what is becoming the predominant profile of the artist (with a diary full of appointments, their iPhone or iPad charged with a full repertoire of the images needed to show their works) and finally, the ending, when the manager of the centre draws the artist into his office, to praise the character of this “active and enterprising young man” who can’t be taken seriously for the fact that he is an artist.
Erik van Lieshout himself stated on one occasion that “Commission”, the title of this video, is his commentary on the poverty of both the socio-political scene and the artistic one. “Commission” was shown in Art Unlimited, the section of Art Basel that presents artistic proposals without any space restrictions. It’s been strange in the last few days, having attended the opening of the Biennale of Venice and Art Basel within the same week, to note the evident lack of precision in the use of the denomination art fair for Basel and biennale for Venice, as to all extents and purposes it would seem more appropriate to call them “fairiennials”. To give an example: in the selection process to participate in Art Unlimited, galleries propose a project by an artist, with the curator of the section, Simon Lamunière (responsible for the last twelve editions and who this year steps down) then making, with a committee, the final selection. In the case of the central exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the curator, this year the Swiss Bice Curiger, defines the idea behind the biennale and selects and invites artists. In practice, the fact that there is zero budget for part of the biennale means that it is the galleries (or the official foreign affairs institutions from each country) who finance the different participations and (or this is what it seems this year) who select the work they believe to be the most suitable (not necessarily for curatorial reasons).
In Art Basel this was also discussed. One of the “Basel conversations” revolved around the idea of Private/Public or “How museums will be able to collect?” Where are the limits of interventionism when museums see their budgets reduced and private collectors offer them their collections, albeit not without conditions? Another example: a month ago SFMoMA made public their plans to amplify their building to house a thousand pieces from the Fisher collection, generously deposited in the museum, although under the condition that at least 75% of the pieces shown in this part of the building come from this collection. Another point: increasingly it is the galleries themselves who finance important catalogues of artists who are in the process of becoming established, which aside from the expense require a huge investment of time and research.
Art Basel is not simply an art fair that lasts five days, but, sharing the calendar with Venice, periodically with Documenta and even with the Skulptur Projekte Münster, is a barometer of where the compass is pointing in art, as much commercially as in terms of discourse. Art Basel has sections such as Art Statements, where there is space for young galleries to present one artist or Art Feature the coming-out space for young galleries who gain admittance to the official section. There are even other parallel fairs with which it establishes relationships, such as Liste. So the city of Basel dresses itself up in contemporaneity (it is quite different for the rest of the year) filling its museums and art centres with the most daring proposals, such as Henrik Olesen in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, or the presentation by Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Schaulager of his project “Fabiola” in the Haus zum Kirschgarten, to cite just two examples.
Apart from the historic pieces (without even mentioning the modern art section) by James Turrell, Dan Flavin, John Baldessari and Daniel Buren, always with their annual appointment in Basel, what stands out in this 42nd edition of the fair is a whole line of more analytical work, that reflects on the actual practice of art. We could mention Erik van Lieshout, and even Mario García Torres, with his letter of application for the role of director of the Kunsthalle in Bern that takes the form of a slide-show, in which he manifests his interest thanks to Harald Szeemann, in joining such an emblematic institution, as his work revolves around questioning the structures that make art possible. Matthew Buckingham establishes complex relations between artist, work and spectator employing a portrait from the 15th century by the artist Caterina von Hemessen and Mark Leckey presents a talk in the form of a video-installation, in which images and narration generate a sort of automatism not so distant from the way the art system functions.
In any event, what underlies these discourses is the fragility or even precariousness that accompanies artistic practices. And, in this sense, one can’t help but notice the multiple presence of Hans-Peter Feldmann, not just in Art Unlimited but also in various galleries. Feldmann, who abandoned the art circuit for ten years to open a shop with memorabilia, curiosities, second hand objects and antiques in Düsseldorf, decided on returning to define his own rules of play; collaborating with numerous galleries, without any form of exclusive representation, placing no limits on the number of copies or editions of his work a priori, but leaving them totally open. Master of all he surveys, Feldmann’s attitude evidences the contradictions of a system, the art system, that at times opts for exclusivity or opacity to conceal its own insecurities.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)