Fairs Switzerland

Art Unlimited opening: It’s big but it’s not brash

Galleries bring large-scale works inspired by the Arte Povera spirit of the cheap and the free

Michelangelo Pistoletto's massive maze, Labirinto e grande pozzo, first made in 1969, sets the tone

Basel. Ambitious art is back on the agenda again at Art Unlimited, Art Basel’s exhibition of large-scale installations and videos. In another sign of returning market confidence—following strong results at the New York auctions last month—galleries have been making a splash and using the cavernous spaces in Hall 1 to make bold statements. (See related article.)

Now in its 11th year, Art Unlimited, which opened to VIPs yesterday afternoon, presents 56 projects, six of them larger than 200 sq. m—in sharp contrast to the slimmed-down offerings in the section last year. The fair organisers also report a 20% increase in the number of applications to Art Unlimited (151) compared with 2009.

While big is back, this year’s displays show little signs of returning to the glitz of the boom years, typified by Carsten Höller’s fairground ride Mirror Carousel, 2005, shown at Art Unlimited by Gagosian in 2006 or Takashi Murakami’s eight-tonne, platinum-leaved Oval Buddha, 2007, which Blum & Poe sold for $8m in 2008.

Instead, galleries are eschewing spectacle and have brought more cerebral works. There is also an emphasis on pieces made from cheap, disposable materials or found objects. At the heart of the exhibition, Galleria Continua of San Gimignano and Beijing is showing Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Labirinto e grande pozzo, a maze constructed from rolls of cardboard that was first made by the artist in 1969. The work, priced at €650,000, exemplifies the desire “to return to a more sober” reality, said gallery director Lorenzo Fiaschi. “Artists are speaking sottovoce this year to communicate strong sentiments.” At the adjacent stand, David Zwirner is showing another work from 1969, a curved fluorescent installation by Dan Flavin, Three Sets of Tangented Arcs in Daylight and Cool White (to Jenny and Ira Licht) priced at $4m (U42). The gallery announced its representation of the Flavin Estate last autumn, and chose Basel to unveil the piece that has only been shown once before, at the National Gallery of Canada, in the year it was made. “It is one of the best years of Art Unlimited,” said the gallery’s Ales Ortuzar. “The works are much more committed and large-scale. People are taking risks again, and are prepared to invest in bold statements that they hope will pay off.”

Like Flavin, Andrew Dadson, a 30-year-old from Canada, uses fluorescent lights as his materials. Black Painted Light, 2010, is a series of office lights painted black by the artist. They are on offer for €33,000 with the Turinese gallery Franco Noero (U24). The use of inexpensive materials continues in Couscous Ka’aba, an installation priced at €70,000 by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia (U30) who is represented by Christian Nagel of Berlin and Galerie Krinzinger of Vienna. Attia has placed an axonometric drawing of the Ka’aba at the centre of a circle of couscous, a material he likes because it is a “3,000-year-old symbol of North Africa”.

“We like to work with artists who use materials that, in themselves, have no value,” says Nagel. Another artist represented by Nagel, Michael Beutler, has created a vast landscape of crimped tubes, Pipeline Field, 2010, €45,000, made out of rolls of white Tetra Pak paper (U6). “We wanted to do this last year but felt we should postpone because it wasn’t such an interesting market and things were a little tighter,” says Nagel.

Video works this year include Doug Aitken’s Frontier, 2009 (U31), in which fellow artist Ed Ruscha swaggers across a six-channel installation that forms the second part in the trilogy begun with Migration, 2008. The work is priced at $450,000, with one of the edition in Rome’s Macro collection. The last silent movie by Susan Hiller is a recording of 24 nearly extinct dialects from around the world priced at £75,000 (U52). One version has recently been sold by the Timothy Taylor Gallery (F6) to Frac Bourgogne.

But not everyone is subscribing to this year’s rustic look. Yayoi Kusama’s Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2008 (U56), on sale for €500,000, had long queues yesterday as visitors waited for their moment inside the mirrored box with its jewel-like LED lights reflected to infinity.

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