Amidst pouring rain, carefully walking on the cobblestones of the Messeplatz in Basel, Switzerland, I explored Parcours at Art Basel. The exhibits in buildings leading up to and surrounding the Messeplatz were concerned with environmental and political issues but did not have the impact of the similarly concerned exhibits I recently saw at the Venice Biennale 2019. Rather, they slowly caused me to think about the concerns presented.
The best of them, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “The Recovered Manifesto of Wissam (inaudible),” a 2017 arrangement of artificial orange trees, mini-cassettes, speakers painted to look like stones, printed sheets and 3-channel audio, explored the intersection of sound and politics. The accompanying literature pointed out that old cassette tapes are wrapped around fruit trees to keep birds and insects from eating the fruit. One day, Abu Hamdan discovered a mini-cassette tape surrounding a tree and decided to listen to it. The tape contained the voice of Wissam — as the speaker identified himself — reading from a book on the concept of Taqiyya.
Taqiyya is an Islamic legal term that is sometimes understood to mean the right to lie or not tell the whole truth. This investigation led from the awareness of the artist in noticing the smaller tape surrounding the trees to a curiosity of what the tape contained, prompted an installation that revealed how the sound contained can reveal hidden concepts, important to our present day. This creative thinking is then couched in the beauty of orange trees.
Cathy Wilkes’ mixed media piece “Untitled, 2018,” for The Modern Institute in Glasgow, Scotland, showed two figures, almost cartoonlike, with their big ears and thin bodies, made of plastic with a 3D printer, consequently looking like a smooth plastic or wax, or perhaps balloons. In front of them were two stone slabs, one with an incised cross and one with two crosses — each slab with a twig on top, devoid of leaves — clearly resembling grave markers. Floor-to-ceiling shades behind them shut out the light. The empathy Wilkes desires of the viewer was there, as was the desired recognition of disassociation with the figures, due to their technological origin and plastic appearance. Most importantly, it was a space for contemplation of the work and the technological plastic process that replaced the human hand in making the figurative sculptures. Those juxtaposed against the natural stone and twig, whose leaves had long since gone, created a sense of memory. That is what art is and does.
That memory and sadness was also evident in Rinus Van de Velde’s installation, “Prop, Flood, Roof,” made of cardboard, paint, metal, wood, water and mixed media, presented by König Galerie in Berlin, Germany. A stage set created for his film project, “The Villagers,” to be screened in September, consists of a life-size house, with shingles falling off, gutters bent, and protruding sheet metal rusting — half sunken, but beautifully reflected in a pool of black water. Clearly, the house has been victim to a flood of massive proportions, but opposed to the action of a disaster film — this house is quiet. It is the aftermath that is depicted, showing what we as a society might one day face, as some communities already have.
It is this stillness — this beauty in the fallen and the ruined that I found at Parcours. We have gotten over the loud screams and the raised arms, and are looking at an uncertain, environmentally, politically and technologically disastrous future but accept it because we have not yet found another way. Dan Graham’s installation “Dancing Circles,” a set of two-way mirror glass open-ended circles, with stainless steel frames, provided delight to adults and children peering at each other from either side, enjoying the view of another person. An old man, not part of Art Basel, dipped into a pail of soapy water creating big, beautiful, elongated bubbles for the children. This play provided the hope that simple things like glass circles and giant bubbles can still delight and alleviate the sadness of our civilization, laudably acknowledged in the Parcours exhibits this year at Art Basel.
(Artscope’s national correspondent Nancy Nesvet will be filing reports from Basel, Switzerland, throughout Art Basel 2019 from Basel, Switzerland, the public days for which take place June 13 through 16. For ticket information, visit artbasel.com/basel. Nesvet’s review of this year’s international art festival will be featured in our July/August 2019 issue.)