Art 39 Basel

4 – 8 June 2008

“Things are going to get better!”

Patti Smith

On a beautiful night in Switzerland, Patti Smith performed for four hundred VIP’s and invited hagglers at the one hundred and fifty year old Elisabethenkirche—a neo gothic church located in the heart of Basel city. Theoretically, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this event. As is generally the case with large scale exhibitions or art fairs, hip musical acts or aging rockers with semi-credibility break up the artworld myopia with a concert or two. But Patti Smith? Was she making some sort of comeback? Had she ever really gone away? Does it really matter if it’s free?

It was not until I sat down that I realised what I was in for over the next hour or so. It wasn’t the hazy persona of Patti Smith that I was going to be sitting through but the slightly pathetic Ramones meets Bob Dylan meets Ron Wood musical act that is Patti Smith. Although musically her credibility has been waning over the years, Smith’s carefully managed persona made it difficult to really notice if you weren’t buying the albums.

But something weird was happening here. The church was filled with dealers, curators, collectors and all manner of people doing the hard yards at Art Basel ’08—all probably exhausted from the walking and the talking—three days into the fair. Smith came out to polite applause and read a poem. Now, while I read poetry as a teenager I’ve never been a fan of the romanticism which seems inherent to the medium. Smith’s love for William Blake and her revival of old beat generation stereotypes were lost on me. Didn’t Charles Bukowski make this mysticist, Rimbaud-wannabeism unfashionable? Maybe not. Corny sentiments and poetic stereotypes pervaded throughout the evening—and were wildly applauded.

To say that the audience was into Patti Smith’s performance at Basel would be an understatement. There were sing-alongs, dancing in the aisles…even scarf waving. Behind me, the respected curator and occasional Maurizio Cattelan conspirator, Massimiliano Gioni was having a wonderful time, hooping and hollering with the rest of them. It was weird. Smith used the night to pay tribute to the dead. She dedicated songs to Robert Rauschenberg, her late husband Fred (Sonic) Smith, Bo Diddley, Robert Mapplethorpe and Kurt Cobain. In other words: she worked with the spiritual context of the gig. She also delivered spiels which suggested that although everyone in the room is entrenched within the art market we should remember that art is about freedom and unbound expression—not about money and business. She laid it on thick and reminded me what I thought about musicians who make art and vice verse.

In hindsight, what riled me the most was the obviousness of it all. Of course she was going to bring up the pretentiousness of the art market—she was performing at Art Basel! Of course she was going to dedicate songs to the dead—she was performing in a church! Maybe everyone was letting off steam after a hectic week but there was something about Smith’s tributes to artistic freedom unshackled by art market hierarchies which the audience really responded to. The performance possessed a ‘fuck the system’ faux-punk attitude which subconsciously doesn’t want anything to change. It was piousness in alternative clothing, fully dependant on the structures she rallied against for her style. The performance also reeked of careerism—something which Smith has been accused of before. Joshua Klein, in a review of her recent album Twelve (2007), stated that her ‘position as some high priestess of punk has long felt a little misplaced; she’s more a punk by association than in practice. No musical radical, unlike many of her ready-to-raze peers, Smith’s tastes were mostly classic rock and catholic. She may have hung with Tom Verlaine and Joey Ramone at CBGB’s, but her musical heroes were Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison’. He goes on to write that Twelve—a cover album—comprised of ‘twelve mostly predictable covers, [was] suspiciously timed to take advantage of her recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (after seven straight years of being nominated)’. Klein described her version of Smells Like Teen Spirit (also performed in Basel) as the album’s ‘hoariest boomer cliché; the kind of thing you’d expect Smith to earnestly perform at Kurt Cobain’s own 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction’.1

After taking a mild swipe at the art market, Smith thanked the Cartier Foundation for financing the gig—they also financed and held her recent exhibition ‘Land 250’ which opened in April 2008 in Paris. When interviewed by the Telegraph about this exhibition and her career overall Smith was proud of her own artistic integrity, reflecting that ‘You can wake up and look in the mirror and still see yourself, and not some asshole that’s doing, you know, giant plastic tubes and getting millions of dollars for them’.2 So Smith, it seems, is all for artistic freedom and integrity as long as it doesn’t look too slick. It’s the classic Jim Jarmusch school of aesthetics; if it looks arty it’s great, if not—it probably supports corporate fascism.

Smith also took the time to state her support for Barack Obama, who was receiving a lot of press coverage at the time as Hilary Clinton had just ended her campaign to become presumptive nominee of the Democratic party, officially marking Obama’s campaign for president of America. Smith gave a speech reminiscent of a fourteen year old school girl, waxing lyrical about Obama being a fresh young hopeful to change the world. ‘It’s so great to be here and I’m sure there are people from all walks of life and I want you to know that things are going to get better!’ she proclaimed. This seemed especially odd because firstly it was a VIP event at Art Basel—I wouldn’t say it was a particularly broad demographic. And secondly, what did she mean ‘things are going to get better’? Was she speaking politically about a particular situation which we were all meant to think the same about or did Obama deliver a promise to bring peace on earth? Like everything about Smith, it was all a gesture without substance, not so much a walking contradiction as an oblivious one. But it was hard to get my head around why everyone went wild. They couldn’t have all been Patti Smith fans as the billing could have been anyone with even the slightest amount of art credibility. Maybe a bit of air-rebelling against market forces was much needed after a tiring three days.

By comparison, the rest of the fair had an energy which was undemanding. As usual, Art Basel was split into two buildings at Messeplatz—an upmarket warehouse full of commercial gallery pavilions and an upmarket warehouse which contained the ‘Art Unlimited’ section full of large-scale installations, not strictly commercial. The event was co-directed for the first time by Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer, replacing Samuel Keller—the much lauded director of Art Basel from 2000 who, surprisingly, moved on to become the director of the Beyeler foundation (also in Basel) earlier this year.

To give one’s impression of this huge event is to give a significantly subjective and patchy account. There was the feeling that the whole thing was un-curated—an Ikea style set up where you make your own way around, get lost and find interesting juxtapositions almost wherever you go. Speaking off the cuff I’d say there were a lot of Basquiats and Warhols up for sale. Richard Prince featured in a number of spaces—represented by a diverse range of work from joke paintings, biker photos, cheque paintings, nurse book sculptures and car hoods. Some nice autumny Alex Katz paintings, funny works by Jonathan Horowitz, and a few pretty good Lawrence Weiners around the place. Sadie Coles HQ, Hauser and Wirth and Gavin Brown had the most interesting selection and placement of works along with Matthew Marks’ mini-retrospective of Ellsworth Kelly in celebration of the artist’s eighty-fifth birthday. Outside there were a dozen hand sculptured monsters by Ugo Rondinone—about two and a half metres in height and made from aluminum casts which were painted to look like clay. They were the type of public sculptures that you could randomly select and install just about anywhere in the world and they would do their job. Also featured on Messeplatz was a Dan Graham glass pavilion, a ten metre high Isa Genzken rose and a twenty metre high stainless steel tree sculpture by Roxy Paine.

Next door, the Art Unlimited section was not as strong as I had hoped. A Peter Coffin video installation was mesmerising—it featured short clips of animals doing silly and playful things on thirty stacked monitors. The edits were just right and the positioning of the installation was first class. Malcolm McLaren had a video projection which consisted of music remixes set to footage of 1950’s porn—only showing scenes leading up to sex, not the sex acts themselves. There was an old 1992/93 work by Karen Kilimnik which was also very successful, though perhaps requiring multiple viewings. She sampled and repeated scenes from the film Heathers (1989) yet there was no apparent logic or rhythm to what she sampled. It reminded me how Kilimnik really is the master of this pretty but abstract type of logic which at first looks like a third year art school work but is actually very sophisticated and compelling. The video runs for over six hours and has been summed up nicely by Ingrid Schaffner as ‘her Empire’.3 Some of the less successful works I thought were Takashi Murakami’s Oval Buddha (2007) (which sold for US$8m) and Pipilotti Rist’s A Statue for London (2005-08) in which she out-quirked herself with another hyper-coloured interactive video installation.

The Conversations program was also staged in the Art Unlimited space this year, which was a wise move except for the occasional audio problems resulting from it being located in a visitor’s hub. The program was semi-interesting but could definitely benefit from having more artists involved as it was mostly a curatorial affair this year.

There were so many great and not so great things that it would be foolish to homogenise the event with a clean and clear reading. I didn’t want to draw a direct comparison between the Patti Smith gig and Art Basel itself but the inherent desperation that must be felt by a plethora of contemporary artists who are on the verge of making exorbitant amounts of money results in about forty percent of the art looking masturbatory. Given that in a typical city the ratio is a lot higher, it is understandable why Art Basel seems to be considered a success every year. It is always a relief when the big names show why they are so successful—which makes me think of a forum topic held there in 2007 titled Is Money the New Criticism?

Another analogy was suggested by Berlin duo Elmgreen and Dragset in their play Drama Queens (2007), performed on the night before the Smith concert at the Theatre Basel. The play ran for about thirty minutes and featured humorous reflections on art voiced by six twentieth century sculptures—all performed live. The six sculptures were: Walking Man by Alberto Giacometti (1947), Cloud Shepherd by Jean Arp (1953), Elegy III by Barbara Hepworth (1966), Four Cubes by Sol Lewitt (1971), Untitled (Granite) by Ulrich Rückriem (1984), and Rabbit by Jeff Koons (1986). The play was as much about culture clashes within the globalised artworld as it was a farcical display of irreconcilable ideologies. In the context of Art Basel it took on an Oscar night sensibility—as if Steve Martin was mildly poking fun at the art and artists which we had just spent the day looking at and thinking about.4 After all the excitement which was generated when Brad Pitt and Owen Wilson were seen perusing the stalls, this analogy was easy to come by. Like the Oscars ceremony, it was great fun but afterwards I felt a little dirty for laughing at dumb jokes. I did think that it could have gone further than mild entertainment but perhaps then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much.

Obviously Art Basel is a performance in itself. It is no surprise then that it was the offsite events held by Patti Smith and Elmgreen and Dragset which gave me the most insight into how this thing is stage managed. For convenience alone it does its job very well. Having never been to its sister event at Miami Beach it would be interesting to see how much of the success of Art Basel is due to the work ethic, diplomatic skills and meticulous planning of the Swiss. 

notes: 

1. Joshua Klein, Record Reviews, Pitchforkmedia, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/10137-twelve/, 20/4/2007.
2. Patti Smith quoted by Telegraph newspaper, ‘Patti Smith: these are a few of her favourite things’, 5/4/2008.
3. Ingrid Schaffner quoted in Art Unlimited catalogue, Messe Schweiz, 2008.
4. The play was shown previously at Skulpturen Projekte Münster 2007 to mixed reviews.