Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Dora Imhof
Art Unlimited 2015, 12.07.2015

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What an appropriate start. Kenneth Anger’s ecstatic mass, to which Aphrodite, Pan, Hecate (embodied by the filmmaker himself), Lilith, Astarte (the writer Anaïs Nin), and other more or less divine beings gather, marked the delirious beginning of this year’s Art Unlimited, along with Julius von Bismarck’s rotating concrete bowl (Egocentric System, 2015). Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954-2014), the experimental film classic inspired by Aleister Crowley, celebrated its reincarnation here as a short, looped, video installation. It is not the first adaptation by the close to 90-year-old filmmaker; new versions were already created in the 1960s and 70s. His appearance at the fair is a sign of the expanding art market, which has now also colonized underground film, or—in positive terms—granted it a second (or third) life.
  The Art Unlimited section of Art Basel was initiated in 2000. The huge hall next to Hans Hofmann’s beautiful hall around the central round court from the 1950s provides space for large-format installations and film and video projections that cannot be accommodated in the classical fair booths. However, the foundation of the new section was also a response to the globally proliferating biennales. And as just about everything in the art world, Art Unlimited has also grown in the past years.
  74 works were on view this time. But the tried and tested principle, “view in Venice, buy in Basel,” was no longer valid this season as far as Art Unlimited was concerned (it was a bit different in the other hall)—not only because the opening of the biennale was moved up to the beginning of May. Venice and Basel overlapped surprisingly little, apart from a new piece by Helen Marten (Under blossom: Lousy elegy, 2015). One was instead occasionally reminded of previous documenta exhibitions. The Murano glass marionettes by Wael Shawky (Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, 2014), for example, were a continuation of the impressive Crusades film trilogy shown there. A further documenta participant, Kader Attia, presented a new installation. The empty museum showcases with shattered panes (Arab Spring, 2014) were among the not even very rare political works at the fair.

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When the showcases were smashed during a performance by the artist on the first preview afternoon, the shattered showcase panes were not only a re-enactment of the looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, they also offered a considerable show effect. As relics of the performance, they functioned well, if not even better. But there were also works that found their ideal venue and ideal audience here—and only here: money talks. When walking through the hall, one could repeatedly see small signs on the white walls that resembled oversized credit cards. Worlddebt by the American Conceptual artist John Knight is a commemorative edition on the occasion of the foundation in 1944 of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Interested persons could purchase the cards with information on the (then) 165 debtor countries. Pivotal information that, as a text accompanying the work promised, “contains all the vital information necessary to insure the kind of lifestyle we all seek.” The work was produced back in 1994, but its effect is undiminished. It suggests itself to read the cards recurring during the itinerary as symbolizing the flow of capital that dominates the art market more strongly than ever before.
  Lifestyle and capital were also the themes of Anna Gaskell’s film on Sarah Morris. Echo Morris (2014) depicts the American artist working in the studio, being styled for a photo shooting at her home, making a film, or during an exhibition opening and the dinner afterwards. So far, so conventional. What makes Gaskell’s film so fascinating, though, is its ultra-glamorous style. It is a world of exquisite decor and pristine staging. The artist appears as a cool, perfectly styled, smiling or tough global player mastering all social environments. The smoothness, the focus on individual details, such as the artist’s address file, and the work’s synth-pop soundtrack (from the Italians Do it Better label) also appropriate Morris’s filmic language and themes. Gaskell’s artist portrait has nothing in common with conventional ones that tend to romanticize artists as rather unworldly exotics. Morris instead resembles one of the potential (ideal) buyers of her works, and the high production values with spectacular tracking shots over Manhattan’s urban canyons would enhance many a Hollywood movie.
  In comparison with this Sarah Morris-superstar-work, the artist’s own film from the same year was a bit less convincing. Strange Magic (2014) is a commissioned work produced on the occasion of the opening of Bernard Arnault’s new museum in the Bois de Boulogne. The film is a portrayal of the place, its architect Frank Gehry, and the construction process of the new Fondation Louis Vuitton. It is also a documentation of the client. From his portfolio of luxury brands, the perfumes of Christian Dior are especially highlighted, with their production process documented from the rose harvest to the bottling and packaging in the factory. The film is, and depicts, an intertwining of capital, power, and representation, in which fascination and critique become indistinguishable. The images are driven and reinforced by the beat of the music (by Liam Gillick), an effect employed in a remarkable number of films, including Elizabeth Prices’s Video K (2015), shown nearby. Here, the heterogeneous picture elements, e.g., of pantyhose production, historical shots of the sun and of singers, informational texts on professional mourners, were brought together by perfectly synchronized synth-pop to create a hypnotic, pulsating maelstrom. (Post-)industrial production processes, but also working conditions, were the themes of numerous other works, as well. The video by the French-Armenian artist Melik Ohanians documents the living quarters of workers in Sharjah in a tracking shot recorded over several days. Victor Burgin’s Office at Night (1986) about a secretary and her boss references Edward Hopper’s eponymous painting. The romantic dreams of migrant workers are the theme of Liu Chuang’s Love Story (2006-2014) showing a display of cheap love novels mainly borrowed and read by migrant workers, who leave behind comments and messages in them.
  An important component of the Art Unlimited section has always also been the presentation or rediscovery of older positions, not seldom shortly after larger exhibitions. Among the lesser known artists is the American Marcia Hafif, born in 1929. Her wonderful 106-part work, An Extended Gray Scale (1973), is a sequence of 106 monochrome gray paintings presenting a color gradient from white to black. Franz Erhart Walther’s Wallformation Gelbmodellierung (1980/81) also appeared unusually calm and serious in the context of the fair, although his wall of fabric seemed a bit out of place next to a cool, glittering canvas by John M Armleder.

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Two highly different stances clashed here. Apart from that, this was an impressive corner in a very coherent show curated by Gianni Jetzer for the fourth time. But it is hardly possible to engage with or assess the exhibition as a whole as far as contents are concerned. The galleries applied with projects, from which a selection was made, so that the curatorial starting point is a different one in the context of the fair. Which in turn calls into question the role of the critic. One can establish that a number of very good works were submitted. Or one can complain about how much the market determines art today and that traditional critique has become obsolete in this context.[1] But that is known, and as a complaint a bit trite in this context. For the promotion and mediation work of many galleries must be appreciated, especially in comparison with auction houses and the secondary market that alongside a few globally operating galleries reap the biggest profits. One can make an attempt at classifying what one has seen (which is actually impossible in view of the confusing bustle of the global art market). One feels a bit like von Bismarck on his rotating bowl, or like Sarah Morris and Monsieur Arnault, when fascination and critique balance each other, or when a documentation speaks for itself. Or one is simply happy about the fact that so many great (and a couple of irrelevant) artworks are on view so compactly.
  So back to the itinerary. In the far corner of the fair hall, the Brazilian collective Opavivará! in Formosa Decelerator (2014) offered hammocks and tea to mix yourself for the purpose of deceleration and relaxation. It was not the only join-in activity. David Shrigley’s Life Model (2012) of a nude, cartoon-like, plastic man invited one to participate. Watching the children (and at times adults as well) gazing at the model and the easels in front of them in an immersed and concentrated way made even the most seasoned art fair-goer smile—or was at least worth a further iPhone picture.

Art Unlimited
June 18– June 21, 2015 on the Art Basel

Fig. 1
Julius von Bismarck, Egocentric system, 2015, Marlborough Fine Art
© Art Basel

Fig. 2
Kader Attia, Arab Spring, 2014, Galleria Continua
© Art Basel

Fig. 3
Marcia Hafif, An Extended Gray Scale, 1973, Fergus McCaffrey
© Art Basel

Fig. 4
Franz Erhard Walther, Wallformation Gelbmodellierung, 1980-81, Peter Freeman, Inc., Skopia P.-H. Jaccaud, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff
© Art Basel

[1] One could also try a sociological approach, cf. Kunst und Kapital. Begegnungen auf der Art Basel, Christian Posthofen (ed.), Cologne 2015.

Dora Imhof is an art historian and postdoc at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) of the ETH Zürich.

Translation: Karl Hoffmann