Lee Sang-Hyun, Diplomatic Trade Delegation of Joseon, 2008, Sun Contemporary Seoul

Art Basel 40 reports its highest attendance figures ever and unexpectedly good sales. Less spectacular than former editions, the art fair caters again to the connoisseur, rather than the impulsive cell-totting speculator of recent years. But gone too is the cutting-edge excitement. The museum-like quality of many works on display, including by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall indicate a return to safe values.

When the 40th edition of Art Basel closed this weekend after four days of intense showcasing, visitors were left to wonder: does the annual get-together for the art glitterati still make sense when over-inflated prices can no longer defy market forces and the numerous satellite events that have sprung up around the fair are more exciting?

Reporting its highest attendance ever with 61,000 visitors to the 300 galleries that exposed over 2,500 artists, Art Basel announces “solid business”, “surprisingly strong results”, “huge success against sober expectations”.

Creating a buzz during the first days, the international trade journal for the art cognoscenti, The Art Newspaper claimed “Surprise success: Art Basel dispels credit crunch blues”.

“We came with no expectations, but it went really well for us. There were many pleasant surprises and we connected with many new people” said Tim Blum from Blum and Poe in Los Angeles.

For just under $1m, film star Brad Pitt, who for the second year running attended the VIP exclusive opening, snapped up a work by Neo Rauch, a painter from the Leipzig school, whose paintings were worth less than a quarter of the price three years ago.

Like many other gallery owners, Gilli Stampa, of the eponymous Stampa Gallery in Basel is convinced that this year’s edition of Art Basel is of better quality. And indeed, if quality is to be measured by the quantity of works by modern masters, the ground floor of the fair was like walking through a museum of fine arts.

But no matter how upbeat the exhibitors and their enthusiastic buyers wanted to appear, the event appeared uncharacteristically subdued. The fact is, Basel Art is now 40 years old and beginning to show that it has reached middle-age. Although galleries from Spain (see Elba Benitez and Soledad Lorenzo in Madrid) and India (see Nature Morte / Bose Pacia in New Delhi) are contributing fresh and exhilarating art, there was nothing much else on show to send your pulses racing.

As a consequence, younger events have sprung up all around Art Basel and because they take place at the same dates but in different areas of Basel, a dedicated enthusiast will spend a lot of time just getting from one venue to the next.

Volta, Basel’s Contemporary Art Fair for new and emerging art, was started in 2005 and now occupies the spectacular Markthalle at a stone’s throw from the train station. The art on display was irreverent, sometimes messy and often fun. I’m betting on a South African artist by the name of Deborah Poynton, whose tormented nakedness is a female version of Lucian Freud, but with an unabashed dash of self-interrogation thrown in.


Deborah Poynton, Detail from The Lesson, Michael Stevenson Gallery


Deborah Poynton, The Right Place, Michael Stevenson Gallery

LISTE, the Young Art Fair in Basel, has been around since 1996 to introduce galleries that are in general no more than 5 years old and who present artists under the age of 40, most of it oddly conceptual. It is presented in cells surrounding the unfriendly gridded staircase of the community workshop Warteck pp. The artist who retained my attention was Glasgow-based, Henry Coombes who will soon have a solo exhibition with Sorcha Dallas.


Henry Coombes, The Little Man Would Like You to Document the Approaching Debauchery, 2007

SCOPE, a global art fair that takes place in several cities, including New York, London, Miami and the Hamptons, is in Basel for the third time, but it almost didn’t make it this year. Fierce opposition to its choice of a sports field on which it pitched a tent close to the main venue jeopardized arrangements until the last minute. Unlike Volta, Scope is not curated and therefore presents art that can perhaps be qualified as mainstream experimental.

My own favourite is The Solo Project in the southern suburb of Basel. The labyrinth itinerary brings you into close contact with the works of the individual artists. The Dutch media artist Sylvie Zijlmans’ startling water-inundated photographs were totally captivating.


Sylvie Zijlmans, z.t., 2008, inktjetprint/aquarelpapier

From Korea, Lee Sung Hyun, represented by Gallery Sun Contemporary demonstrates the cross-fertilisation between Asian and Western artists at its best, but with a personal magical lightness.

Also at cultural cross-roads, the Turkish artist living in Germany, Nezaket Ekici is a multimedia artist who uses her own performances to create works of haunting imagery and powerful poetic impact.

Nezaket Ekici, Blind

And then there was Stephan Reusse whose delightful laser figurines make you want to dance with them.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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