Unlimited, a sector of the Art Basel art fair, took up most of my second day there. Earlier in the day, at the Art Basel press conference, Marc Spiegler, the global director, pointed out that this year’s artists were more open-minded with broader practices than 10 to 15 years ago. He noted that “our old notions of borders are broken down.”
Spiegler referred to art’s borders — those of materials and labels. It is difficult, if not impossible, to label installations — sculptures or paintings — with the overarching mixed media category prevalent, and installation being the preferred term to include sculpture and two-dimensional work. It seems that as new borders are erected and maintained between nations, art’s boundaries have widened to include diverse practices, subject matter and artists.
That subject matter includes references to — current and in the recent past — events and concerns, but they are consistently presented in factual, well-researched exhibitions. They are big, demanding the viewer take time to look at the work — reading every panel, seeing every frame. Invariably, the best work at Unlimited did not involve paint, pastel or traditional photography.
The best three works utilized mixed media or presented new ways of using very traditional media.
“Nirvana,” a site-specific installation and performance by Xu Zhen, including sand, wood, acrylic and mixed materials, presented by Perrotin, Paris, France, included several baccarat and roulette tables with a sand mandala forming the graphics of the game pattern, constructed by performers at each table. This adaptation of the ritualistic manipulation of sand by Tibetan Buddhist monks to form patterns that change as time and people intervene to gambling — ever-changing — depending on the behavior of people, but also of chance, juxtaposes the greed of the gambler with the creation and destruction caused by natural forces in the mandala.
Brent Wadden’s “Score 1 (Salt Spring),” a 2018 painting of wool, cotton and acrylic on canvas, from Peres Projects, Berlin, Germany, brings the artist’s painting practice to weavings — using repeated geometric shapes, referencing abstraction while showing how abstract patterns so well adapt to the repetition of weavings. When he ran out of yarn from a Salt Spring Island weaver, he used pre-owned fiber scraps found in thrift shops or on internet, extending the “make do and mend” philosophy of his native Nova Scotia to this large tapestry painting.
Again using wool, Marc Brandenburg’s films use mixed media to create “Camouflage Pullovers” on his subjects in four different skin colors to reflect what he believes are four ethnicities: Caucasian, Asian, Arab and African. These woolen-pullover masks with human facial features show how costumes can instill terror, as they intentionally conceal the person behind them. We can extend this treatment to fashion — how people dress, and how they carry themselves and behave. It is this assumption of who people are determined by what they wear, the fashion they hide behind, or the way they walk or sit, that create barriers between classes, ethnicities and nationalities. These films brilliantly, at first in a comedic, and later in a terrorizing manner, show how the assumption of different appearances separate and threaten. The fact that the sweaters and the stories are woven only adds to the symbolism.
Film projects were uniformly great in Unlimited, with the best by Angolan filmmaker, Kiluanji Kia Henda, exploring Africa’s colonialist history, and Dutch-Indonesian artist Fiona Tan’s depiction of an ambiguous, urban dystopia or utopia. It is this exploration of the roots of ethnic and racial identity and discrimination, and the assumptions made regarding folk traditions and their adaptations to modern times, that is so artfully and honestly explored in a world of people threatened by the labeling that makes the work we saw so important.
(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.)