At any given time, there are traceable motifs present in the psyche of contemporary art, reaching across concept and industry practice. Over the last two years, the most ineluctable have encompassed the thundering drive for female and African American equality, the ever-present rumblings in remonstration to nationalism and xenophobia, and the devastating impacts of forced human migration. Entwined within these narratives, we’ve witnessed a trend towards curatorial retribution, revisionist examination and retrospective correcting of artists previously bypassed in art history. Of course, across the 290 galleries partaking in Art Basel, the 79 galleries at its younger, more exploratory sibling, VOLTA, and 77 galleries and projects at the melting pot that is LISTE, many of these themes were present. However, during Basel Week, it is primarily the curated exhibitions and programming that drive the principal mood across the global fair and its subsidiaries. This year there was an undeniable propensity towards a common theme of ecology – a motif that has been underpinning the contemporary art consciousness for some time.
The idea of ecology exuded from the moment visitors entered the main welcome foyer of Art Basel and found themselves amid a grove of large potted olive trees. Praised for their reverent lives alongside humanity’s heroes (such as DaVinci), the ancient trees created an indoor canopy with the professed aim of reviving ‘a dialogue about our common future’. Placarded on a wall leading into the auditorium the schedule of ‘Conversations’ was spearheaded by events titled ‘The Carbon Footprint of Contemporary Art’, and ‘Let’s talk about the weather’, with speakers including environmental vocalists such as Lucia Pietroiusti, Curator of Ecology, Serpentine Galleries and the environmental focused, Golden Lion Winning, Lithuanian Pavilion in Venice.
‘Unlimited’ is Basel’s exhibition of supersize artworks. Curated by Gianni Jetzer – Curator at Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – the showcase was abundant with ecologically-focused monuments. Guiseppe Penone’s six-metre tall Cedarwood sculpture, Cedro di Versailles, manifested the subtle dynamic between man and nature. Through Anne and Bernhard Blume’s photographic series, Im Wald (In the Forest), viewers found themselves surrounded by towering gelatin prints in which doll-like humans were ensnared in the ragged shards of splintering trees, revealing violence in the destruction of nature. Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher’s Highway Gothic – an immersive installation of floating textiles, luminescent light boxes and rolling film projection – explored the destructive impact of the US interstate 10 freeway. Meanwhile, Sam Falls’s expansive series of paintings, California Flora, (National Forest Condensation Wall, North to South), was a silent and hopeful testament to the preservation of nature across the world.
‘Unlimited’ is known to largely influence the choice of artists exhibited by galleries; it’s a commercial no-brainer. Congruently, the old adage proclaims: “See in Venice, buy in Basel”. Environment was a hot topic at Venice this year. Whether intentional or not, ecological consciousness seemed to emerge within the booths of mega-galleries and first-timers alike, across all the venues. While the aforementioned and obvious contenders were unavoidable within the gallery section – Guiseppe Penone at Gagosian and Tucci Rosso – Sam Falls at 303 Gallery, Galleria Franco Noero and Galeries Eve Presenhuber – Anne and Bernhard Blume’s at Buchmann Galerie and Peter Freeman – we decided to highlight some of the artist presentations that engaged with the topic of ecology in a way, that seemed to us, fresh and exhilarating. We chose an artist from each fair whose work creates a subtle sentimentality towards our relationship with our world and our environment. We were drawn to work that was not obtusely ‘environmentally activist’, but that sparked the notion of the indispensable consideration of our world. We aimed to distinguish artists whose fair presentations demonstrated skill in communicating necessary messages of ecology, on a subliminal level, through their art.
Written by Pamela Lee
Sections also originally published by Visual Artists’ News Sheet Ireland