Elvia Wilk around the 49th Art Basel

Visitors to Art Basel. (All photos: Elvia Wilk)

MY FLIGHT FROM HEATHROW TO BASEL was delayed. The pilot explained that this was due to the large number of visitors to “some art show” clogging the runway at our destination airport. His tone of voice implied an illness, an arterial disease or cancerous growth. I exchanged glances with the other person in my row, whose only baggage was a bubble-wrapped canvas.

The idea of infection—and its counterpart, inoculation—accompanied me for the next four days of my art tour. Does an art fair have a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with a place? What ails the body of the art world, and is a fair a symptom or a remedy?

When the plane finally touched down on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 12, I bit off a quarter of a Xanax and headed straight for the beating heart of art commerce, the Messeplatz. In front of the main fair hall, Lara Almarcegui had dumped an enormous pile of gravel as part of a 2018 Creative Time commission called Basilea (shared by architects Recetas Urbanas, who built a makeshift event structure on the platz, and Isabel Lewis, who led the public events on it). The rock pile was sourced from one of the active extraction pits in Basel’s surrounding areas, quarries that support infrastructure construction but leave communities and ecosystems with gaping holes. It’s a clear comment on what must be exploited from the periphery to support the urban center’s status quo—reframing the center as parasite rather than the other way around.

Curator Henrik Folkers of the Art Institute of Chicago and Justin Polera.

Basel-based artist Hannah Weinberger had made front-page Swiss news that day for her own subterranean move: Her contribution to the citywide Parcours program was a ten-channel sound installation in the city’s sewer system (Down There, 2018). The media attention had little to do with the art. A passing resident had mistaken a recording of a mewing cat for a real animal trapped under the sewer grate and called the fire department. (False alarm—it’s just “some art show.”)

This was only one of Weinberger’s projects tucked out of sight. After a late-night party hosted by young and youngish galleries at Balz, on Wednesday I hauled myself from my hotel room to meet Weinberger, along with the artists Sandra Mujinga and Julieta Aranda, at Hidden Bar, which is nestled behind the iconic clock on the Messehalle’s facade. A rotating cast of friends served snacks and drinks among artworks that also rotated as they were sold. The four of us loosely planned our panel discussion to take place that afternoon (I moderated). We’d been given fifty minutes to tackle “Sexism in the Art World” as part of Basel’s Conversations series. I was grateful Basel had made space to talk openly about sexism on stage, and I like to think we made some headway—but, to quote Taylor Swift, Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes. Later, circling the fair booths, I overheard sale prices of work by women and minorities being touted as evidence that diversity is “trending” this year.

Dealer Meene An with interactive sculpture by Suki Seokyeong Kang.

I was lucky to catch one of Theaster Gates’s performances at the Kunstmuseum Basel that afternoon. Gates and his longtime collaborators, an experimental musical ensemble that goes by the name of the Black Monks of Mississippi, gave the audience an earful of blues-driven sound that also referenced funk, jazz, and gospel, all riddled together into a ritualistic, repetitive, mournful, frustrating, beatific, and momentarily ecstatic song. Over the hour, Gates downed at least one bottle of red wine—another bottle he poured into the head of a hollow black Madonna sculpture made of tar, which slowly melted in the sun of the museum’s atrium, lined with Bruce Nauman’s seven neon sins blinking above the scene. Men in blue suits tapped their Rolexed hands and Niked feet in time to what they seemed to think was the beat. An older white woman sitting near me whispered to her friend, “I’ve heard wine is used in African traditions to cast out spirits.”

The post-performance dinner, hosted by White Cube and Regen Projects, took place at a former indoor riding hall among sumptuous gardens, replete with a real plastic horse. After guests were seated, the extremely charming Gates gave a gracious speech thanking his collaborators. He then implored the financiers in the room to support struggling artists. “For the price of a Francis Bacon,” he said, “you could support a hundred.” He finished by paying tribute to Okwui Enwezor (who recently abdicated his role at Haus der Kunst for health reasons): “What a pleasure it is to have you by my side.”

Simmy Voellmy, head of VIP relations at Laurenz Foundation/Schaulager; and writer Jennifer Piejko.

Over dessert, Enwezor and Hans Ulrich Obrist reminisced about their first meeting in Johannesburg, twenty-two years ago. I sat across from Jacolby Satterwhite, whose standout booth at the fair is one of the best uses of VR that I’ve seen in an art space—a cannibalization of personal and pop references to manufacture an immersive universe all his own. Then the troupes boarded vans for the annual “best or maybe only good art party,” House of Mixed Emotions, which served a brilliant set by musician Bill Kouligas.

An exhibition of Gates’s work extended across both Kunstmuseums, which also held standout painting shows by Maria Lassnig and Sam Gilliam, plus a two-person show by Martha Rosler and Hito Steyerl, called “War Games,” a smart historical bridging of art’s response to mass violence from the Tet Offensive to the drone wars. Thinking back to the panel on sexism, I wondered whether past forms of activism could inoculate against future struggles. Is there anything to be said for art as a salve as opposed to a galvanizing force?

Curator Laura McLean-Ferris of the Swiss Institute; Harriet Blaise Mitchell, associate director at Herald Street; Kyla McDonald, interim director of the Bonner Kunstverein; and artist Tamen Perez.

Audience antagonism seemed totally absent in Bruce Nauman’s huge retrospective at the Schaulager. Almost every person I talked to raved about it—I surprised myself by how much I adored it too. I found a painful vulnerability in many of Nauman’s sculptural works. When presented en masse, alongside dense displays of sketches and plans, these pieces punctured the artist’s lonely cowboy veneer. HELP ME / HURT ME, flashed one neon sign from 1975. PLAY AND DIE / KILL AND LIVE, shouted another from 1984.

The biological substrates of life and death were literally tackled at HeK (Haus der elektronischen Künste), where Lynn Hershman Leeson had recently opened her show “Anti-Bodies” (a slogan that could easily belong on a Nauman neon). There she revealed an antibody she had developed over the past year with Novartis researcher Dr. Thomas Huber: a molecular structure containing amino acids that spell LYNN HERSHMAN. Visitors are supposed to don lab coats to enter the exhibition, where they can interact with a three-dimensional rendering of the antibody and have their own facial data scanned and analyzed. I met Leeson at HeK’s café just in time to see her accept a handoff from Dr. Huber: a tin box containing a tiny vial of her antibody to smuggle back to San Francisco in her purse. Later, I would hear Leeson say at a talk: “An antibody goes into your system searching for toxins and tries to boost your immune system at a certain point. I think artists are like that because they also work in a toxic society where they go to particular places and try to neutralize them.”

Dealer Elyse Derosia.

Luke Willis Thompson’s single-channel 35-mm film installation at the Kunsthalle Basel, Human, 2018, depicts the many angles of a tiny house the British artist Donald Rodney made from his own skin just before dying in 1998 of sickle-cell anemia, an under-researched disease that primarily affects those of African descent. Thompson, whose family members also carry a hereditary disease—Huntington’s—cut the film into forty-two strips of varying length according to a “score” derived from repetitions in his siblings’ genetic code. The deceptive simplicity is poignant; the images, luminous. The mood in the viewing space was palpably somber.

At Liste, I sought out Arcadia Missa’s booth, where Melbourne-based artist Hamishi Farah had curated a selection of paintings including his own work. One of his pieces, Representation of Arlo, 2018, depicts the son of painter Dana Schutz, whose oil portrait of the murdered black teenager Emmett Till spurred the great shitstorm of 2017. Monopol magazine was quick to publish a critique of Farah’s Liste work, calling it a “surprisingly personal attack” that “exposes and uses” Schutz’s child toward his own ends. The magazine went so far as to superimpose a black bar censoring the eyes of the child in the reproduction of the painting posted online. Here, at least, the writer’s perspective was easy to diagnose: deeply hypocritical. I was glad I saw Farah’s tender and arresting painting in the flesh.

Sabine Himmelsbach, Director of Haus der elektronischen Künste.

On my final day in Basel, searching for Parcours pieces scattered across the city—my feet blistered and Band-Aided—I came across an archaeological dig beside the Elisabethenkirche. A medieval cemetery had recently been discovered, according to a nearby sign, and a team of archaeologists was working on exhuming the bones that had been buried just below the asphalt for over a century. The jumble of skeletons they found suggests a mass death due to an epidemic or some other cataclysmic event.

Watching the archaeologists add dirt to the mounting pile alongside the excavation site, I remembered Almarcegui’s gravel dump. I pictured the medical antibodies that some bodies are more likely to have access to. I considered what it means to be anti, as in against an institutional or social body. I wondered if the archaeologists would discover what exactly killed all those people. I wondered how much digging and tunneling it’s going to take to really bring up the bones.

Musician/artist Kiara Lanier and Alex O’Neill, head of communications at White Cube.

Aita Sulser, associate at Urs Meile Galerie; and Jennifer Greenland, curatorial assistant at the Burger Collection.

Dealer Rozsa Farkas and Pilar Zevallos, managing director of the Kiki Kogelnik Foundation.

Dealer Oliver Falk and artist/dealer Ben Morgan Cleveland.

Dealers Barbara Solic and Fiona Bate.

Dealers Marie Catalano and Jasmin Tsou.

Artist Theaster Gates (left) and the Black Monks of Mississippi.

Jay Jopling and Frances Morris.

Theaster Gates.

Dealers Nadine Zeidler and Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany.

Simon Denny.

Dealers Madeleine McKinnon and Robbie Fitzpatrick.

Artist Daniele Milvio.

Artist duo Lou Cantor (Kolja Glaeser and Jozefina Handke) and PS120 director, Justin Polera.

Designer Cosima Gadient and musician Bill Kouligas.

Dr. Thomas Huber and artist Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Artist Jacolby Satterwhite and writer Andrew Durbin.

Curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Okwui Enwezor.

Laura Stocker, Fatuma Osman, artist Hannah Weinberger, and Judith Kakon.