The giant annual fair in the Swiss city of Basel is above all a commercial event, where artists and galleries come to meet wealthy collectors.
But the fair is also very popular with art lovers who come for the simple pleasure of browsing the works on show. Some 93,000 visitors came through the doors during the 2019 edition, with last year’s event having been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Art Basel exhibits major works every year in a section where paintings, sculptures and installations are grouped together for sale to museums and large collections.
Among the 2021 highlights are a canvas by the Guyanese-British artist Frank Bowling, a large painting by Britain’s David Hockney or Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s house made out of bread.
But after several editions dominated by political works focused on Donald Trump’s US presidency, then feminist works during the “Me Too” movement, the 62 major works presented this year reflect on the upheavals that shook the world during the pandemic.
‘Cabinet of curiosities’
The US artist Lari Pittman is presenting a vast set of closely juxtaposed paintings intended as a kind of snapshot of a fallen Western civilisation.
“It’s a cabinet of curiosities,” the Californian told AFP, but with objects amassed by a collector “in the distant future”, finding needles and antidepressants, a motorway sign warning drivers to speed up due to the risk of cannibalism, and stained glass windows for an underground bunker.
The work should have been exhibited before the pandemic, but Pittman nonetheless believes it has its place in this edition.
“It’s a bit dark, but the issues I point out are constant in human history,” he said.
“We are coming out of an incredibly dystopic period globally, and certainly in America with a dystopic political situation in the last four years.”
On the theme of juxtaposition, the US artist Carrie Mae Weems is presenting a series of canvases of varying sizes entitled “Repeating The Obvious”.
They all contain the same image: the blurred face of a young African-American, illustrating those who died at the hands of the police and, by dint of repetition, end up becoming faceless victims.
Outside the exhibition hall, the Danish-Norwegian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset placed “The Outsiders” — a work featuring an old Mercedes car with Russian registration plates, with two men sleeping inside, curled up against each other.
The two wax mannequins, with lifelike features, represent two workers who have come to set up the fair and do “all the hard, heavy work that we don’t see”, Michael Elmgreen told AFP.
Having driven from Moscow, they sleep in their car because they cannot afford a hotel room.
“It’s also a work about an intimacy between these two young men. It has Russian number plates. It’s very difficult to show that intimacy openly in Moscow today. So they are happy to be here in Basel where they can lie in the way they want.”
Given the pandemic-related travel constraints, Art Basel has planned several online events, including virtual walks through the fair.
Art Basel was open for private viewings from Monday to Thursday, aimed at wealthy buyers, before opening to the public from Friday to Sunday.