Guide to Art Basel 43: You can’t do it all, but you can certainly try

Going to Basel during the art fair is like battling a multi-headed Hydra. It’s the biggest, potentially most daunting international art event of the year. You may not be able to do it all – but you might as well die of alcohol poisoning while trying. Indeed Basel is, like many international art fairs, biennials and events – a massive party attended by every international arts professional at the helm, or in the galley, and every minor and major art celeb you should know, or could know too well after a few drinks at the infamous nightly party at the Kunsthalle. Follow a few simple rules included below and next year’s fair could be as successful and enjoyable a siege as mine was this time around. Overall this year’s fair did not fail to impress (nor overwhelm) and was scattered with some very interesting and beautiful works: oldies but goodies and quite a number of newbies that have now begun to ping on my radar.

Art Basel itself is an amalgamated cluster of expositions – various sections across multiple buildings and locations (Art Galleries, Art Unlimited, Art Statements, Art Parcours, etc). The VIP previews of the fair itself were extended over three days this year, but by art world law, the earlier you can get in, the better. Start with the multi-pronged ‘Big Basel’ but don’t forget about the peripheral satellite fairs and Basel’s fantastic museums.

Jitish Kallat Epilogue (2010/11) Photo courtesy of Art Basel

Art Unlimited takes place in Hall 1, where each booth is dedicated to a singular artist. Philip-Lorca diCorcia showed a seemingly endless collection of tiny Polaroid photographs, each one as impressively interesting and magical as the last. Also making an impact in perpetuity, were rows and rows of photographs of partially eaten round bread by Jitish Kallat. The cratered roti crescents represented changing lunar cycles, memorializing the artist’s father by touchingly recreating every moon of every night he lived. Ragnar Kjartansson showed a number of hilarious canvases, a series of painted self-portraits in his skivvies usually involving piles of beer bottles or the effects thereof. Each of the 144 works was painted in sequence for every day of the Venice Biennale. Also, a video by Tony Morgan called Resurrection showed the ‘life-cycle’ of a steak in reverse. Starting with each bite exiting the mouth of a man, the steak continues to be  uncooked on a stove, uncarved from a hanging butcher’s carcass and finally the film climaxes with the un-demise of the poor cow who magically comes back to life. Nina Beier’s work, Tragedy, was the first work I have seen of its kind: a dog performance piece. Yes, dog. Delightfully absurd, a trained dog would be formally escorted to the booth and instructed to ‘play dead’ on a spotlighted oriental rug for several minutes, melodramatically performing its own demise. Other favorites included an awe-inspiring monumental canvas by Rudolf Stingel, and copper works by Walead Beshty performatively hand-marked over time by art handlers, the hidden heroes of the art world.

Nina Beier, Tragedy, 2012. Image courtesy of Laura Bartlett.

The first preview at Art Basel Galleries is best described as storming the beaches at Normandy – no surprise there. Once you survive the line to get in: a funnel-shaped sardine can of aggravated VIPs and a fusillade of flying Hermes handbags, the traditional gallery section of Art Basel becomes a billionaire version of ‘Supermarket Sweep’ with a majority of big deals happening within the first few minutes of the fair. If you prefer a less hara-kiri inducing experience at the fair, I would wait for the bloody waves to subside before entering the labyrinth of the Hall 2.

The Art Basel Galleries is much like a black hole  – in an Ikea. Hall 2 is a seemingly endless circular maze of gallery booths on two floors surrounding the sunny sanctuary of the exhausted hordes sipping champagne in the atrium. As a general rule, you will find more established galleries on the bottom floor and younger spaces on the top floor, where I like to retreat to, as it is slightly less chaotic and more interesting. If you want to see it all, check off sections of a map, or will inevitably end up orbiting around the same booths in a sensory-overloaded daze. Take a few coffee breaks to absorb what you have seen, and don’t forget to write things down. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to find an artist again months later when you have failed to write his or her name down. Googling ‘artist + mechanical + seagrass + installation + artfair’ has haunted me for years (Seriously, who are you? That was the coolest thing!)

Art Basel 43 Halle 2 of Messe Basel. Photos courtesy of Caroline Claisse for Art Observed.

Upstairs Galerie Anhava’s ear-catching booth featured a fantastic work by Grönlund +Nisunen, gleaming ball bearings rolling from side to side on a seesaw. The work creates both the visual and auditory effect of a crashing ocean tide. The monster fan in me spotted some great little beasts at Regina Gallery: post-apocalyptic plush toys by Evgeniy Antufiev and intricately lush and gruesome work by Wangechi Mutu at Victoria Miro. Yves Tanguey’s ‘Witches’ were also a feast for the eyes as they jolted and hummed back and forth downstairs. David Zwirner’s booth by far was the overall favorite alongside big boy contenders Spruth Magers, Marian Goodman and Sean Kelly.

Galerie Anhava: Grönlund + Nisunen, Wave of Matter, 2012, mixed media. Photo courtesy of Galerie Anhava.

Basel ain’t just Art Basel, or ‘Big Basel’. Devote at least one day to the satellite fairs: LISTE, Volta and Scope – in that order of importance. LISTE, the Young Art Fair, the rebellious step-child of Basel, shows galleries less than five years old and artists under 40. Perhaps over shadowing the art itself, it was held this year in the bizarre Warteck franken-building, a multi-purpose space that is a labyrinth of mismatched staircases and tiny rooms from which performance artists would occasionally tackle visitors. The most memorable works were a deconstructed bird’s nest presented twig by twig in a table-top vitrine by one Nico Vascellari at Bugada & Cargnel (Paris) and Matthew Ronay’s intensely blue beaded sculptures that resembled sea creatures at Luttegenmeijer (Berlin). At Volta, the sleek, small and more commercially shiny satellite fair, was well worth the handful of star booth booths by Galerie Mario Mazzoli (Berlin), Ebb & Flow (London), Magrorocca (Milan), Jarmuschek+Partner (Berlin) and especially Lawrie Shabibi (Dubai). Lawie Shabibi’s curated dialogue between Shahpour Pouyan’s intricately decorated missiles made from antique armor and Marwan Sahmarani’s lush, expressionistic gold leafed paintings of battle scenes stood apart as a beautiful and poignant demonstration of war as a luxury good. Scope Basel is worth a quick visit to hunt for the modicum of good galleries hidden amongst the rough as well as the big lawn and quiet café flanking the tent, perfect for sunning and sipping an iced espresso on a much-needed break.

Shahpour Pouyan at Lawrie Shabibi. Photo courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi.

For god’s sake, go to the Fondation Beyeler. The exhibitions that coincide with Basel are world class to say the least, and the museum itself is breath-taking. The surrounding Swiss countryside will be a much needed retreat from the chaos in the city below and well worth the 20 minute tram ride. The Renzo Piano designed building is embraced by its surrounding landscape including: a mirror like lily pond, a charming café, a changing sculpture garden, the endless vista from a gazebo, green rolling grassland and a mooing cow to top it all off. Their permanent collection is one modernist masterpiece after another, including a room with an elegant pairing of Rothko and Giacometti – which was truly pure beauty.

This year’s impressive Jeff Koons exhibition paired with the bizarre and dreamy Phillip Parreno show did not disappoint. I ogled every gleaming Celebration series sculpture including the, ahem, swollen and massive Balloon Swan (Magenta), which has never been exhibited before, and an infamous Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), gleefully hung at eye level. The candy-like canvases and giant kitsch works from Koons Banality series were hilariously distasteful and his vacuum cleaners, well, as banal as ever. By stark contrast, Phillip Parreno’s exhibition expresses the exhibition itself as an object, manipulating visitors through museum space while employing works on paper, film and site-specific installations. Parreno’s robotic lily-pads created by soundwaves greet visitors upon arrival who in turn walk away with a free DVD which can only be viewed once before it self-effaces. Leaving the biggest impact is Parreno’s hypnotic film, Marilyn, which places the viewer as the subject with the use of a POV camera. We hear Marilyn’s sinewy voice describe her hotel room and close-ups of her inky pen move across Waldorf-Astoria paper – as if we are writing it. Heightening the sense of intimacy, her iconic image is never revealed, the camera angling placing the viewer as ghost. Abruptly, Marilyn is revealed to be an artificial one, her handwriting created by an eerie robot and her hotel room a film set – even her voice created by a computer. Parreno successfully implants the viewer into the soul of a dead woman and then reminds us she was never there to be possessed in the first place.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Swan (2004-11). Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyler.

The Kunstmuseum is often missed by those who attend Basel every year, which is a pity as it has some of the most elegant Calders on display and an extraordinary permanent collection, starting with the early Renaissance and impressing through the centuries, culminating with contemporary masters like Bruce Nauman and Gerhard Richter. This year’s exhibition, ‘Renoir: Between Bohemia and Bourgeoisie: The Early Years’ completely changed by opinion on Renoir, a painter whom I had previously deemed a bit too pink, saccharine and nostalgic for me surprisingly did some of his best work from the mid 1860s to the early 1870s, including a stunning Japonais Still Life with Bouquet and almost abstracted, breathing landscape L’Allée au Bois. One of my best meals I had was my solo lunch at the Kunstmusuem’s café in its sunny courtyard, surrounded by Flavin, Calder and Rodin.

For those who intend to brave it next year, hear are a few more essential tips to surviving the week and making the most out of your trip:

Art Basel starts (and ends) at the airport. That means looking fabulous bright and early – and ready to schmooze. The first big VIP party I attend is at Heathrow, Gatwick or London City Airport – as the London art world flocks to check in, the people-watching starts before security. Last year after sharing a laugh over a cup of coffee in the waiting area with a still-drunk-from-the-night-before artist I received a bottle of Chanel No. 5 duty-free perfume and an invitation to an exclusive party. Not bad for 7 am. Considering that finding out the best parties and making sure you are invited to them admittedly takes up a large percentage of one’s effort and mental capacity in Basel, this was a very good start. This year was no different, upon arriving with my partners in crime to France – and after a brief realization that we are supposed to be in Switzerland (a short walk across the hallway) we met a gentleman who would be our tour guide stroke inside man for the following few days, thanks to the attractive charms of my friend.

You absolutely must have a VIP pass. This gleaming card gets you and one lucky friend into everything for free: every fair, every museum, every exhibition, every ride and every fast track. At least one member of your party must be in possession of this sleek little baby to do the week right. Only the super VIPs hold the highly coveted black VIP pass, which is valued like gold dust and gets you BMW car services. If you see it flashed, you ought to go try and make a new friend. With all the VIP passes in circulation, the question ‘do you have a VIP pass’ becomes ‘what colour is your VIP pass?’ It may take some mild charlatanism, but it’s not hard to get your hands on this essential wingman. Some early-goers will pass on their cards before heading to the airport and exhibiting galleries sometimes keep a large cache of cards ‘just in case’ which rarely get distributed. Once you are listed as a Basel VIP, you can register to guarantee future passes as well. Make friends, plan ahead, use it and then pay it forward.

Take a free ride. There are a ton of free shuttle services between fairs and major events; and if you miss the cars labeled ‘Art Basel | LISTE’ or ‘LISTE | Volta’ all you have to do is ask. Usually the shuttles leave every fifteen or so minutes and drivers are really flexible and friendly. If you do get your hands on a black VIP pass, you do need to do some planning for your BMWs because the rules change every year and the lines for the cars grow quickly as events conclude. Don’t be afraid of (gasp!) public transport. The Basel tram system is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way around town. It’s clean, efficient, well marked and stays open relatively late. Ticketing is based on an honour system where you buy a number of rides and punch in before boarding. Taxis are extremely expensive and not always easy to find – so taking the ten minutes to learn the tram map will be infinitely useful. Considering this year I found myself pressed against Jeffery Deitch in a crowded tram car, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

Switzerland is expensive. Just accept it – accept that and every freebie you can muster. Art fairs in Basel give away tons of expensive art magazines and publications if you are willing to lug them around all day, so leave some extra room in your suitcase if you are so inclined. The first VIP days are filled with free canapés and drinks for the savvy fair attendee. Drinking as much free champagne as possible might offset the cost of your 90 Swiss Franc lunch – right? (I certainly tried.) The best freebies can be scored in the early days and early hours of every party – so be on time. This year’s Art Basel 43 Vernissage was followed by a great garden party at Vitra Design Museum where the drinks were plentiful until late – thanks to the intimidating fact that it was held in Germany (in actuality a 10 minute shuttle ride away) and that the weather was a bit damp. Those who feared not a bus ride nor stilettos sinking into the lush grass were rewarded with a dance party under a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome and the opportunity to sip Campari on Jean Prouvé patio furniture.

Insofar as drinking that free booze is concerned, remember it’s a marathon – Day and night. So eat well, pick one kind of drink and stick with it, make sure that drink isn’t red wine, and don’t forget to leave a bottle of water on your hotel nightstand before crashing into the pillow because tomorrow will be another very busy day. Dress day to night  – and don’t you dare take a nap – you will inevitably miss the best party of the year. You haven’t done Basel until you have stumbled into (or out of…) a hotel room at 6 am. Hats off to the exhibitors who work every single day – as they certainly aren’t the first ones to leave the party either. There seems to be general understanding that since none of us in the art world decided to become politicians that having a good time is expected, as long as you remember this final rule: What happens at the Kunsthalle, stays at the Kunsthalle. There are few things more sacred than this in the international art world.