Art Basel: a history of its most extraordinary art moments
As Art Basel launches its inagural, curator-led online viewing rooms ‘OVR: Portals’ (16 - 19 June 2021) we look back on the most iconic, sensational and controversial moments in the history of the world’s ultimate mega fair
From 16 - 19 June 2021, Art Basel will stage ‘OVR: Portals’, the fair’s inaugural curator-led edition of its online viewing rooms. Postponed due to the pandemic, the physical 2021 edition of the fair will take place at Messe Basel from 23 - 26 September, with Art Basel Miami Beach held from 2 - 5 December, 2021. To mark the occasion, we reflect on the history of the international art fair through its most head-turning, jaw-dropping art moments.
Art Basel was founded in 1970 by Basel gallerists Ernst Beyeler, Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt to rival its neighbouring Art Cologne. The idea was to lure a new wave of collectors and enthusiasts in the postwar consumer society, rich in time, money and new means of global communication.
But it wasn’t just rarified, deep-pocketed Europeans the fair drew in, it also attracted tyro collectors with a market of accessible editions. In its inaugural year, the Basel fair – then titled succinctly ‘Art’ – attracted 16,000 visitors. By 2019, under the stewardship of global director Marc Spiegler, the fair secured 93,000 visitors over six days, presenting 290 galleries from 35 countries.
Art Basel has spent the last 50 years redefining what an art fair means, and what an art fair can be. Whether it’s the launch of its Art Unlimited platform (which offered freedom beyond the booth), or anchoring itself as a global art mega-fair with annual Art Basel Miami Beach, Basel and Hong Kong events.
Beyond a marketplace for the well-heeled, a magnet for celebrities, a hotbed for lavish parties and fertile ground for people watching, Art Basel has become a cultural incubator for some of the most radical and iconic events in the history of contemporary art. Here, we reflect on the unforgettable moments that have defined Art Basel.
Maurizio Cattelan’s duct tape-meets-banana drama
In 2019, it had been a while since the art world had given its community an electric shock. Just as the dust was settling (in retrospect, the calm before an earth-rattling storm), Maurizio Cattelan took the lull as an opportunity to strike. Created in an edition of three, his Comedian consisted of a fresh – if lightly bruised – solitary banana taped to Perrotin gallery’s booth wall with a piece of metallic duct tape. It was a minimal composition – which later inspired a series of T-shirts – using a classic comedy device to comment on global trade. Or maybe not; as Cattelan put it, ‘The banana is supposed to be a banana’.
In another dramatic plot twist, Georgian performance artist David Datuna ate the piece, calling his post-sale intervention Hungry Artist. This was not the first time Cattelan had harnessed this lucrative combination of tape, walls and organic matter. Twenty years previously, the artist adhered his gallerist, Massimo de Carlo, to his gallery wall in Milan in a web of electrical tape. De Carlo, like the banana, found himself at the complete mercy of the artist in a piece that gave new meaning to the notion of ‘bonding’.
Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist got a room, well 14 Rooms
14 Rooms, to some extent, was what it said on the tin. For the live artwork, curatorial powerhouses Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist invited 14 international artists to each ‘activate’ a room, examining the relationship between space, time, and physicality. But, as one might imagine, there was a twist: each artwork’s ‘material’ was a human being.
The piece sat somewhere between theatre, sculpture and museum exhibition. The commission was of unprecedented scale for an art fair, running the full duration of Art Basel. This edition of the piece, which first premiered at Manchester International Festival as 11 Rooms, featured works by Marina Abramović, Damien Hirst, Santiago Sierra, Xu Zhen, Ed Atkins, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Otobong Nkanga, the latter three debuting new works. Each work took place within its own closed-off room, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron.
Art Basel braved a new virtual reality
Before 2020, the term ‘OVR’ might have sounded more like an obscure business acronym, or possibly an obsolete file format. But when Covid-19 struck, it became a lifeline for the globally art-deprived. OVRs (or Online Viewing Rooms), came to the fore following the severe outbreak of Covid-19, which, in March 2020, had been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. In the year of its 50th anniversary, Art Basel had no option but to cancel the 2020 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. As the first major domino to fall, this sent shockwaves through the art world and left all subsequent in-person events in a frenzy of uncertainty. To keep the momentum alive, Art Basel swiftly recalibrated with its first digital-only edition, in which all galleries for the 2020 Hong Kong show were invited to participate at no cost.
Now, as many parts of the world tentatively emerge from hibernation, the art world is beginning to wonder whether OVR viewing is, at least in some capacity, here to stay. Art Basel believes so, with the recent launch of Art Basel Live, the fair is presenting a hybrid format that sees digital viewing rooms run in parallel with its in-person fairs. From 16 - 19 June, Art Basel will stage its inaugural curator-led edition of Online Viewing Rooms, ‘OVR: Portals’.
Kader Attia smashed up his Arab Spring installation
It was a 2011 press image of looted glass vitrines in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum that inspired Kader Attia’s Arab Spring (2014). For the sculptural installation, staged at Art Basel Unlimited in 2015, Attia re-enacted the moment protesters entered the museum, destroyed its display cases, and robbed their contents during the Arab Revolutions of 2011-12.
Attia wears a dark hoodie shielding his face as he pelts bricks to shatter the vitrines – a gritty performance, filled with revolt and anger. In Arab Spring, Attia explored the legacy of colonialism, specifically French colonialism, and the contradictory notion of how a country intent on reclaiming its future would destroy what was at last becoming theirs. Attia staged the performance at the preview of Art Basel, the shattered glass and red brick debris forming the final work.
Abraham Cruzvillegas built a dance stage from trash
In 2018, marking Art Basel’s first free public exhibition, ‘Autorreconstrucción: To Insist, to Insist, to Insist’, by Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, was part multidisciplinary installation, part ode to rubbish. The performance piece was comprised of literal trash, devised by Cruzvillegas and the Argentine choreographer Barbara Foulkes. It was installed to inaugurate the newly built 60,000 sq ft Grand Ballroom at Art Basel Miami Beach and organised with curator Philipp Kaiser and the independent New York art space The Kitchen, where the work was shown previously.
Autorreconstrucción, which translates as ‘self-construction’, is a concept rooted in the artist’s childhood, when his home was built with what was at hand. This experience paved the way for the artist’s signature motif: sculptural forms constructed from locally found materials. In ‘Autorreconstrucción: To Insist, to Insist, to Insist’, the constructions were activated by musicians and acrobatic dancers.
Performers swarmed inside Alexandra Pirici’s Messeplatz igloo
Staged inside an igloo-like construction on Basel’s Messeplatz, Romanian artist and dancer Alexandra Pirici’s public installation Aggregate (2017-2019) had our pre-Covid-19 world written all over it. In this intense performative environment – which debuted at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein in 2017 – the audience mingles with a swarm of performers, who spontaneously pick from a list of rehearsed enactments.
At any given time, performers can initiate movements that others might choose to follow. The reference points for these actions were wide-ranging: from the leap of an antelope to Michelangelo’s David, or a Depeche Mode song lyric. After hours of interaction in this improvisational environment, tension mounted within the complex audience-performer relationship. §