Art Basel roundup

Laura McLean-Ferris

June 17, 2012
Art Basel, Basel
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen
Kunsthalle Basel, Basel

Jeff Koons’s giant blue egg sculpture—that outlandishly chatoyant and seductive object—looks as though it could have landed from another planet or another time. Its cracked top serves as a reminder of the way that Koons created a fundamental fracture within art history with his compelling work, and I was reminded of the artist’s monumental impact as I visited his exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler coinciding with the Art Basel fair, partly because it informed nearly everything I saw subsequently. The very first work in the show is the utterly eerie The New Jeff Koons (1980), a lightbox displaying an image of the artist as a young boy posing with crayons and a coloring book like the perfect child, his expression every bit the airy adult Jeff we have come to know: clear-eyed, polite and unnervingly serene, with his “how may I help you” smile. This image serves as an introduction to the artist’s brilliant Hoover sculptures and shampoo polishers in Plexiglas cubes, which revel in the purity of their box-fresh newness and aspirational product names—Celebrity and so forth, and assisted by Koons’s presentation and uncanny doublings. These, now more than thirty years old, are nothing short of visionary. They seem as though they are stepping stones to our contemporary moment—a sparkly clue glistening in the grass, asking us to pay attention. Koons’s Ushering in Banality (1988) a polychrome sculpture of a kitschy ornament featuring cherubs and a small boy guiding a pig, is another case in point, as is Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), and as I toured around hanging hearts, paintings of cakes and party hats, and balloon animals I ended up considering, with a degree of seriousness, whether Koons could have landed from another planet in one of those shiny eggs—as in Mork and Mindy—emerging clear-eyed, polite and unnervingly serene, able to see clearly what we were asking for as a culture and give it to us with a smile on his face.

Philippe Parreno’s exhibition—again at Fondation Beyeler—was one of the best I’ve seen from the artist, too, suffused with a morning-after melancholy. As in other recent exhibitions, the artist guides viewers around the space in a choreographed manner, using lights and sound cues—birds singing, dogs barking—to coax us from room to room. Continuously Habitable Zones aka C.H.Z. (2011) is a tour of a dark, black landscape of rocks and black plants with a throbbing soundtrack made from underground recordings rippling around the space accompanying the camera as it searches out landscapes for what looks like a post-apocalyptic civilization. Marilyn (2012) is the best work here, however, a film in which we hear the voice of Marilyn Monroe describing her room in the Waldorf Astoria where she lived in the 1950s, as the camera pans around room. We also see her pen writing letters. As the camera pulls back however at the end of the film, it becomes clear that the writer of the letters is a single, lonely-looking robot with a mechanical arm, and that the room is a set in a studio. It’s a deathly film, full of ache about what we have lost and what we have been left with. Both artists, at different ends of the spectrum, have created a portrait of something like the end of days.

An atmosphere of “after the fact” was also present in Paul Sietsema’s exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel—featuring a selection of works made by lifting found images of a boat away from its original paper with latex and transferring it to a new sheet of paper after treating it with ink, which seems to push the image onto the visual plane deeply, whilst giving it an aged, sun bleached aesthetic. Elsewhere around the city, Hilary Lloyd’s exhibition at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst is a highlight, and the beautiful space brings out the artist’s austere, sexualized minimalism. The poles on which her monitors are displayed, showing their jerky films—reach up into the central atrium of the space like expressions of pure verticality, and are displayed in a way that echoes the architecture and windows. Lloyd’s film of the sun just appearing, flashing through a pair of thighs combines the artist’s investigations of shapes, bodies, subtle movement and abstraction.

At the art fair, however, it was the Koons and Parreno that lingered in my mind as I waited to see Nina Beier’s excellent work Tragedy (2011) in Unlimited—a dog playing dead on a carpet, as well as Richard Phillips’s film of Lindsay Lohan on the beach pretending to be a surfer, yet actually just presenting herself as pure image—something to be looked at. Simon Denny’s Baloise Prize-winning work in Art Statements, deathly television with a schlocky blood and guts aesthetic—charts the end of public television in New Zealand, whilst Oliver Laric’s stark presentation of his film Versions (2012) at Tanya Leighton’s booth, covered with holographic stickers, charts the endless copies of images—their flow like water. Images, it would seem, are everything to us now. Whether we are playing dead, playing a surfer or watching and sharing on our screens. This new, overwhelming aspect to our culture, hatched from a shiny egg, is now spreading its wings powerfully.

Death, Minimalism & Post-Minimalism

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in Turin.

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