Art Basel

Works in Basel's Art Unlimited parallels that of the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale show

Political video is strong in both, but the variety of art is greater in Basel


Art Unlimited, curated by Simon Lamunière, is in the area of the fair set aside for installations and video. It is also a good place to visit for a change in pace from the sheer density of the main building, with an enjoyably varied combination of video, installation and “fine” art.

Except that it does not have Rosa Martinez’s emphasis on female artists, Art Unlimited this year is not so dissimilar to the Arsenale section of the current Venice Biennale, with careful juxtaposition of politically allusive videos, such as Iranian-born artist, Shahryar Nashat’s Les négateurs (Praz-Delavallade, e11, 000, edition of five plus two), with its close-up of a pensive young Muslim reciting the surah of the Koran about unbelievers, near Richard Grayson’s Messiah, of American rustics fitting psalm-like lyrics to Country and Western music (Annely Juda, £10,000, edition of three).

Catherine Yass takes on one of the most politically sensitive subjects on earth with her video showing how massive and alienating is the wall between Israelis and Palestinians (Alison Jacques).

Johnny, by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, is more allusive, with the tear-jerking sounds of military music played by a trumpet, while the camera pans across the dreamy expressions on the faces of high school kids who are members of a marching band; the truth is that most of us are still susceptible to the romance of war (Van Orsouw, $24,000, edition of six plus two). A few months after 11 September, the Cuban Carlos Garaicoa made his huge table installation and video of burning candles forming a city with skyscrapers, Now let’s play to disappear (Continua, e100, 000).

A huge, battered red paper lantern by Eric Lieshout, into which you can creep, shows snatches of movies. This is a popular device among artists today: see also Fake by Filipa César (Cristina Guerra, e15, 000, edition of three) about the faker Elmyr de Hory and the nature of art, and Johan Grimonprez’s Looking for Alfred (Hécey), homage to Alfred Hitchcock. The film snippets inside the red lantern are all of girls expressing violence or being forced to face their weakness, the twisted being that the girls are mostly Chinese interacting with Westerners. China is one of the main stars of the current Biennale and we are finding its art more and more interesting as its economic might looms larger.

A bizarre artistic interaction is the one between Yussef Nassar, Lebanon’s explosives expert for 35 years, with the Atlas Group, in a work of art that consists of his photos of car bomb scenes, and flying saucer-like white disks on the floor. That elderly policeman must occasionally shake his head in wonderment (Anthony Reynolds, e150,000).

The upside-down jungle, After forever by Henrik Hakansson (Noero, e100,000), where you brush through the steamy foliage, suggests ecological issues while Mark Dion’s beached Ichthyosaurus (In situ, e100,000) spews out books about fossils and geosciences with old rubbish—maybe our own pollution will make us extinct too. Those who fear for the future of Venice will be pleased to see the three-screen video, Waiting for High Water by the Czech artist, Jana Sterbak (Hécey, e45,000, edition of four). This shows people going about their daily business as though it were normal for the pavements to be awash, but the techno music accelerates threateningly—as well it might.

An amusing, if metaphorically simple work is Gianni Motti’s The Broker (Ars Futura/von Senger, price undisclosed) a real-life financier seated inside a cage, allowed to communicate only via text messages.

Classic works are the chromium-plated polygon floor pieces by Walter de Maria, the great land artist (Freeman, $1.8 million), and a huge 1989 coal and white stone circle by British land artist, Richard Long (Fischer, e100, 000). Mariko Mori has created another circle, of smooth glass forms illuminated from inside and symbolising the planets. It is as restful as mood music (SCAI, price undisclosed).

Art that makes you laugh out loud is rare, but John Bock’s video of a man whose food turns aggressive while he is cooking and starts attacking him is really funny in a slapstick sort of way; who would guess that rigatoni could get so violent (Kern, e50,000, edition of three).

The forecourt of Art Basel is enlivened by a boiler-plated anus and rectum by Atelier van Lieshout, called Bar Rectum, which is large enough to serve you coffee seated. There are three more for sale, but the price is undisclosed. It illustrates the difference of flavour between languages, its German name “Arsch Bar” having a crude raunchiness that “Bar ano” and “Rectum bar” simply do not have.