A queue of polished black BMWs with dark rear windows prepared to receive their VIPs looks like a scene from the 1980s, and embarrassing for that. It's the starkest reminder that Art Basel is still more about money than cultural investments.
The cars create a kind of art installation of the car brand. They describe the show as a place inaccessible to people dropping by off the street—they can only make some comments on the art works from the outside of the site and the outside of contemporary art.
It becomes that kind of fence for insiders of Daniel Buren in Autour du retour d'un detour—Inscriptions, located not far from the cars, close to the entrance of Unlimited. Buren belongs to the era of avant-garde artists from the end of the 60's to the beginning of the 70's. He studies the relation between artwork, position and spectator; his visual vocabulary always consists of 8.7-cm, black and white vertical stripes. In Basel, Buren presents a large red square arena, delimited by the same fence used in 1985–86 at the Palais Royal in Paris, during the construction of Les Deux Plateaux, one of the best known works of the artist. It consists of a series of polygonal columns, again with black and white stripes, located in the outyard of the Parisian monument. During the construction, people walking through the Palais Royal could observe the yard; the plywood fence was one meter high, and people could take part in the integration of modern and antique art by inscribing messages on the fence. Those plywood plates, covered by writings on the outside and black and white stripes on the inside, were used 2 years later at Le Magazin—where the artist reproduced the Palais Royal work, and then again in Galleria Continua in 2010 and now here in Basel, where a plywood fence separates the public from a square space in "red carpet" colour.
Not far from the fence, a pavilion decorated by enormous fluorescent graffiti such as "Erik makes Happy" or "Last Chance" edged with a second colour a bit in the style of a discount store—here you find Commission, a mixed media piece by Erik Van Lieshout, transformed by the Dutch artist into a chronicle of modern politics, arts and society shabbyness. Van Lieshout had been commissioned to work on a movie about Zuidplein, a mall south of Rotterdam, built in 1968 as an example of the utopia of the future well-being and harmony of the city. But with the crisis in the area south of Rotterdam, the mall became a shelter for the desperate and homeless, far from the interests of the initial project. Zuidplein was too far from the areas of the interventions by Koolhaas, Siza and Foster, and the management tried to improve image and security by installing 150 video cameras and banning small children running from the place. On the site Van Lieshout opened a temporary shop where people can talk and make comments that alternate between optimism and skepticism.
Utopia fails also in the sophisticated work of Turkish artist Emre Hüner. He is a child of the Ataturk republic, which impressed and imposed a uniform language and culture upon different folks who lived in peace in the Ottoman empire. Today Kurds and Armenians live in a country where not being Turkish is a crime and you can spend years in jails, like Leyla Zana did, for speaking your own language in the parliament. Hüner is 34 years old, studied at Brera Academy and lives in Amsterdam at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten. In his work Quixotic shown at Art Basel he compares the useless heroic acts of the Cervantes hero with utopias of the 20th century: "Mass utopias never worked." To elaborate on this thesis, Hüner shows a model of the water tower of Fordlândia, invaded by coloured zoomorphic statues. Beside this, a ceramic sculpture represents a huge nest of insects, exact copy of those which invaded the "Crespi D'Adda" imposed by Ford in the Amazonia forest soon after it was abandoned. His Fordlândia became a symbol of the failure of utopia against anthropology and geography—at the end, the failure of utopia, like taylorism and Ford's great vision, against nature itself.
Latvian artist Deimantas Narkevicius in Ausgeträumt is also describing the failure of a dream. This is the dream of a teenage band in Latvia, and the movie tells their story. The artist's son is a member of the group. Their romantic and home-made music is the soundtrack of a slow video camera movement in a post-socialist architecture, in northern winter snow. The group of naïve teenagers is struggling to follow their ambitions, and their probably useless efforts are compared to the dreams of Narkevicius, when he was a teenager himself and dreamt of becoming an artist during the dissolution of the USSR.
Kreppa Babies, 2010 is the poetic 5-screen video-installation by the Masbedo. The Turinese duo portraits the history of the Icelandic society as a sort of large family through the recent disorders—a trauma caused by the social sudden malaise and immediate consequence of the economic crisis. The Masbedo lived in Iceland during the crisis; they exhibited how the old Icelandic values, bound to the soil and an ancient paganism, were more and more substituted by ephemeral "western" values, brought by a general welfare probably achieved too quickly. The movie—the title means "children of the crisis"—terminates with a long sequence focusing on one of the children, a girl, and her eyes reflect the torch used by the police during the clashes. It's a silent cry for help well over history and Icelandic borders.
In these contexts, contemporary art is also something else. There is emotion in Festum II, golden corianders spread by Kris martin under the Byzantine icons and along the central nave in Sant'Alban's. It is a fusion of sacred and profane, well described by just one word in Latin. And there is fun in "I call your image to mind", 2010 the "sonorous Calder" by Cerith Win Evans or Unconscious by Ernst Caramelle. This is an "animated washed-out; Mondrian almost Halley"; Ernst Caramelle's piece is an open window on a painted wall with obvious colour fields in geometric shapes and a few mirrors that reflect other paintings on an opposite wall that is not visible.
The work changes each time you move; to understand how it works just lean out the window. Which is what you should do at Art Basel.