Art Basel: Art for art’s sake — or for cash?

The halls of Art Basel, the world's largest contemporary art fair, brim with elegantly dressed collectors all searching for something special — and, increasingly, financial investors just after a good deal.

Art Basel: Art for art's sake — or for cash?
Visitors enter the Art Unlimited exhibition during the preview day of Art Basel. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

The event opens to the public on Thursday, but special VIPs got an advance peek at the vast array of artworks by 20th century masters like Picasso, Calder and Warhol, mixed in with today's cutting edge creations, on Tuesday.
The fair, which last year drew nearly 100,000 visitors from around the world, attracts representatives from museums, large and smaller-scale private collectors and a growing crowd of financial buyers looking for a savvy investment.
“In a world where interest rates are very weak, people are looking for solid value” and are increasingly turning to art, said Juerg Zeltner, head of wealth management at Switzerland's largest bank UBS.
Seated among plush cushions in Art Basel's luxurious VIP lounge, the head of UBS's art sponsorship, Peter Dillon, said the bank — a long-time backer of the fair and a collector with 30,000 pieces to its name — tried to keep its finger on the pulse of the global art market.
“Art education is very important for us internally,” he said, adding that UBS aimed to make its employees “fluent with art and the art market”.
But not everyone appreciates the detached investor's take on art exhibited at the fair.
“People are shopping . . . it's heightened commerciality on an extreme level,” renowned British artist Tracey Emin told AFP.
“I don't like people who buy the work and then flip it,” she said, standing next to a large printed sketch of what looked like a rape scene with the words “Is this a joke” written above it — one of three of her works on display at the Lehmann Maupin booth.
Art Basel director Marc Spiegler also advised against buying works purely with an eye on financial returns.
“My advice for people who want to invest in the art market is buy works that you like, because that way, even if it loses value, you have a work that you like,” he told AFP.

 Not just a quick buck 

That said, there are hefty profits to be made in a sector that is seeing auction prices go through the roof.
Picasso's “The Women of Algiers,” for instance, sold for a record $179 million at a Christie's auction in London last month, six times what it went for in 1997.
The Art Basel show this year also boasts a number of pricey masterpieces, including a Mark Rothko at the Helly Nahmad gallery booth, carrying a price tag of $50 million.
While the show is important, Spiegler said the value of all the works combined there was “only” around $2 billion, a fraction of the estimated $51-billion global annual art market.
But, for the galleries, the fair is a highlight of the year.
“Sales are extremely strong,” enthused Bona Colonna Montagu of the Skarstedt Gallery, pointing out a large Keith Haring painting from 1984 featuring myriad red interlocking figures that just sold for around $5 million.
She stressed, however, that she refuses to sell works to people only interested making a quick buck, adding: “We don't want to see the piece show up at the auctions in six months time.”
Still, Art Basel is not only for the big spenders. Susanne Milberg, a 52-year-old German national, said she had already snapped up a nice “small-scale” piece for her private collection.
“You can find good, affordable art here too,” she said.
For visitors more interested in looking than buying, a whole 15,000-square metre hall is reserved for the “Unlimited” collection of 74 large and sometimes astonishing works that are not for sale.
Among them is German artist Julius von Bismarck, whose gut-wrenching installation “Egocentric system” shows him sitting, lying and glancing at his mobile phone for hours on end at the heart of a large, spinning concrete bowl, his long beard flowing in the wind.
Next to him, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei's piece “Stacked” is an awe-inspiring tower of 760 bicycles — the iconic object representative of the lives of millions of his countrymen — stacked horizontally.
French-Algerian artist Kader Attia provided perhaps the most powerful work: 16 broken and empty museum showcases, with bricks, rocks and broken glass strewn about, entitled “Arab Spring”.

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How women artists are bringing #MeToo reckoning to Basel fair

Mannequins display inflatable, white airbag dresses created to protect women from workplace harassment, while nearby details of the alleged sexual misdeeds of 170 public figures cover four long walls, splashed in red.

How women artists are bringing #MeToo reckoning to Basel fair
A visitor looks at Anne Collier's "Woman Crying (Comic) #7" at Art Basel. Photo: AFP

The #MeToo movement that exploded on the global stage in late 2017 has inspired several works exhibited at this year's Art Basel, the world's biggest contemporary art fair, which opens to the public on Thursday.

Women artists have taken centre stage at the show's 50th edition, with in-your-face installations expressing disgust and exasperation at persisting gender inequalities and culturally condoned abuse and harassment of women.

Spanish artist Alicia Framis has filled a room with delicate, white mannequins wearing different styles of dresses made from airbag material, which inflate to protect different parts of the female body.

The piece called “Life Dress” consists of dresses “to protect women in all work situations where there is some kind of abuse,” Framis told AFP.

The 52-year-old artist said she had spoken with victims of harassment and abuse and allowed their stories to inspire the dress designs, using “fashion to demonstrate against violence.”

Where Framis uses humour to spotlight abuse, Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers's massive archival project “Open Secrets” radiates rage.

Andrea Bower's “Open Secrets” has already caused controversy. Photo: AFP

It consists of reams of photographic prints on red backgrounds, each listing the name and occupation of a public figure accused of sexual harassment or abuse, their public response to the accusations and details of the case.

'Rape culture'

Disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose misconduct first sparked the #MeToo movement, has two full panels dedicated to his long list of alleged misdeeds.

US President Donald Trump also figures in the piece, as do his predecessors Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior, two Supreme Court justices, as well as actors, journalists, musicians and other public figures. 

“I just felt like the #MeToo movement is perhaps one of the most important feminist movements of my lifetime,” Bowers told AFP, explaining her inspiration for the piece.

The 54-year-old self-described feminist activist artist said she had been shocked to realise “what it was like for me growing up, that it was rape culture, where … young men were given permission to sexually violate me and my friends.”

With the #MeToo movement, such behaviour is finally “being acknowledged,” she said. “I hope that it's a historic shift.” 

During a preview earlier this week, men in particular lingered in front of the piece which covers two long walls, back and front, in the middle of the fair's Unlimited exhibition space.

“You can see a lot of men standing here and being a bit unsure how to react,” said Vanja Oberhoff, a young German art investor standing among some dozen men gazing at the articles.

“It's a very strong piece,” he told AFP. 

Not all reactions have been positive.

Helen Donahue, who in 2017 tweeted out photographs of herself bearing the marks of alleged abuse by freelance columnist Michael Hafford, voiced outrage that Bowers had used one of the pictures.

“Cool that my fucking photos and trauma are heading art basel thx for exploiting us for 'art' ANDREA BOWERS,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

Bowers, who insists on the importance of trusting survivors, quickly issued an apology for not seeking Donahue's consent before using the picture and removed the panel from the exhibit.


The artist also told AFP that showing her piece at Art Basel had been more challenging than she had expected.

The VIP opening of the show drew “some of the richest people in the world, and they actually know many of the people on the walls, because these are also some of the most powerful people in the world,” Bowers said.

“This is an emotional piece for a lot of people here because it is very personal.”

The piece shows “we have to change our thinking, and not everybody is ready to do that… There is still a lot more work to be done.”

This year's Art Basel is also abuzz with discussion about disparities between the prices raked in for pieces made by male and female artists, as well as access to gallery representation.

Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist who writes the annual Art Market Report released each year ahead of Art Basel, told AFP that women still face “stark under-representation” in the art world.

“Only five percent of the work sold last year at auction were by female artists, and the higher up the price point you go, the worse that gets,” she said, adding that even at galleries only showing contemporary art, women account for about a third of the represented artists.

Marc Glimcher, who heads Pace Gallery, a global leader in contemporary art, acknowledged that the most talented women artists have long made only about a 10th of the amount made by contemporary male artists, if they were lucky.

But he told AFP that “an equalisation is taking place”.

“The market recognises that there was an arbitrary depression of value, and a possible opportunity.”