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The lifeblood of Art Basel
IN an empty warehouse in Basel, a woman is crawling in a pool of blood, crying in pain. One of her eyes is so bloated, it looks like it could burst with one touch. She is surrounded by dozens of onlookers, but none render assistance. Inevitably, she dies.
Is this a real crime scene? A social science experiment? A horror film set? A reality TV show gone wrong?
None, in fact. This is Art Basel, the biggest and most important art fair in the world. Now in its 46th year, Art Basel in Switzerland has long stopped being just an art fair selling paintings, paperworks and sculptures.
It has evolved into a state-of-the-art market that offers not just a broad range of artworks, but also films, exhibitions, talks and discussions, site-specific sculptures and interventions, art competitions, concerts, parties, and, yes, performances by cutting-edge dance and theatre groups.
Magnet for art lovers
Running till the end of the week, it includes this bizarre performance installation by Romeo Castellucci in which six different people die horrific deaths so that the audience may solve six riddles. The most gruesome of them involves a man whose intestines spill out of his stomach.
Art lovers, however, are flocking to - not fleeing from - Art Basel. This year, 92,000 people are descending on the otherwise sleepy city to see challenging art, and 284 international galleries have paid between US$50,000 and US$80,000 for the privilege of selling US$3 billion worth of art to high-end collectors.
The collectors with the deepest pockets arrived early this week in one of the 110 private jet flights, an increase of 16 per cent from last year's numbers, according to Art Basel's private jet partner Netjets. They are treated to champagne breakfast, chauffeured around the city in cars sponsored by BMW, also an Art Basel partner, and given the privilege of attending the VIP preview to select artworks before anyone else.
By the end of the VIP preview in the first half of the week, artworks priced from five to eight figure sums in US dollars or euros had flown off the walls.
A Keith Haring canvas went for US$5 million and a Yayoi Kusama "infinity net" painting sold for US$ 1million. A Joan Mitchell abstract was purchased at US$6million while a Louise Bourgeois sculpture went for US$2.5 million. A Joseph Beuys installation comprising a ladder, stones and wires sold for 1.55 million euros, (S$3.28 million) and a dozen Robert Rauschenberg works were snapped up for between US$450,000 and US$1.1 million each.
Among the Asian galleries, Seoul's PKM Gallery sold works by Korean abstractionist Yun Hyong-keun for between US$230,000 and US$280,000. And Tokyo's Take Ninagawa gallery sold Shinro Ohtake's trippy mixed-media art for between US$120,000 and US$180,000.
Western galleries selling Asian art also saw swift sales success. American gallery Blum & Poe sold three minimalist works by South Korea's Lee Ufan at about US$1 million each and a Takashi Murakami work for US$600,000.
Not a numbers game
But Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel, is wary of letting the numbers, instead of the art, grab the headlines. Commenting on the auction market in which blue-chip artworks regularly fetch eye-watering prices, he called it a "micro-phenomenon (that's) not a microcosm for the whole art market" and one that gives the wrong impression that "art collectors are billionaires and artists are millionaires".
He says: "Most galleries we work with are small operations, often working incredibly hard to keep their positions in the market. And few of the 4,000-plus artists presented here are wealthy. Those thousands of other artists mean the most for us because the fundamental role of the founding Basel gallerists remains true today - to offer a premier platform for great galleries by creating as many possibilities for as many artists as possible."
Hence, the bold, take-no-prisoners programming that includes the Castellucci performance installation depicting the death of six characters. Mr Spiegler believes in giving artists complete freedom to create works that break taboos, defy imaginations and expand perspectives.
Proof of that commitment abounds in the awe-inspiring Unlimited sector dedicated to large-scale works by marquee artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Emilio Vedova, Dan Flavin and Olafur Eliasson. (See next page).
One of the gutsiest and literally most dizzying works involves German artist Julius von Bismarck living in a concrete bowl that spins round and round without stopping. He works, eats and sleeps on the rotating platform throughout the duration of the fair - never once getting motion sickness. The trick is that he never ever looks at the visitors gawking at him.
Gianni Jetzer, the sector's curator, says von Bismarck's work titled Egocentric System is "almost a symbolic act of the egocentric artist - to leave behind the orbit of earth and create your own planet with your own gravity. When he looks outside of the platform, he would get motion sickness. So he has to concentrate on his own movement and on his own reality."
"The work," adds Mr Jetzer, "questions the position of the artist within society."
Other strong works in Unlimited, however, look outside the artist's orbit to address topical issues such as the purpose of the US military's presence around the world, the state of the environment and the destruction of ancient artefacts during times of political upheaval.
Danh Vo, the hotshot Vietnam-born Denmark-based artist who had the honour of inaugurating Art Basel's series of talks and discussions this year, says: "Art should always break conventions."
STPI holds the fort
Meanwhile, Singapore gallery STPI returns for its third year at Art Basel. It is, once again, the only Singapore and South-east Asian gallery among the 284 galleries from 33 countries.
Getting a place in Art Basel is notoriously hard with typically 900 galleries vying for about 300 available slots - Emi Eu once described applying to Basel as "harder than the college application for Princeton" - so STPI's return to Basel speaks volumes.
Ms Eu says: "We're honoured that we're taken seriously, because there are still not that many Asian galleries here. It helps a lot that STPI works with an international roster of artists - not just Asian ones. It's hard for European collectors, museums and gallerists to know what's happening in Asia, so the fact that we are an Asian gallery working with Western artists piques the interest of European collectors. It provides the first step for them to be familiar with us."
The print-and-paper art specialist is showing the conceptual works of English artist Ryan Gander who had a residency in STPI last year.
Adeline Ooi, director for Asia of Art Basel, says: "STPI has been very good in helping artists realise their dreams and visions. I haven't heard a single bad thing said by artists who have collaborated with STPI. If you look at the quality of works that STPI brings to Basel, it stands shoulder to shoulder with everything else out there."
Tracey Emin, one of the world's most successful female artists, was spotted among the first-day VIP crowd that included Takashi Murakami, Leonardo DiCaprio and Isaac Julien. Speaking at the Lehmann Maupin booth which sold two of her works priced between £40,000 (S$84,700) and £120,000 on the first day, she says: "If you're an artist, you need to be part of this. It's an important world stage for people to come and view your works. And its fringe events are also really, really good. That's why art people all over the world come."
- Art Basel is now on at Messeplatz 10 4005 Basel, Switzerland till Sunday
Art Basel fringe fare
Across the road from Art Basel is Design Miami/Basel, a design and furniture fair running concurrently with the art fair. It showcases 46 exciting design galleries, including Carpenters Workshop Gallery (featuring the Newson Orgone chair) and Seomi International.
One of the best museums in Basel is currently holding simultaneous exhibitions of works by the French post-Impressionist giant Paul Gauguin and the much-admired contemporary South African painter Marlene Dumas (whose famous work "For Whom The Bell Tolls").
Within walking distance from Art Basel is Liste, a small but terrific art fair featuring emerging artists from several international galleries. This year's show is particularly strong, with works by up-and-coming artists such as Benoit Maire (whose "Cloud Painting").