Dystopia, BLM themes emerge at Switzerland’s Art Basel fair

Dystopia and Black Lives Matter feature prominently at Art Basel, the world's top contemporary art fair, which throws open its doors to the public this weekend.

Dystopia, BLM themes emerge at Switzerland's Art Basel fair
Visitors pass "This is How We Play Together" (2021), a piece by artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset at Art Basel on 22nd September 2021. picture alliance/dpa/KEYSTONE | Georgios Kefalas

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.

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Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

Depopulation threatens the future of Switzerland's picturesque mountain villages, but three brothers are trying to keep theirs alive by capturing its essence in a bottle.

Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

In the one-road hamlet of Souboz, nearly 900 metres (2,950 feet) up in the Jura mountains, the nature-loving Gyger brothers distill whatever they forage, such as gentian roots and juniper, in a bid to sustain the local economy.

Switzerland is trying to stave off the slow-motion extinction of its remote communities as young people move to the cities for jobs and opportunities.

Thanks to a grant from the Swiss Mountain Aid foundation, the Gygers were able transform their grandfather’s old home into the Gagygnole distillery,
turning professional a couple of years ago.

The name comes from eldest brother Gaetan’s nickname Gagy, and gnole — French slang for a drop of the hard stuff.

On the ground floor of an old farmhouse, the scent of coriander and juniper berries hangs in the air, while warmth emanates from the 2.5-metre-high copper still in which Gaetan distills gin over a wood fire.

“This production site has been in our lives since we were very young. We really have roots anchored in our village,” he told AFP.
 An agronomist by training, Gaetan, now 30, had studied in Geneva.

“We didn’t want to set up in the city,” he said, despite the bigger potential client base.

 Mountains in Swiss DNA

The brothers’ choice is a rare one in Switzerland.

The mountains cover 70 percent of the country, but three-quarters of the population lives on the plain between the Juras in the north and the Alps in
the south and east.

Geneva, Lausanne, Bern and Zurich all lie in the area of relatively flat terrain between the two mountain ranges.

The mountain villages are emptying, their grocery stores are closing and, as in Souboz, the schools are shutting, too, as the population gradually
shifts ever more towards the lower-lying towns and cities.

The population of Souboz has dropped from 135 in 2012 to 85 last year.

Faced with the slow-motion exodus, some villages are trying everything they can to reverse the tide, including financial incentives to attract newcomers,
such as offering empty houses for a symbolic sum of one Swiss franc.

READ MORE: ‘Impossible’: Why Switzerland’s one franc homes are too good to be true

And Swiss Mountain Aid provides funding to hundreds of entrepreneurs, such as the Gyger brothers, to bring jobs and business to the hills.

The mountains are “part of our genes, our DNA”, but “if we want to keep the mountains alive, there must be people”, said the foundation’s chairman Willy Gehriger. “We act like the spark,” he explained.

Established in 1943 to help lift mountain dwellers out of poverty, the privately-funded foundation mainly supported farmers initially — but broadened its scope around a dozen years ago. Now it helps small businesses, installs Wi-Fi, pays for computer courses and funds the transformation of dilapidated listed buildings into tourist accommodation.

Gehriger said the agricultural sector alone was no longer enough to keep the mountains thriving.

 Message in a bottle

 Dressed in baseball caps and t-shirts and armed with an iPad, the Gygers are far from the stocky, rustic, grumpy stereotype of mountain men.They are on a mission to repopulate Souboz and revive the economy in the local Juras.

“We’re aware of doing something good for Souboz. Our mountain regions have enormous potential. They’re really something that we Swiss should be proud of,” said middle brother Luca, 27.

Their gamble has paid off as the family business has a handful of employees and occasionally takes on local artisans and farmers to help bottle up the
brothers’ original gin, whisky and vodka recipes.

Last year, they produced 18,000 bottles of spirits.

Gagygnole’s eaux de vie are sold in 200 shops around Switzerland and one of their concoctions was voted the best gin in the country last year — while the brothers’ gin fondue is also a hit.

The Gygers think it is still too early to consider exporting.

“We always refused because it was difficult in terms of logistics, but why not… as long as it goes with our philosophy,” said 26-year-old Tim.