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What: Art 42 Basel
Where: Basel, Switzerland
When: VIP Preview Day, Tuesday 14 June 2011

I woke up at an ungodly hour of 4.45am to catch the train from Interlaken to Basel so that I could make the morning’s media reception. I was so tired and fell asleep on the train briefly, but as soon as I got into Basel I was raring to go. I dumped my bags at the hostel and took Tram no. 2 to the Messeplatz to pick up my press badge (see below!) and press pack. In the press pack we got media documents as well as the Art 42 Basel catalogue, which weighed an absolute tonne! No way was I going to carry that around. The art gods must have been on my side because I scored the very last locker available at the exhibition tower so I could home my catalogue while I made my way around the fair.

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Check this bad boy out!

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You can’t see the catalogue very well in this photo (in the bag on the bottom right, but it is 1.5 inches thick!!)

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So what is Art Basel? Art Basel is a premier art fair (and arguably the world’s most prestigious) that runs for 6 days in early June in Basel every year, marking the summer reunion of the international art world. This year, more than 300 galleries from 35 countries across six continents are exhibiting works by over 2,500 artists, both modern and contemporary. Works range from the more affordable works by emerging artists, to museum-quality masterpieces priced in the millions. I have to point out though that there are no galleries from Australia this year, which is VERY SAD. There is one work by Hany Armanious here but apart from that the only Australian presence is Aesop, selling at the Art Basel shop.

Art Basel is split into two halls. Hall 2 is where those 300 galleries have their booths, which is the main point of interest for the throng of VIP collectors who stormed through the doors this morning as fast as their dignity would let them. Generally speaking, the ground floor is mainly comprised of blue chip galleries and galleries who represent the more established artists. On the first floor you get more emerging work. On the ground floor you had the likes of Gagosian, Pace, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper, Gladstone, Feigen and Landau. On the first floor, David Zwirner, Blum & Poe, White Cube and Lisson.

Hall 1, which is completely separated from Hall 2, houses Art Unlimited and Art Statements. Art Unlimited offers a 17,000 sq m hall space for artists and galleries for works that need more than the conventional gallery booth, showcasing outsized sculptures, video projections, installations, wall paintings and even performance art. Art Statements spotlights 26 single-artist projects from younger galleries worldwide, often a frequent site for the discovery of emerging artists. For me this was the more exciting part of the fair. More on these later.

So it is 10am and I am sitting in the auditorium in Hall 1 waiting for the media reception to begin. I was easily the youngest person there by about 20 years. I looked around the room and I recognised no one. Some people seemed to know each other. The directors of Art Basel welcomed us press folk to the fair and made the attempt to put the fair’s importance on the artists rather than it’s commercial aspects. I quite appreciated this but it all just seemed kind of ironic considering some of the world’s most wealthiest individuals were waiting impatiently in the sun at the entrance to storm Hall 2 for the 11am VIP opening.

10.50am. I decided to skip the special press entry into the fair to join the steadfast crowd dressed in designer clothing waiting outside Hall 2. The situation was actually quite civil apart from the occasional elbow to the face, but that’s only because I’m a tiny little Asian. Standing in the crowd you could just smell the money. I have heard that every year Basel’s airport is filled with private jets for the first couple days of the art fair.

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11am. Doors open and the crowd fills the foyer of the hall, only to be held up again at the turnstiles. This time things got kinda squishy. I could barely breathe. One by one we were let in. Today’s entry is strictly by invitation only, VIP or press, so things were a little more scrutinised. Some overheard remarks: “This is the only time I’m willing to get a nosebleed”, “Bruises for art!”

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For the first two hours of the fair I wandered around checking out the scene. The amount of art shoved together across 300 gallery booths is just insanity. The quality of the work was also insanity. It felt like walking through a museum, but one which you could buy the work if you had pockets deep enough, and these people did. I didn’t let myself get too caught up with the art though as it would take several weeks to cover everything, so I flitted between booths, taking closer looks at things that caught my eye but otherwise I walked right past. It also wasn’t really the prime art viewing environment. It was terribly crowded and I almost felt like I was in some upper class flea market. I observed the people, mainly. I was looking at how the dealers schmoozed and how the collectors looked important (and vice versa – this is the artworld, where it isn’t uncommon for collectors suck up to dealers) and counted the number of 60-something year old millionaires with 20-something year old moles. I also caught myself staring at 14 year old girls in Ralph Lauren carrying Alexander Wang handbags, as they stood next to their uber rich parents talking about the work they were interested in with the dealers.

Overhearing conversations, it pleased me that many collectors actually knew what they were talking about. You know they are the serious ones who genuinely love art. As an artist, this is all you can hope for. But you could just as easily pick out the ones who have absolutely no idea… For example, one lady walked in front of a large Basquiat and looked at it confusingly. Then she stepped forward to read the label on the wall, got excited and called out to her husband “Oh darling, this is a Jean-Michel Basquiat!” Cue rolling eyes. I am sure you will agree with me that Basquiat is probably one of the most recognisable artists on the entire planet. Unfortunately, such is the art market sometimes…

Okay, there is just so much to write but I need to be judicious here as time is really scarce. I’m just going to dive into some of the random observations I got from today.

Artwork observations: Warhol, Picasso, Phillip Guston, Donald Judd and Carl Andre seemed to be everywhere. Warhol, especially seems to be infiltrating the market like a plague and I was surprised how many great Picassos were available. Overall, the quality is just unbelievable. I have not seen anything like this. You move from one exquisite work to another from the world’s most renowned artists. I wish could have bought something. On the ground floor you had the more commodifiable (is this a word?) works; mostly paintings, or at least works that you can hang on walls. On the first floor there were more installations, spatial works and video.

Crowd observations: It was some massive reunion alright. People from left, right and centre seemed to know each other. Lots of cheek kissing, lots of “Hey, how are you”s, and I even overheard a “Oh my god, it is like 1989 all over again.”

Art market health: Wouldn’t be able to tell you right now about how things sold, but at noon, one hour into the opening, Paula Cooper already had a huge number of red dots on the walls. There certainly wasn’t a lack of prospective buyers and it is not uncommon for many of the top galleries to sell everything on this first day, before the fair even opens to the general public.

Dealer spotting: Just about everyone was there. It was pretty exciting to see Larry Gagosian do his thing right in front of me. He seems to be a lot more outspoken than what he makes himself out to be. David Zwirner was strapping in a slim cut navy blue suit. Blum and Poe… man, what can I say… both reeking with masculinity, oh so well dressed, and extremely charismatic.

Charles Saatchi spotting: N/A.

Experiencing VIP day of Art Basel as an artist: Horrifying, but amusing. (Or should it be “Amusing, but horrifying”?) I say horrifying because to see art being reduced to such a commercial state is really sad, but I knew this was what it was going to be like so I was ready for that. As long as collectors continue to have philanthropic intentions then that’s fine with me.

Anyway, it is close to midnight and I’ve got major fair fatigue, and need to sleep for another crazy day tomorrow. Not only are there 7 art fairs on as well, there are also some great exhibitions on – Francis Alys, Henrik Olesan, and Constantin Brancusi/Richard Serra… just to name a few. But, I shall leave you with some photos from scenes from my first day at Art Basel. You will notice that there are more pictures of people than the art… this is my intention because I think taking photos of the crazy collector shopping spree in general was more reflective of my day than the art itself. However, as much as this is the main purpose of the fair, there is also a great side program of artist talks, performances, art films, site specific works and projects, and conversations on latest issues in art. In fact, this is the reason why I’m still here. I will cover these as well as Art Unlimited and Art Statements as I get to them over the coming days. Tschuss!

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3 thoughts on “Art Basel: Day 1 (VIP preview day)

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