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Above, left: Massimo Bartolini's installation Due invites visitors to tread gingerly on two ramps of rubble. In this current political climate, the work evokes images and sensations of destroyed cities such as Aleppo. Above, right: Barbara Kruger's five-metre-high print highlights the "us versus them" polarisation of the world. It was sold to a collector for US$350,000.

Above: Phyllida Barlow's monumental installation 100banners2015 comprises 100 roughly-sewn banners draped across dirty flagpoles, bringing to mind themes of power, patriotism and protest.

Above: Singapore gallery STPI is participating in Art Basel for the fifth year - a record for any South-east Asian gallery. The team, led by director Emi Eu (second from left), has brought works by Suzanne Victor, Heman Chong and others to sell.

Reflecting on global migration and displacement, Subodh Gupta created a house out of discarded pots and pans, where he served rice and curry dishes to visitors as a gesture of friendship and intimacy.

Political art makes splash at Art Basel

The world's biggest art fair taps political zeitgeist, as sales soar beyond US$60m on the preview day alone.
Jun 16, 2017 5:50 AM

VISITORS to the world's biggest art fair, Art Basel, knew something was up when Unlimited, its section for large-scale works, opened earlier this week with an unusually high number of political works.

Near the entrance of the showcase is a five-metre-high print by Barbara Kruger that states: "Our people are better than your people. More intelligent, more powerful, more beautiful, and cleaner. We are good and you are evil. God is on our side. Our shit doesn't stink and we invented everything."

Kruger typically uses words and images found in mass media to show how the public is routinely manipulated. These words are not her own - they're appropriated to highlight the far-right movements in the United States and Europe and the crisis of migration. But the "us versus them" mentality extends to many other crises facing the world, from religious fundamentalism and terrorism, to Chechen concentration camps and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and/or intersex) rights.

Further into the massive 16,000 sq m exhibition space is Massimo Bartolini's installation Due, made up of two ramps of rubble, evoking images and sensations of destroyed cities. As visitors are invited to tread gingerly on them, they are starkly reminded of the bubble of relative safety they exist in.

Elsewhere, Mike Kelley's Gospel Rocket installation features a large rocket wrapped in golden robes worn by gospel choirs - a sharp critique of how war and religion are often inextricably linked.

And Phyllida Barlow's monumental installation 100banners2015 comprises 100 roughly-sewn banners draped across dirty flagpoles, bringing to mind themes of power, patriotism and protest.

Speaking at a press conference, Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler said: "This fair takes place at the moment where we have a strong interaction of politics and art. We face a highly volatile political and economic environment. It's a time where some people would dismiss art as irrelevant. But I would argue that art and culture are more relevant than ever.

"I think artists have a real role to play in these moments because they can address the vital issues faster and more forthrightly than other players can. When this show was being curated last fall, politics was on the forefront of our thinking. And we've selected not only art that's reacting to current politics, but also older art that's historically important."

Old is gold

As the curator of Art Basel's film programme, Maxa Zoller, explains, many of the political artworks were not actually created in recent times. They are older works that have been brought to the fair because they feel like appropriate responses to topical issues such as terrorism, populism, nationalism and neo-liberalism.

Donald Moffett's sound installation Impeach uses a speech by Democrat Representative John Lewis on the 1998 impeachment of US president Bill Clinton as a soundscape. Though the work was made in 2006, it is apropos to the current climate as calls for US President Donald Trump's impeachment grow louder.

Ms Zoller's own film programme opened with a durational film by Eric Baudelaire titled Also Known As Jihadi. Using fragments of court documents and filmed footages of Paris and Syria, it tells the story of a radicalised French man of Algerian origins who leaves Paris for Syria to fight alongside ISIS militants. Baudeliare doesn't show a single image of the man - he shows only the places where the man lived and frequented, such as shops and neighbourhoods. But in doing so, Baudelaire highlights how evil can spring from the most banal of circumstances. Other titles in the film programme deal with Black Lives Matter, North Korea and the Arab Spring.

Reflecting on the surge of political works in Art Basel this year, Ms Zoller notes: "Artists have always been tackling these difficult issues, issues that people don't want to talk about. But what's happened now is that the galleries are deciding to show more of these politically outspoken works at Art Basel because of the current circumstances of the world. And I think it's a positive development."

Sterling sales

The appearance of more politically-themed works certainly didn't hurt the fair, which boasts more than US$2.8 billion worth of art by about 4,000 international artists. The sales figures from its preview day were more sterling than usual as at least US$60 million worth of art was snapped up.

Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth sold two Philip Guston works, one for about US$15 million and the other for US$2 million. Guston is the current subject of a major show at Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. The gallery also sold a Richard Serra sculpture for US$3.5 million and an Eva Hesse canvas for US$2.5 million.

New York gallery David Zwirner sold a 1954 Alberto Burri work for more than US$10 million, a 1986 Sigmar Polke painting for almost US$9 million, and a few Marlene Dumas' works-on-paper and paintings ranging from US$150,000 to US$3 million. New York's Mnuchin Gallery sold a Mark Bradford canvas for US$5 million; Bradford is currently showing at the US Pavilion in Venice Biennale.

Among the Asian galleries, Seoul's Kukje Gallery presented alongside New York's Tina Kim Gallery; its respective founders Lee Hyun-sook and Tina Kim are mother and daughter. The galleries sold numerous works by Asian artists in the six-figure range, including Ha Chong-Hyun's oil on hemp cloth for at least US$390,000, Park Seo-Bo's pencil and oil on hemp cloth for at least US$400,000 and Haegue Yang's Venetian blinds installation for between US$100,000 and US$150,000.

Beijing gallery Long March Space sold a Xu Zhen by MadeIn Company canvas for one million yuan (S$202,000), and three Zhan Wang sculptures for between 420,000 yuan and 720,000 yuan. Meanwhile, Japan's Taka Ishii Gallery sold several Asian works, including a canvas by Filipino conceptual artist Maria Taniguchi for at least US$25,000.

Speaking of the Philippines, the country's Silverlens Galleries scored a coup when its artist Martha Atienza won the Baloise Art Prize worth 30,000 Swiss francs (S$42,600) for outstanding presentation. Atienza, who was also featured in the last Singapore Biennale, is an artist from Bantayan Island where fishing is the mainstay of its communities. Atienza made a mesmerising video work capturing an indigenous Filipino festival called the Ati-Atihan taking place underwater.

Silverlens Galleries founder Isa Lorenzo says: "We actually submitted Atienza's work for last year's Art Basel. But it was rejected. This year, we tried again and it's now been accepted with flying colours. So the lesson for Art Basel is, you have to keep trying."

Besides Silverlens, only one other South-east Asian gallery was accepted by the fair's notoriously stringent selection committee - and it is Singapore's STPI. Now in its fifth year of participation at Art Basel, the top-notch print-and-paper gallery is showing works by Singapore artists Heman Chong and Suzanne Victor, as well as those by Tobias Rehberger, Ryan Gander and Haegue Yang.

STPI director Emi Eu says: "It's very meaningful for STPI to be included in this amazing art fair, which is a testament to the quality that we work in, and have been working in for the past 15 years. I hope that our participation in art fairs will continue to 10, 15, 20, 25 years to come. We are one of the very few Asian galleries to be represented here and we hope to continue to hold the Asian fort."

STPI declined to reveal its sales figures. But the work by Kruger that alludes to the global "us versus them" polarisation has been snapped up for US$350,000. Forget sex - it's politics that sells now.

Art Basel runs from now till June 18 at Messeplatz in Basel, Switzerland

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the fair boasts more than US$4.5 billion worth of art. It is in fact more than US$2.8 billion. The article above has been revised to reflect this.