'Humans as art' steals the spotlight at Art Basel

  • Frame Up
  • Tuesday, 24 Jun 2014

Fleeting installations involving living people stole the show at this year’s Art Basel, the world’s biggest meeting place for deep-pocketed collectors.

Open one door to see a naked woman perched on a bicycle seat high on a wall, enter another room and find twins reading identical books under a pair of dot paintings. Believe it or not, this was the highlight of this year's Art Basel, in Switzerland. 

The show, where everything is usually for sale — at a hefty price — has for its 45th edition dedicated a section called 14 Rooms to performances and live art by top international artists. ”It’s really about creating experiences with human beings as the material,” Art Basel director Marc Spiegler said.

Marina Abramovic’s 1997 piece Luminosity, in which a naked woman uncomfortably straddles a bicycle seat fixed onto a wall and bathed in bright light, explores themes of “loneliness and spiritual elevation”, according to organisers.

Marina Abramovic's Luminosity (above), in which a naked female figure straddles a bicycle seat that's fixed to the wall, made stark by the rectangle of light that frames the body. Damien Hirst's performance piece (below) features a changing cast of twins, the title of which depends on the twins who are featured, in this case, Georgia/Paris.

Damien Hirst’s rotating cast of identical twins meanwhile sit in carbon copy positions, mirroring each other as they lift a glass of water, eat chocolate and leaf through identical books. And visitors to Xu Zhen’s “In just a blink of an eye” are confronted with a person frozen in mid-air, in a seemingly gravity-defying pose.

”This shows a sort of performative approach towards art, which is much more interesting, I think, than only canvas and only pictures on the walls,” commented Mia Florentine Weiss, who is a 34-year-old German performance artist, after visiting 14 Rooms.

Xu Zhen's gravity-defying piece In The Blink Of An Eye, one of the pieces featured at Art Basel's 14 Rooms exhibit. 

New York artist Jeff Zimmerman said he especially liked the inclusion of visitors in the artwork. ”It was nice to make the viewer a little uncomfortable,” he said, adding: “And it’s not for sale, and I think that’s important in this environment to have that occurring.”

The more traditional gallery section of the show, where collectors can whip out their wallets to purchase masterpieces rarely on display, nonetheless remains at the heart of Art Basel.

Andy Warhol sold

Art enthusiasts from around the world, many having flown in on private jets, flooded into the gallery section when it opened to VIPs on June 17, browsing through booths representing 285 international galleries and sweeping up pricy masterpieces at an astonishing rate.

On June 18, a Fright Wig self-portrait by pop artist Andy Warhol, with an asking price of US$35mil (RM113mil), was sold to a private collector at the Skarstedt gallery. A Damien Hirst work called Nothing is a problem for me, from 1992, was snapped up Tuesday for nearly US$6mil, while a Jeff Koons piece called Dolphin Balloon went for US$5mil.

”It’s been very good. We’ve had a good opening day and we’ve done very good business so we’re happy,” Victoria Miro gallery chief Glenn Scott-Wright said, standing in front of a giant Yayoi Kusama metallic pumpkin on display for the first time. That piece had been reserved, while another of the Japanese artist’s works had been sold “in the high six figures,” he said.

While such spectacular sales are welcome, Spiegler said Art Basel had been successful “because it has always tried to stay very much in tune with what’s going on in the art world.”

In 2000, the show for instance took a leap of faith when it opened its Unlimited section, offering up oversive museum-scale pieces. 

This year, 78 projects fill a massive Unlimited hall, ranging from Giuseppe Penone’s Trees, featuring a giant fir tree trunk with the centre removed, to a huge, translucently colourful installation of hanging window blinds by Haegue Yang. Nearby, Julio Le Parc’s giant sphere, made up of glistening red plastic squares hangs suspended from the ceiling, casts red light on Ian Breakwell’s photo exhibit in the background.

”It’s really good. A beautiful exhibit,” said Paul Schwer, a German artist visiting Art Basel of this year’s fair.

Not all artists are willing to work within the confines of the show, however. Especially those whose works directly criticise what they see as the art market's collusion with big money.

Full frontal: Swiss performance artist Milo Moire who attempted to enter Art Basel with only the 'words' of clothing written on the corresponding parts of her body had to cover up. 

Majida Khattari was forced to remove her exhibit of “homeless” mannequins covered in jewels and designer handbags — set up uninvited outside one of the halls as a commentary on global inequality. ”There is absolute luxury, and there is absolute distress. There are crises everywhere, but not in luxury,” she said.

Meanwhile, Swiss artist Milo Moire was forced to cover up when she attempted to enter the show with the names of clothing items scrawled on her naked body. Entitled The Script System, it was an iteration of a performance she's done previously. — AFP/RelaxNews