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A New Art Basel for the Kinda “Woke,” Still Not for the Broke

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A Good Spot: AFRAM 2022

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BmoreArt’s Picks: June 28 – July 4

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with Pussy Riot this year.”

No, that quote is not from a meme mocking corporations’ annual June-time pinkwashing campaigns. It’s from Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s Global Director, at the fair’s media reception last week, hours before the anticapitalist feminist punk band played a sold-out concert to benefit refugees, sponsored by the art fair. Spiegler, for his part, seemed genuine in his enthusiasm for a more politically relevant version of the consummate commercial art world event, now in its 51st year. 

Last week the Swiss fair returned to its normal summer dates after two years of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Spiegler—who took the fair’s reins in 2019, shortly before the world was upended—doesn’t believe Art Basel should return to business as usual. “Let’s be clear, these are still not normal times,” he explained, before litanizing the multiple crises rocking Europe and the world at large, from climate change and the war in Ukraine to the mass displacement of refugees, and inequality exacerbated by all of the above. 

It’s not what I expected to hear at the panel discussion. I assumed most other art journalists would arrive with questions about economic insecurity and inflation’s impacts on the art market. But when someone in the audience asked whether famously neutral (or complicit, depending on one’s politics) Switzerland’s unprecedented sanctions against Russia would negatively impact sales to oligarch collectors or exclude Russian artists, the Art Basel leadership seemed to bristle at the poor taste of the question. “Obviously no one should be judged by the nationality of their passport,” Spiegler declared to murmurs of approval, but he clarified that the fair had purged known Putin supporters from the VIP invite list. That’s a one-percenter slap in the face that surely stung more than a whole Monaco marina of impounded yachts. 

 

Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s Global Director, at media reception 2022
Detail from Jenny Holzer’s “happening with Russia,” 2020, comprising 40 etched copper panels with text (some redacted) from the Mueller investigation into Trump’s dealings with Russia. Presented by Sprüth Magers
[Plant-based catering at Art Basel] was such a simple gesture to drastically, immediately cut environmental impact, it would almost feel like cheating were it not for how effective it actually is.
Michael Anthony Farley

I found myself more surprised by the fair leadership’s admission that events like Art Basel are shamefully unsustainable—with untold numbers of flight hours logged by private jets and cargo shipments of artwork crated in material usually destined for the landfill arriving from around the globe. I pictured the trash cans at art fairs past, crammed with enough plastic champagne flutes to fill a Pacific atoll. But now Art Basel has joined the Gallery Climate Coalition, with the ambition to slash the art world’s environmental footprint by half. 

Even as I heard about the fair’s plans to partner with construction recycling initiatives, that it had sourced 95 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and how it swapped plastic water bottles (once as ubiquitous beside seated gallerists as iPads peeking out of Birkin bags) for refillable recycled aluminum containers, I remained skeptical. 

But then the food arrived. And it was all vegan! As part of the fair’s commitment to halving its environmental impact, they used a plant-based catering company—which also vended out of the flagship concession stands in Hall 1. It was such a simple gesture to drastically, immediately cut environmental impact, it would almost feel like cheating were it not for how effective it actually is. It’s a wonder other industries and institutions, from airlines to schools, struggling with their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, haven’t caught on.

galleria raffella cortese's booth with Martha Rosler's “Prospect for Today,” from the series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series," 2008, and excerpts from Yael Bartana's "Bury our Weapons, Not Our Bodies" 2019-2020

For a fair whose name has become synonymous with conspicuous consumption, the lack of Kobe beef skewers and exotic seafood was just one of many small steps to cut down on decadence that I observed with a pleasant surprise. Our digital VIP cards, for example, also functioned as week-long public transit passes within the city of Basel. I overheard a fair employee flat-out refuse to call a black car service for an aghast, able-bodied VIP attendee whose hotel was a laughably short walking distance from the convention center. 

Art Basel also took strides to address diversity and inclusion—with mixed results. For the past few years, Spiegler and his team have proactively courted galleries from the Global South, with a particular focus on Africa. The curated sections, screening program, public commissions, and artist talks notably emphasized artists of color, decolonial narratives, or environmental concerns. And this year, galleries from several previously unrepresented countries, including Angola and Senegal, had booths at the fair. I asked Spiegler if there had been financial assistance to help artists and gallerists from less wealthy nations participate in an event situated in one of the world’s most expensive cities. 

He explained that the fair didn’t need to offer financial assistance to galleries from the Global South because those gallerists represent the ultra-upper-end of markets in their home countries. Instead, he’d made an effort to explain to those gallerists that they could make a lot of money in Europe because a market exists for them: “Galleries [from the Global South] aren’t coming here to commit financial suicide,” he said. “There’s so much interest from collectors in indigenous artists, in African artists… we’re not asking anyone to die on the hill in the name of representation.” 

I found myself wondering if that issue is contributing to the ambivalence/unease I have felt about art fairs. Is it a sign of corporate responsibility that the commercial art world facilitates critical discourse and international exchange? Or is it dangerous that we have for-profit businesses masquerading as benevolent institutions? I have always suspected those two takes aren’t mutually exclusive. 

 

Blue (and yellow) ribbon prize for most awkward attempt at political correctness: Galerie Thomas showing this 1989 minimalist painting by Günther Förg that just happened to look like a Ukrainian flag. This was one of countless attempts by galleries to hang their most politically “relevant” artworks facing the busiest aisles to lure buyers into booths otherwise populated by more standard secondary market fare. (Note for clarity: this booth was not part of one of the fair-curated sections.)

But when the art world pats itself on the back for being inclusive and centering anticolonial discourse, it’s perhaps problematic that non-European perspectives are generally framed by people from the very classes and groups that materially benefited most from postcolonial conditions. Are the privileged 1 percent of their respective countries really any more “woke” for interacting with one another? I wonder if this is part of the reason the art world almost exclusively prioritizes discussion of identitarian concerns (constructs of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, et al.) over any other politics. 

Later, at a party, I asked a friend of a friend (who preferred not to be named) for their thoughts on the matter, as an artist from a country formerly colonized by France, who was working as an assistant for a French gallery showing at the fair. They found the fetishization of “the exotic” in the art market a bit creepy (an icky feeling I myself couldn’t overcome walking around the Armory Show last year in New York, watching very wealthy people who were mostly, though far from exclusively, white shop for representations of “otherness” usually in the form of figurative depictions of BIPOC bodies). “It also changes the way artists [of the African Diaspora] make their work. You have to ask yourself, ‘should I make Black-Artist-Art so I get a show?’ or is it okay to just be an artist?” they asked rhetorically. “Should I have to always represent myself as different than an artist born in Europe to get attention?”

These are questions for which the art market may not be the best forum to debate answers. Commerce tends to reward replication of successful models and current paradigms over progress that could destabilize existing notions of value for the players with a vested interest. That’s of course a problem in the world of museums, biennials, et al., but at least those institutions’ uneasy bedfellowship with capitalism isn’t their fundamental raison d’etre. Nevertheless, political concerns, from the war in Ukraine to post-nationalist identities, were addressed with varying degrees of success or cringe-inducing failure in every section of the convention center floor, from secondary market mega-gallery booths to curated solo projects. 

Excerpt from Francis Alÿs’ series, “Border Barriers Typology: Cases #1 to #23,” presented by Swiss gallery Peter Kilchmann in Art Basel Unlimited. The Mexico-City-based artist was born in effectively borderless Belgium, and delicately sketches different types of border walls between countries including the United States and Mexico, Turkey and Syria, Malaysia and Thailand (pictured), et al.

The talk of the town was undoubtedly Art Basel | Unlimited, a section for solo projects that might not have fit the standard physical dimensions nor thematic context of a typical fair booth. Curated by Giovanni Carmine, the show took advantage of Messe Basel’s soaring ceiling heights and airport-like expanses of column-free floorspace with sprawling installations and large-scale sculpture. With the utopian theme A Loud Choir, this year’s section might be the best (or potentially worst, depending on one’s point of view) example of a commercial entity assuming the role of a biennial, with artworks loosely bound together by threads of collective solidarity or rebellious individualism in the face of dominant hierarchies. At times I almost forgot I was in an art fair, and found myself in conversation with other attendees who discussed the show as if it were a museum exhibition, which I suppose is a credit to Carmine’s curatorial skill. 

To further muddy those waters, I noticed several pieces originally commissioned or acquired by museums now on view as for-sale artworks represented by private galleries. Jim Shaw’s epic installation “Not Since Superman Died” comes to mind. I first saw the piece at the Marciano Art Foundation’s now-defunct Los Angeles museum, where it was presented as a site-specific work. (Interestingly, Gagosian now occupies that exhibition space and was the gallery representing the artwork’s sale at Art Basel. But Artsy lists the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art as the seller.) 

Installation view of Yael Bartana’s three-channel video “Malka Germania”
Yael Bartana’s operatic Malka Germania is such a powerful piece so loaded with controversial imagery I found myself surprised it wasn’t censored in Germany, where Israel has become a political third rail so charged that touching it can end artists’ careers. 
Michael Anthony Farley

Five international art dealers collectively represented Yael Bartana’s operatic Malka Germania,  which was originally commissioned by Berlin’s Jewish Museum last year. It’s an appropriately complex situation for an artwork so ambiguous about its own political stances. The three-channel video installation follows an androgynous warrior messiah around Berlin as she leads (or perhaps observes) Israeli Defense Force troops. Are they triumphantly reclaiming Berlin for the returning grandchildren of Holocaust survivors? Defending them from threats of current-day antisemitism? Or demonstrating against the IDF’s brutal treatment of Palestinians?

Shots of neoclassical busts and passports raining from apartment windows to shatter on the sidewalk are equally vague—recalling simultaneously the historical looting of Jewish families’ belongings and violent evictions in both gentrifying Berlin and occupied Jerusalem. Or perhaps the destruction of symbols of traditional “identity” is an act of cathartic liberation—for a generation of global citizens descended from refugees and immigrants, born in nation-states with problematic colonial histories, searching for a sense of belonging and freedom in the complicated internationalism of world cities such as Berlin. That latter association is reinforced by the protagonist’s confrontation of Berlin landmarks associated with the city’s own occupation and division after World War II: Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and remnants of the wall. It’s a powerful piece so loaded with controversial imagery I found myself surprised it wasn’t censored in Germany, where Israel has become a political third rail so charged that touching it can end artists’ careers. 

At Basel Unlimited, Malka Germania was shown opposite Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh’s “Lackadaisical Sunset to Sunset,” presented by Lebanese-German gallery Sfeir-Semler, further complicating its ambiguous nationalistic imagery. Al Solh’s mixed-media installation tells the story of women from the Arab world who have found themselves displaced by conflict at various scales—from familial strife to war—and features a tent that recalls both a refugee camp and the nomadic lifestyle the great-grandparents of so many in the region lived before Western powers drew arbitrary borders only to be smudged and disputed in subsequent wars. 

Installation view of Mounira Al Solh’s “Lackadaisical Sunset to Sunset,” presented by Sfeir-Semler at Basel Unlimited

If there were any one artwork that potentially could’ve ignited a “#cancelartbasel” social-media controversy, it was probably Jordan Wolfson’s brilliant “ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS,” presented jointly by Sadie Coles HQ and David Zwirner. The piece skewers the oft-divergent streams of consensus-consciousness on what is or is not “politically correct” with juxtapositions of incendiary (or sometimes banal) imagery and words. It was easy to imagine this piece offending American viewers to the point of a Change.org revolt, with its eponymous labels of “ARTISTS,” “FRIENDS,” and “RACISTS” suddenly appearing and disappearing above divisive images such as cop cars. Perhaps that’s why Wolfson chose a medium that’s virtually impossible to photograph for Twitter or even capture on video for TikTok: manically flashing holograms supported by a grid of spinning fans. The propaganda-like holograms overwhelm the viewer with a cascading sequence of strobing text, videos of terrorist attacks, police, dancing Israeli flag emojis, clips that would be totally innocuous outside of the context of the Culture Wars such as scenes from children’s TV shows, among other images that are “always beyond our cognitive grasp, moving too fast for us to pass judgement,” in the words of critic Hettie Judah, as quoted in the exhibition text.

The effect was somewhat akin to insomnia doomscrolling through the alternately righteously furious and/or escapist-absurd Instagram stories of American friends while jet-lagged on Adderall several time zones over, safe in a bubble of “First World problems” in the actual First World. The piece was made in the US during the especially chaotic years of 2019-2020, but if anything felt site-specific to Hall 1 of Art Basel 2022, this was it. I’m sure there’s a tote bag out there that says something to the effect of “WHEN EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL, NOTHING IS” on one side and “WHEN NOTHING IS POLITICAL, EVERYTHING IS” on the reverse. Provided said hypothetical tote cost upwards of 50 Swiss Francs and was printed with nontoxic plant-based ink on carbon-negative fair-trade hemp, I’m sure that tote bag would’ve been a best seller at this year’s gift shop. But a week later, I’m still not sure whether that would be progress or not, and maybe that’s okay too. 

Header image: Art Basel in Basel 2022, courtesy Art Basel. All other images by the author.

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