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Art Basel: Tackling Burning Issues
IN ONE ROOM, Japanese art doyenne Yoko Ono - the widow of musician John Lennon - has laid out small pieces of broken teacups and invites visitors to "repair" them using strings, glue and tape. There are no rules for how to put the pieces together - she only asks that you do with it with "love and kindness", says her minder who is there on Ono's behalf.
"There's so much hurt and pain in the world," explains the minder, "that the artist wants us to create new art out of broken objects - it's art for a broken world."
Indeed "art for a broken world" could be one of the themes of Switzerland's Art Basel, the world's biggest art fair and the original behemoth that spawned two sister events, Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Basel Miami.
Since its 2017 edition, less than a year after the election of Donald Trump in the United States, artists and gallerists have been responding to the new and unpredictable world order by creating and exhibiting art that addresses or attempts to heal the new rifts his presidency has spawned.
In one popular corner of the fair, artist Paul Ramirez Jonas performs his certified role of a notary public - someone appointed by the American government to serve as a public witness in the signing of important documents. He invites visitors to think up a lie - any lie. He then writes it out on a piece of paper, stamps it using a genuine notary public seal and stamp, and then pastes the lie on the wall as evidence of a "truthful" document.
The lies that visitors have cheekily come up with include "Life is fair", "Your privacy is safe", "I love Trump", "Facebook saves democracy" and "I'm a size zero" - and have now become legally authenticated public documents because Ramirez Jonas has received the training and certification for his role as a notary public.
The work titled Alternative Facts serves as a commentary on our post-truth world where powerful leaders are choosing to discredit inconvenient truths as "fake news" while insisting on their own interpretations of facts and history.
Other artists riffing on political affairs include Thai superstar Rirkrit Tiravanija; his video work depicts several burning tyres as a direct reminder of the 2010 Bangkok protester showdown when tyres were used as barricades and Molotov cocktails were thrown.
Meanwhile, Chinese artist He Xiangyu created a large egg carton out of pure gold and filled it with a single egg as a metaphor for the social and economic consequences of China's one-child policy. And Greek artist Kostis Velonis constructed a huge agitprop kiosk in response to what he calls a "crisis of democracy" across the world.
STRUGGLES OF SMALLER GALLERIES
If artists are expressing their concerns over an increasingly fractured global political system, Art Basel is also expressing its concern for small and mid-sized galleries everywhere. Faced with crushing overheads, rising rents and slow business, many small and mid-sized galleries have shuttered in recent years, even as their big-name counterparts do better than ever with their well-heeled clients.
Small and mid-sized galleries form a crucial part of the art ecology as they nurture new and emerging artists whom larger galleries often don't touch. Unfortunately, when some of these young artists become established names, they may switch to a larger gallery that offers them access to more influential collectors and institutions, and higher prices.
Fairs like Art Basel partly exacerbate the problem as art collectors are increasingly showing a preference to buy art at such events instead of galleries; art fairs boast larger and more diverse displays of art than any gallery can offer. However, it's often a costly affair which small galleries can nary afford. Booth rents can go up to as high as US$100,000, while the cost of shipping artworks, insurance and hosting dinners for collectors can go beyond that figure.
At a press conference before the fair, Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler acknowledged the problem as a pressing one, but could offer little comfort. He says: "Galleries are speaking more openly than ever about their struggles, and all of us are thinking of how we can respond to the challenges they're facing … What Art Basel can do for those small and mid-size galleries is to make available the same platform, collectors and programmes that we do for the larger galleries. And when it comes to things like how we strategically deploy our VIP relationship networks or how we use social media, we heavily favour galleries that need our help the most."
Singapore's STPI gallery director Emi Eu says the issue needs to be addressed: "When your gallery becomes part of Art Basel, which is the cream of the crop, it's an affirmation for the gallery and its programming. The Basel brand is so strong that even your artists and collectors start to see you differently.
"But at the same time, the whole art fair thing is very costly and not many galleries can take part in it. It's chicken and egg - you have to spend money to make yourself visible to top collectors, but it's money that you may not have.
"As for the issue of the growing wealth discrepancy between large galleries and small galleries, it's been an issue for six to seven years now. Bigger galleries branch out to different countries and attract the best local artists to work with them. It becomes kind of a vicious circle, something that local art systems need to look into to better retain their local talents."
Lilian Wu of ShanghArt is more hard-nosed about the situation, though. She says: "Every gallerist must find his or her way to survive. It's a tough business.
ShanghArt, a large gallery with branches in Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore, posted strong sales compared to most of the smaller galleries at the fair. Works by its popular artists, such as Yu Youhan and Ding Yi, were reserved by collectors even before the fair opened.
Among other Asian artists and galleries that did well, Beijing's Long March Space sold a massive Yu Hong acrylic on canvas measuring 5 metres by 9 metres for US$1.73 million. Lisson Gallery (London, New York) sold Ai Weiwei's Coca-Cola vase (a centuries-old Han Dynasty vase on which he painted the Coca-Cola sign) for 280,000 euros (S$437,258).
Blum & Poe (Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo) sold a Yoshitomo Nara ceramic sculpture for US$550,000 and a Ha Chong-hyun oil on hemp for US$200,000, while Seoul's Kukje Gallery also sold a Ha Chong-hyun oil on hemp for a similar price.
Pace, which has branches in six international cities, sold a Lee Ufan acrylic on canvas for US$350,000.
Amid the hand-wringing over the fate of small and mid-size galleries, one welcome development is the improved diversity of the artists being represented by the larger galleries. Important artists who have long been overlooked critically or commercially because of their gender, race or sexual orientation are finding their place on the walls.
At the Unlimited section, popular for its museum-scale installations, several of the featured artists are of African heritage such as Yto Barrada, Rashid Johnson, Ibrahim Mahama, Barthelemy Toguo, Martine Syms and Sam Gilliam. Gilliam, an 84-year-old African-American artist whose works for a long time were underpriced despite their criticality, has a simultaneous solo show at the well-regarded Kunstmuseum Basel.
South-east Asian artists, however, are woefully under-represented at Art Basel. STPI is the only South-east Asian gallery among the 290 top galleries from 35 countries at the fair. Despite showing works by strong Singapore artists Jane Lee and Suzann Victor, Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q Le, American artist Pae White and Albanian artist Anri Sala, STPI director Eu says sales have been "slow" in the first two days.
Gianni Jetzer, curator of the Unlimited sector, says he looks forward to a time when the art world welcomes more diversity: "The world is becoming more global, and the art world is starting to acknowledge the rich contributions of artists of different regions, in particular the African region … Ultimately, I believe - or I want to believe - that the art system is a democratic, open-minded one and that its acceptance of the diversity of ideas and aesthetics can only grow."
SEVEN WONDERS OF ART BASEL
The Unlimited sector, dedicated to museum-scale installations, provides some of the fair's most memorable sights
01. AI WEIWEI'S TIGER, TIGER, TIGER
During the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), porcelain vessels typically featured a hand-painted tiger on the inside base as a symbol of courage. Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous artists, collected 3,020 broken fragments of such vessels and laid them out on the ground to represent the fragility and endurance of cultural memory.
02. LARA FAVARETTO'S BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Confetti is associated with happy celebrations such as weddings and parades. Italian artist Lara Favaretto compressed millions of tiny confetti into large cubes. Over time, however, these cubes collapse into shapeless mountains - a suggestion about the impermanence of happiness.
03. IBRAHIM MAHAMA'S NON-ORIENTABLE NKANSA II
In Ghana, shoemakers travel with boxes made out of scrap wood, which they also bang like drums to attract customers. Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama collected hundreds of such boxes and constructed a wall of them as a complex representation of his country's economic, cultural and social systems.
04. HE XIANGYU'S UNTITLED
Lasting from the 1970s to 2015, China's one-child policy has had a large social, political and economic impact on its society. Chinese artist He Xiangyu satirises these implications by creating a large egg carton out of pure gold - and then placing just one egg in the carton.
05. LEE UFAN'S RELATUM (IRON FIELD)
Korea's premier minimalist Lee Ufan creates a beautifully understated work with the simplest of materials. Planting fine steel wires on a bed of sand, he creates an 'iron field' that establishes a conceptual dialogue between the natural and the man-made, the real and the artificial.
06. BARBARA BLOOM'S THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Barbara Bloom evokes two extremes - the depths of the ocean and the infinity of space. In the centre of the installation is a table of crockery bearing the logo of RMS Titanic. Their undersides show images of the sunken Titanic on the ocean floor. Meanwhile, on the ceiling is a window showcasing the man-made junk orbiting the earth, left behind after space expeditions.
07. RASHID JOHNSON'S ANTOINE'S ORGAN
African-American artist Rashid Johnson constructed an enormous cube-like bricolage of potted plants, which hides a functioning piano within the structure. Ever so often, the pianist and music producer Antoine Baldwin would climb into the cube and play beautiful music, creating an unexpected urban Garden of Eden.