There’s more than enough to see at Art Basel and its satellite events, but travelling via Munich and Zurich made for an entertaining excess.
SATURDAY – MUNICH
Matthew Barney: Shaduf, 2012-13 - that being an ancient Egyptian irrigation tool elaborated into a throne room, as inspired by the pharaoh fertilising crops with his own faeces - from 'River of Fundament'
Munich’s institutions give any city a run for its money, from ancient to classical to modern to contemporary. They have a transatlantic flavour at the moment, with Ellen Gallagher’s retrospective and Matthew Barney’s massive new installation ‘River of Fundament’ at the Haus der Kunst (12 rooms tied into a seven hour film); then Cy Twombly and Dark Pop at the Museum Bandhorst, which has an exceptional Warhol collection. That trend carried through to the smaller galleries, where I saw shows by Peter Halley, David Smith, Nicolas Ceccaldi (more Canadian than he sounds), Michael Venezia (from Brooklyn, not Venice) and Jeremy Thomas.
Jeremy Thomas: Kinta Blue, 2014 at Galerie Renata Bender
The only Briton with a substantial presence was David Shrigley, though I thought ‘Jeremy Thomas’ a rather English name for an American. He has developed a novel sculptural process in New Mexico, welding together two similar geometrical plates of steel, then blowing them up to make somewhat unpredictable shapes which retain the opening through which the pressurised air was forced. One side is then lacquered to a vivid finish, the other patinated. Result: a somewhat sexualised hybrid of burst seedpod and wrecked farm machinery.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Nude on Truckle Bed, verso of Circus, 1910 at Pinakthek der Moderne
The Pinakthek der Moderne had the best German show, billed as exploring Kirchner as a colourist – which, I guess, is good PR, though it actually dug equally into his themes, psychology and working methods. Some 13 % of the manically productive Ernst Ludwig’s 1,045 paintings have another painting on the back, and the several of these were shown, some set up to be visible from both sides, some on the basis they’d be flipped mid-run.
Bernard Aubertin: Untitled, 2012
‘Interesting space’ may be the polite way to respond to uninteresting art, but what about good art badly presented? In some ways I was impressed by a retrospective of ZERO-linked French artist Bernard Aubertin’s classic 1960s-70s fire and nail-based paintings together with a range of more red paint-only experiments at Galerie Maulberger. I particularly like this small 2012 canvas in which the paint is teased away as a means of substitute for nails’ spatial irruptions, and also suggests the flames for which his oeuvre tends towards this red. Except… the gallerist was busy packing something or other, and clearly irritated by my visit just before he closed. My request for titles of the work was received grudgingly. Various paintings unconnected with the show were stacked around - on the floor, on a table, against the walls, some butting up against the Aubertins. One Aubertin was hidden behind a door which had been wedged open. Maybe that’s why I was snappily told not to take photographs before I had the chance…
Richard Schur: Venus, 2012 at Stefan Vogdt
My favourite Munich-based painter – though currently in New York - is Richard Schur (say ‘Shoo-er’), and sure enough several recent paintings stood out in Stefan Vogdt’s vast and very mixed space. I probably can’t do better than quote the booklet in the gallery: 'Schur has painted his way around the world in a series of residencies: one touch on the tiller of art history, one nod to the grid-based code of his personal sea, and an ever-mutating sequence of abstracts sails free. Schur discovers newly surprising harmonies in the interplay of colours – from natural to chemical, from subtle to raw – in what prove up close to be creamily painterly surfaces, complete with the playful contingencies of drip and bleed. Thus are his passengers transported to actively serene visual spaces suffused with the light of those various places'. Ah, I see I wrote that myself… no wonder I can’t do better.
Ann-Christiane Woehrl: from In / Visible a the Staatlichen Museum für Völkerkunde
Munich also provided, at the Ethnographic Museum, an unusually harrowing exhibition: Ann-Christiane Woehrl’s photographed survivors of fire and acid attacks in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Uganda. ‘In / Visible’ depicts 48 such women against a neutral black background for them to pose as they see fit, and shows scenes from the everyday life of one from each country - those six also being interviewed about their experiences.It's a tough subject to balance between empathy and exploitation, but the disfigured women emerge with beauty refreshed through the inner dignity which follows the horror.
SUNDAY - ZURICH
A relaxing, if early, four hours on the train brought me past Swiss lakes to Zurich.
Jérôme Leuba: BATTLEFIELD #101, BIKES, 2014 in Public Art in Zurich
Zurich’s gallery scene is outstanding, and was at its best on the Sunday before Art Basel, with extended opening and 17 sculpture projects dotted through the city. Of those, the easiest to walk past unsuspectingly was probably Berlin-based Genevan Jérôme Leuba’s mischievous installation of inoperative bikes and bike remains, chained to the railings of a stylish square with cafes. That might go wholly unnoticed in London, but the subversive point is that Zurich authorities are very prompt to remove such bikes - indeed, according to the sponsoring gallery, annex 14, several had to be replaced in the first week despite the instructions issued! So, whether Leuba successfully challenges the City’s power remains to be seen.
Saadane Afif: L'André , 2009/10 - edition of 35 at Raebervon Stenglin
Oddly, as I traipsed around on ponderous foot, that proved the first of several uses of bicycles and scooters as assisted readymades. The second, which I concede is an art insider’s joke, turned on the repainting of part of a bicycle’s frame to make it match the round wooden bars which Polish-Romanian-French artist André Cadare used to carry round as sculptural objects (rational enough in themselves) which not only escaped the gallery but invaded other artists’ spaces, most famously at private views. So perhaps Saadane Afif is effecting a more radical, as well as more efficient, displacement, and suggesting we should all have a go.
Valentin Carron: Ciaos, 2014, at Galerie Eva Presenhuber
Eva Presenhuber has three large spaces in Zurich, one with an impressive and varied show by Valentin Carron, Switzerland’s last Venice Biennale rep. In contrast to Leuba, he has lovingly restored several of the Ciao mopeds (made in Italy 1967-2006). Why so? Carron says moped displays neither power nor speed and is ‘actually the vehicle of two forms of marginality: the marginality of youth in its quest for evasion and emancipation as well as the marginality of drop-out adults who populate the European countryside and villages’.
Thomas Bayrle: Motoren, 2014 (detail) - motors and speakers at Galerie Francesca Pia
Just how little power there is in a similar moped’s engine was demonstrated by Thomas Bayrle - who has often used motors as kinetic sculptures - in his show 'Vespini': two Vespa engines are stripped of their casing and presented as acoustic sculptures. Their modest roar is collaged with an aria sung by Maria Callas to suggest some commonality between mechanical and human rhythms.
Teresa Margolles: La Búsqueda at the Migros Museum
To finish somewhat as we did in Munich, the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has made many works centred on the extreme violence of the million-strong border city of Ciudad Juarez, which has seen thousands of drug-related deaths but also a catalogue of brutal ‘femicides’ running at some 50 each year. For La búsqueda (The Search), Margolles transposed eight large glass windows from public spaces in Cuidad Jaurez, dirty, graffiti-ridden, and covered with posters pleading for information on missing women. They were installed in semi-darkness, to the sound of the trains which rattle round the city, and which made the windows tremble. This eerie memorial to those assumed dead recharged the readymade, but its presence in Zurich also pointed to western connivance with the economics behind the problems.
What does the Art Basel week offer? Over 300 galleries showing 4,000 artists, with several extensive special sections; half a dozen subsidiary fairs; 20-odd major institutional shows; a smattering of awards; plus various programmes integrated into the city. The surfeit teeters on the overwhelming, but here are a few points of interest.
Charles Ray: Shoe Tie, 2012 at the Kunstmuseum
Four venues can be relied on for optimal presentation of important artists, and so it was for Gerhardt Richter, with series works at the Foundation Beyeler; the – admittedly uneven – Paul Chan at Schaulager.; and Charles Ray across both the Kunstmuseum and its modern branch, the Gegenwartskunst, in a joint presentation which gave fifteen of his more recent sculptures their own space. It’s probably not what you want to read, but they have a physical presence which is lost in reproduction – which is how I’d mostly seen them previously: the judicious mixture of hyper-realistic detail and more stylised editing with meticulously-engineered surfaces in surprising materials generates psychological ambiguity.
Ariel Schlesinger: Untitled (Inside Out Skull), 2014 at Kunsthaus Baselland
The other outstanding institutional show was at the Kunsthaus Baselland, where Berlin-based Israeli Ariel Schlesinger fizzed with witty ideas, several of which playfully ‘reverse engineered’ a new function out of a broken or apparently maladjusted object. His most recent works involved smashing and then recombining the pieces of a skull and then recombining them ‘inside out’ – a brilliant transformation of what has become a somewhat clichéd inclusion in much art, and with the extra-sculptural punch of providing an analogy for how Schlesinger thinks – while teasing us with the absurdity of believing we might somehow get at what’s within our heads by such means.
Marina Abramovic: Luminosity, 1997 in '14 Rooms'
Painting and sculpture dominates the stands at Art Basel, but a shift towards performance is also evident. Indeed, found myself smiling, clapping and shouting in accordance with headphone instructions at PSM gallery along with two other participants. Only when they seemed ready to go on indefinitely did I realise they were paid (by Christian Falsnaes) to be there… A spectacular extension to the halls provided mirror-doored Herzog & de Meuron rooms in which the visitor encountered at least one person who is not the artist but is an artwork, from a Tino Sehgal conversation to a Bruce Nauman re-enactment to the radiant presence of a wall-mounted nude by Marina Abramovic. Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s ’14 Rooms’ was the biggest hit of the Fair.
Laura Lima: To Hold 2014 (see top photo) at A Gentil Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) - Art Basel
14 Rooms included a piece by the Brazilian Laura Lima, known for creating performative situations in the tradition of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. Back in the main fair, her home gallery showed her partially-clothed canvasses together with the human presentation of a wrapped painting . If you bought this (for $20,000), you were probably a museum, and what you got was the idea and the arm rests – to be combined with any of your own paintings, plus your hired labour to utilise the holes in your own walls.
Alexandra Bircken: Diana, 2014 at BQ (Berlin) - Art Basel
Back on the bike-track Cologne-based Alexandra Bircken - who studies fashion at St Martins in the 90's - is best-known for incorporating knitting with found items as she re-purposes them. However, her dramatic presentation of a motorbike removed from teh world of speed did the business straight. With nods, perhaps, to Damien Hirst's divided cow and use of butterflies and to Arman's slicing of model cars, Bircken humanises the machine through the heart-like presence of the seat among what then seem intestinal innards, and - judged by the model's name - makes it a woman.
Antonis Pittas: We Will do as we have decided, 2013 at Annet Gelink Gallery (Amsterdam) - Art Basel
When this marble floor scatter caught my attention, there was the Amsterdam-based Greek artist to explain that not only did it suggest fallen classical ruins and the arrangements of Malevich’s Suprematist compositions, but that he had taken the shapes from empty tear gas canisters together with the bottles, stone and bits of wood typically left on the street after a demonstration. The words incorporated were taken from online accounts of an anti-government demonstration: they read as likely protesters’ slogans… but were actually quoting the Turkish prime minister.
Matthew Mercier: Untitled (work in progress), 2013 at Medhi Chouakri (Berlin) - Art Basel
Why have these objects been attractively grouped in a cabinet? Are their colour linked? It took a while to spot that they are all one thing pretending to be another: that wine bottle is a pepper grinder, the salami a knife, the corn cob a sex toy, the orange a stress ball etc. Or is it all really just an art work? Then what is art, really? Everything spirals. And this fits in with Mercier’s wider practice, as he often assigns new functions to already existing items, such as turning basketball net rings into lamp holders. So how come it’s still ‘in progress’? Because, apparently, if Mercier finds another object suited to a vitrine, he will supply it to the relevant purchaser…
Daniel Turner: Marjorie in Art Unlimited and at team (gallery, inc), New York – Art Basel
In among Art Unlimited’s biggest-versions-you’ve-ever-seen of familiar work types (a Carl Andre walk-on, a Penone tree, a Zhan Wang silvered rock…), I was seduced by young American Daniel Turner’s somewhat creepy combination of purity and corruption: yellow desktops polished to a Judd-like finish held coffin-sized stainless steel basins which had been filled with salt water to ensure rapid corrosion. His work derives from his immediate environment – team (gallery inc) also showed an abstract painting made with the roofing tar used professionally by his father – and this form was derived from the work surface in his studio.
Robert Gober: Untitled, 2013-14 at Matthew Marks (New York) - Art Basel
Like Daniel Turner, Robert Gober often uses familiar materials from his studio and home, together with memories of childhood, but to much creepier effect. This typically bizarre example hovers between sculpture and painting, using beeswax and human hair along with putty, polymer and paint to depict what looks like three sections of spindly limbs woven into driftwood, complete with barnacles, some of which have migrated from wood to flesh. A title such as ‘Shrine to Malfeasance’ would not have surprised me, had I not known that Gober’s work is almost always untitled.
Anna Bella Geiger: O pão nosso de cada dia (Our Daily Bread) 1978 at Galerie Murilo Castro (Belo Horizonte) - The Solo Project
There wasn’t much politically-inspired, let alone traumatic, work in Basel’s fairs. So much so, perhaps, that the only work to achieve an impact comparable to Woehrl and Margolles’ was from the 1970’s. At the Solo Project – an alternative fair with a refreshing mode of presentation – the Brazilian gallery Murilo Castro showed a survey of work by Anna Bella Geiger, active since the fifties including through the 20 years of dictatorship which followed the military coup d’etat in 1964. Here she simply bit the shape of Brazil out of a slice of bread, suggesting that the state had grabbed the lion’s share and left the people with nothing but crust.
Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa: Feather Piece at Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City - Liste
The Guatemalan gallery’s engaging mix of Latin American experimentalism included Peruvian Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa’s nine minute recording of a performance in which he pierced his arms with feathers. On the one hand, his physique did not encourage the already-absurd aspiration that a human might fly by such means; on the other that need not exclude dreaming, or seeking to commune with other species. In which case the evident limitations might be read as a critique of modern man’s general failure to engage with the natural world with sufficient empathy not to destroy it.
Pablo Rasgado: 'Frank Stella - Meknes (small version) Fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 1965 - present whereabouts unkown - one of 16 paintings in Afterlife at Arratia Beer (Berlin) - Art Statements, Art Basel
In his project Afterlife the Mexican artist Pablo Rasgado attempts, up to a point, to resurrect ‘lost paintings’ from art history by repainting them at original size but from their photographic records in catalogue raisonnés – which means in black and white, mostly. Their spectral and historic aura is enhanced by leaving them in dusty conditions near Paris’ national archives, so attracting a different aspect of pastness. Ragado chooses to remove only some of this, so creating a new aesthetic through exhumation. The paintings range from 14th-20th centuries, and there was a particular appeal to finding a Frank Stella described as using fluorescent colour reduced to dusty black and white.