All aboard: from the Biennale to Basel

Artists weigh in on exhibiting at both events in quick succession

Alfredo Jaar, Venezia, Venezia (detail), 2013, Installation View, Chile of Pavilion 2

Alfredo Jaar, Venezia, Venezia (detail), 2013, Installation View, Chile of Pavilion 2

With Art Basel following the Venice Biennale so swiftly, galleries at the fair inevitably focus on artists who feature in Venice. But as Matt Mullican, who is showing huge pieces at both events, says of art fairs: “It was much more casual 20 or 30 years ago.” And while Basel and other fairs will never rival Venice for prestige on an artist’s CV, artists’ involvement with fairs has grown deeper and richer in recent years. So what is it like for artists to show at both events in quick succession?

The national pavilions remain the Biennale’s most loaded spaces. Akram Zaatari, showing in the Lebanese pavilion at the Arsenale, suggests that “every artist has a conflicting relationship with the country that he comes from”, but that “artists are not football players, they don’t compete, representing their countries”. His 35-minute video (see box, above right) is “conceived as the voice of a country at war” and is based on an open letter he wrote to an Israeli pilot who refused to bomb a school run by Zaatari’s father during the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. “It’s so important to be in such a prestigious event, particularly with such a personal story, but as much as the work is extremely personal, it’s universal and it’s relevant today,” he says. But he is conscious of the added exposure Venice brings: “Frankly, it seems almost like getting naked.”

In Basel, with Thomas Dane Gallery (2.0/M15), Zaatari is showing “Bodybuilders”, 2011, a series of found photographs, and some erotic drawings. “I’ve never shown my drawings on the market,” he says. “Sometimes you like to test things, so you use a forum like this one and it helps you make a judgement.” Is he comfortable showing his art at fairs? “Artists can’t live without the market, so we’d better address it up front and work with it,” he says.

Exposure and responsibility

Another socially and politically-minded artist, the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, agrees, saying that fairs “reveal everything we need to know about the art world… If you have any illusions when you’re in a museum or gallery that it isn’t part of the larger capitalist system or the larger market system, then all these illusions are shattered with the fair.” Jaar believes that he can bring attention to major issues from within this system, “by creating a structure that will isolate my audience for a few minutes and tell them a different story from that being told outside my space”. That structure features in the Unlimited section: Sound of Silence, 2006, ([1/U42], see box, above right) is a 300 cubic metre “theatre built for a single image”, focusing on a photograph by the late photojournalist Kevin Carter.

Jaar says he is happy to “have the exposure and responsibility” of showing in the pavilion, nearly three decades on from being the first Latin American artist to show in Venice in 1986. But while Venice today is a meeting point for global artists and art professionals, this international community “is not reflected in the architecture of the place”, he says. He explores this dissonance in the pavilion, creating “a poetic invitation to rethink the national pavilion model”.

In contrast to the pavilion artists, most in the international exhibition show existing works chosen with the exhibition’s curator, Massimiliano Gioni, rather than creating new pieces. The artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins says she has known Gioni for a long time, “so it was fun to talk to him about the exhibition and choose the work together.” She explains that she feels her works should “stand up to the pressure” of being in different contexts in group shows. Her combinations of found household objects with homespun ceramics and plaster sculptures are paired in Venice with work by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, one of several outsider artists who feature in Gioni’s show, prompting a sustained connection. “Even without looking at [Von Bruenchenhein’s] work a lot now, I am in my studio and this guy has been on my mind,” she says. “I now have a little dialogue with this American outsider artist.”

Hybrid space

Matt Mullican’s work—often paintings with dense imagery and symbols focusing on knowledge and drawing on hypnotic delirium—makes him the perfect figure for Gioni’s show. “My work does fit into the general theme of the show, certainly,” he says. “When I represent encyclopaedic elements, it’s not perfect because it is based on fulfilling some kind of subjective need.” He admits he was “excited” at the prospect of exhibiting in Venice. “I’ve never been invited to this show,” he says, “so I’m happy to be invited in my 60s to come and be a part of it.” Though Gioni initially had a particular work in mind to pair with another outsider, Hilma af Klint, he and Mullican eventually chose Learning From That Person’s Work, 2005, which is shown in the Arsenale (see box, above left), without Af Klint in close quarters. “It was a give and take between us,” Mullican says. Meanwhile, his work in Basel could easily have featured in Venice—it was one of the works that triggered Gioni’s invitation. Two Into One Becomes Three, 2011, is the largest painting ever shown in Unlimited, measuring 22 x 7 metres (1/U16). Mullican was “very happy” that his galleries, Klosterfelde (2.0/J10) and Mai 36 (2.0/M12), wanted to show the work. “The nice thing about Unlimited is that your work stands alone,” he says. “You don’t have a lot of artists in the booth with you… It’s a hybrid space, which you have more and more of in the art world—it’s not really a gallery show or a museum show or an art fair, it’s in between.”

Meanwhile, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, who shows with Timothy Taylor Gallery (2.0/A11), also has a solo booth with Laurel Gitlen in Basel’s Statements section (S19). She is showing three large sculptures. “I’m trying with very few pieces to do all those things that you do in a gallery, but that means that it has got to be very tight,” she says. “I see a gravity to what I do and an ethical stance to how I make the work, but there’s also got to be a sense of humour and lightness. To do all that within the context of the art booth, maybe that’s harder.”

Hayley Tompkins’s presence in Basel is much smaller, with three intimate acrylic paintings on the Modern Institute’s stand (2.0/N15) that are “like an extension” of her work at the Scottish pavilion in Venice, placed on the wall as opposed to the floor as they are in Venice. Tompkins saw preparing for the show as “like making work for another solo exhibition”, but she admits that “somewhere, it has filtered into my mind that I will probably only do this once… The critical feeling of it is more heightened than anything I’ve done before.” But the experience, not least the budget, has allowed her “to be ambitious about the work”, she says, expanding her use of photography, for instance.

A regular contributor to the Modern Institute’s booths, Tompkins describes her view of art fairs as “a perverse relationship. It’s one of need, but I actually enjoy doing work for them. I’m not too stressed out by the pressure. I find I can take risks… The art fair really helps me trial things and get things out and seen.”

Tompkins’s paintings in Basel are an intimate counterpoint to the more shrill works at the fair. “I want them to feel lively and life-enhancing rather than the opposite,” she says. “I wonder if people [at art fairs] see that—there’s a pleasure in it.”

Matt Mullican

Venice: Learning From That Person’s Work, 2005

Basel: Two Into One Becomes Three, 2011

Matt Mullican describes his current Venice Biennale installation as “a crazy body of work”. It was partly informed by his experiments with hypnosis and performance. Massimiliano Gioni has described it as a labyrinth, which Mullican suggests relates to the sheer abundance of imagery and material: one part of the installation has 42 bed sheets hanging from wires, with each sheet containing nine separate drawings. “It really becomes labyrinthine, because of the amount of stuff in there,” Mullican says. “But you’re not going to get lost.” His dense Basel work uses a technique similar to brass rubbing to render images from Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie alongside Mullican’s personal pictograms: symbols for the elements, life and death, heaven and hell, among much else.

Akram Zaatari

Venice: Letter to a Refusing Pilot, 2013

Basel: “Bodybuilders” series, 2011

Based on an open letter he wrote, Zaatari’s video in the Biennale tells the story of an Israeli pilot, Hagai Tamir, who, during the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, refused to bomb a school in Saida, which Zaatari’s father had founded. “The video is constructed as a letter addressed to him, as a mythical figure, but also it’s indirectly addressed to any individual in the military who has the courage to refuse an order,” Zaatari says. “It’s about deferring to humanist or moral values against the idea of obeying a military institution.” In Basel, alongside erotic drawings, Zaatari shows the “Bodybuilders” series; found archival images that are damaged, their fragility at odds with the poses of their protagonists.

Alfredo Jaar

Venice: Venezia, Venezia, 2013

Basel: Sound of Silence, 2006

In Venice, Alfredo Jaar shows a huge model of the Giardini that emerges every three minutes from a pool of water before disappearing again. “The Biennale, with its obsolete structure of national pavilions, reflects an era of the past,” he says. In the Unlimited section at Art Basel, he shows a poignant eight-minute film, focusing on Kevin Carter’s devastating photograph of an African child gripped by famine under the sinister glare of a vulture. “That image is quite extraordinary. It is, for me, perhaps the most extraordinary image ever taken from reality,” Jaar says. “[It] reflects in the most perfect way the issue of hunger in the world and the issue of the relationship of the so-called developed world to hunger.”

A dealer’s view

Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon, Thomas Dane Gallery

Akram Zaatari’s work for Thomas Dane’s booth in Basel is “a counterpoise to Venice”, says D’Anglejan-Chatillon, a partner at the gallery. She adds that “to have him on the back of Venice and not include him in the booth would have been an own goal”. An artist showing in Venice is “always a positive thing”, she says, even if the gallery needs to raise production funds, as often happens, though not in Zaatari’s case. “That’s part of what we feel is our job and our responsibility to the artists,” she explains. “It would be disingenuous to say that we don’t harness the energy of Venice afterwards—it happens that Basel is a week afterwards, but we’re also harnessing the power of his Museum of Modern Art show, which opened [on May 11]… all of these things are part of an arc of achievements that feed into one another.”

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "All aboard: from Biennale to Basel"