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Behold a terrible beauty

Artists are responding to a decade of global conflict, but will their work find favour with collectors?

Huang Yong Ping’s Abbottabad, 2012, recreates Osama bin Laden’s final compound

With civil war raging in Syria and anti-government protests taking place across Turkey, the art world goes about its business on the Messeplatz this week—but a number of powerful works relating to war, conflict and terrorism are making an impact in Art Basel this year. Works inspired by sensitive political subjects, usually the domain of non-selling biennials and the Kassel-based Documenta exhibition in particular, have not previously been considered market-friendly.

Visitors are queuing in the fair’s Unlimited section to see the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s work about the late photojournalist Kevin Carter, whose image of a starving child in the Sudanese desert won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 (The Sound of Silence, 2006, $500,000; Goodman Gallery, Galerie Lelong, Galerie Kamel Mennour, Galerie Thomas Schulte, U42). Huang Yong Ping’s terracotta model of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan (Abbottabad, 2012, €375,000; Gladstone Gallery, U19), where the Al-Qaeda chief was killed by US forces in 2011, is also sparking debate. Meanwhile, The Shadow World, 2013, a film by Johan Grimonprez (€35,000, edition of 15; Sean Kelly Gallery, Galerie Kamel Mennour, U45) features a South African arms dealer and a war correspondent.

“The reality around us is unavoidable. This dilemma is visible in the work of the new generation; they are simply trying to make sense of the world in which we live,” says Jaar, adding that all art is “intrinsically political”. Artists have always been politically engaged—particularly from the Enlightenment, says Katerina Gregos, the curator of “Newtopia: the State of Human Rights”, an exhibition that took place in Brussels and Mechelen, Belgium, last year. She says that this is now more true than ever, as “we live in volatile and uncertain times”.

Conflict zones

Liza Essers, the director of the Cape Town- and Johannesburg-based Goodman Gallery (2.1/N12), which represents Jaar, says: “The social pendulum has swung back towards the ethos of the 1960s. We are seeing a reaction against the big, shiny, flashy tendencies of the past decade; people are making more meaningful work.” In the past 15 years, works by artists such as Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol have dominated the stands at Art Basel, but now, politically engaged art has been assimilated into the mainstream.

Alfred Pacquement, the director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne within the Centre Pompidou, Paris, says that artists from conflict zones such as the Middle East and Asia are becoming more visible. The museum is in negotiations to buy Kader Attia’s The Repair, 2012, a diptych featuring 80 slides that juxtaposes the disfigured faces of First World War soldiers with damaged African artefacts (Galleria Continua, U73). Attia stresses that upheavals in the Arab world and beyond mean that the “bling-bling era couldn’t last any longer. Art practice is linked to war. The relationship between war and avant-garde art is extremely tight.”

Whether private collectors want to be confronted daily by such issue-based art is, however, debatable, says Gregos, who adds that “most collectors are still attracted to object-based art”. A Middle Eastern collector attending Art Basel, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that politically engaged art speaks to him “because I’m a child of war”, though he believes that other collectors may find this subject matter more difficult.

Museums may be the natural home for these bold pieces. The anonymous Middle Eastern collector says that certain works available in Unlimited “can be so jarring” that he would only donate them to a museum. A number of public institutions have expressed interest in Willie Doherty’s video installation Remains, 2013, a harrowing account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (€75,000; Alexander and Bonin Gallery, Kerlin Gallery, Peter Kilchmann, U50).

“Perhaps some of the hardest-hitting works, which deal with radical social issues, are destined for institutions or museum collections, but on a smaller scale, we are seeing a rise in private collectors buying works with a social conscience,” Essers says. Her gallery deals with international artists who tackle contentious topical issues linked to Africa. Jaar’s 1995 video Embrace, which depicts the genocide in Rwanda, sold to a French private collection for $36,000. Thomas Dane Gallery (2.1/M15), which is showing several politically charged works, sold Steve McQueen’s lightbox Lynching Tree, 2013—depicting a tree in New Orleans used as a gallows for slaves—for €65,000 to a Beirut-based collector (another edition is on show in McQueen’s retrospective at the Schaulager in Basel).

Some commentators are surprised that the art of conflict is not more abundant at art fairs in these tense times. But the presence of political work at Art Basel at least demonstrates an appetite for grittier, hard-edged art outside the biennial circuit. Ultimately, “artists are the conscience of society”, Gregos says. “They shift your perception and challenge your ideas about the world.”


Willie Doherty’s Remains, 2013, depicts the Troubles in Northern Ireland
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