Shark Tale


Left: View of Marina Abramović's Luminosity in “14 Rooms.” Right: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach and Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist. (All photos: Allese Thomson)

IT’S BEEN AT LEAST A DECADE since the term “art fair art” gained critical currency. So perhaps it’s forgivable that, as we hit the ground running at the forty-fifth edition of Art Basel, the peculiar “perform the fair” attitude that once characterized the genre’s golden era seemed largely sublimated, buried in the psyche of the mostly passive-aggressive merch artists churn out to keep up with fair life.

There was a hint of return of the repressed, though, in the repurposed iteration of Tino Sehgal’s 2004 work This Is Competition in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach’s idealistic “14 Rooms,” an exhibition featuring art where “the human body is the material.” Obrist and Biesenbach enlisted Herzog & de Meuron to kit out Hall 3 of the Messeplatz, adding a palatial hall lined with mirrored doors, each of which opened onto identical, boxy rooms with portentously low ceilings. Inside, performers padded about their stalls, enacting works by artists ranging from Ed Atkins to Santiago Sierra and Marina Abravomić. Sehgal’s PR punch line might be a decade old, but it still felt fresh, demanding as it did that his various international dealers take turns standing in the room playing an elaborate game of exquisite corpse, discussing and enacting earlier of his “situations” (The Kiss, Ann Lee) even as they hawked them off.

Left: Dealers Daniel Buchholz and Max Falkenstein. Right: Collectors Mera Rubell, Don Rubell, and Jason Rubell.

A few miles east at the Fondation Beyeler, a cosponsor of “14 Rooms,” Obrist had curated a new, achronological exhibition of Gerhard Richter focused on his series and cycles. In the context of Art Basel 45, which boasted $4.4 billion worth of art (“the defense budget of a small country!” someone cried) and which rode the wave of spring auctions that netted $2.2 billion, it’s difficult to consider the artist’s paintings outside of their market. Looking at the tremendous, smeary canvases in the museum’s sun-dappled vestibules, a friend recounted Richter reservations about this very quandary, Googling an excerpt from his journals, which he read aloud in front of the artist’s still-potent October 18, 1977: “Art is wretched, cynical, stupid, helpless, confusing—a mirror image of our own spiritual impoverishment, our state of forsakenness and loss. We have lost the great ideas, the utopias, we have lost all faith, everything that creates meaning.”

“It’s not his fault his work became worth so much goddamn money,” someone said.

“I prefer the ones in color,” a fledgling collector responded.

On the evening of the VIP opening of Art Basel, Alberto Mugrabi, king of the Warhol market, hosted a dinner for a dozen-plus at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. Mugrabi smiled like a Cheshire cat, explaining that the masters are so cheap these days—$450,000 for a de Kooning, just slightly more than he paid for a Lucien Smith this past fall ($389,000, a record for the twenty-four-year-old artist).

Left: Alex Rotter, head of Sotheby's New York Contemporary Art department, and Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art department. Right: Dealer Alexander Hertling.

Nearby, dealer Philippe Ségalot asked if he should get an Instagram account. I recounted the sparring match his prodigy, Christie’s Loic Gouzer (also present), had gotten into with Wade Guyton, after the artist responded to his “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday,” auction last month, which Gouzer billed as a “curated” event that exposed “the gritty and underbelly-esque side of contemporary art.” Reacting to the $3.5 million sale of one his works, Guyton reprinted copies of said work as a sign that he could flood his own market, documenting the entire affair on Instagram. Gouzer quickly countered by printing a batch of ten nearly identical reproductions of the same work, with THANK U printed over the top, also publicizing the event via the social-media app.

“So brilliant,” Ségalot mused.

“Each is $1,000. Loic is donating the money to the whales or something,” I replied.

“Oceana—to save the sharks,” Mugrabi corrected.

“You have one?” Ségalot responded.

“Of course!”

Left: Artist Yngve Holen. Right: Dealer Lisa Overduin.

The sun had set over the Rhine and the dining room was filled with Baselites, each wrapped up in the vagaries of their own private dinners. That evening, at least four people informed me that gallery and museum dinners have become too institutional, “boring!” In fact, the heads of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary art departments skipped other dinners to join Mugrabi’s private one, an act they stood and toasted to over cheers below.

“It’s so hot in here,” someone complained, and a tuxedoed waiter slid open the window and in gushed the night air. The Rhine looked especially dark, surging downstream under a half-moon sky.

Not everyone at Art Basel was supporting the sharks. The next evening, at a dinner for Design Miami/Basel, I sat next to Eva Franch, architect and director of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. For years she refused to attend art fairs: “The first one I went to reminded me of the red-light district in Amsterdam. Everything was exotic, a circus of greed and lust. However, as someone who has committed to being part of culture, I feel responsible to participate.” Nearby was Rodman Primack, director of Design Miami/Basel, and writer Jason Farago, and the conversation soon turned to the legacy of the Frankfurt School and whether it still had any momentum in the age of the art fair. I later shared the conversation with a respected curator who scoffed, pointing out the guileless idealism, which most in the industry have long left behind.

Left: Dealer Derya Demir. Right: Writer Jason Farago and Eva Franch, architect and director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Nearing midnight, Franch and I hailed a cab in an attempt to catch the end of a dinner that adviser and collector Eleanor Cayre was hosting for dealers in the courtyard of Restaurant Löwenzorn. Long tables had been shoved together and overtaken by a raucous set that included dealers and artists and dealer-artists from Daniel Buchholz, Peter Currie, Emily Sundblad, John Kelsey, Oliver Newton, Yngve Holen, Margaret Lee, Simon Denny, Alex Zachary, Timur Si Qin, Gió Marconi, and Ales Ortuzar. “It was supposed to be twenty-five, but it ballooned to forty,” said Cayre. “They take us out all year—I never understood why nobody ever entertains the dealers!”

The next day, I returned to the nineteenth edition of Liste, the perennially “young” art fair, which had opened at the very beginning of the week in the warren of halls and stairwells of the former Warteck Brewery. Wandering the fair, one found amid some tepid abstraction and plain-Jane Conceptualism plenty that merited a second look and further investigation. At Dublin’s Mother’s Tankstation, the apt phrase STILTED SINCERITY was projected onto the floor, near a series of Sam Anderson’s miniature sculptures which had been set alongside delicate works by Uri Aran. Upstairs, Ida Ekblad’s jubilant sculptures and paintings at Karma International evinced a compelling lack of affect, while at 47 Canal, Josh Kline’s plaster heads, hands, and shoes overlaid with FedEx logos seemed a send-up of our thoroughly corporatized, transitory times. And at Istanbul’s Galeri NON, one could find Uriel Orlow’s Unmade Film, a collection of AV works that take as their subject the complex, conflicted history of Jerusalem’s psychiatric hospital Kfar Shau’l. Orlow’s work gestures at filmic narrative but eschews resolution, finding harmony in messy loose ends. “He collapsed two nations, two histories of warring traumas—their pain and struggle is united into whole,” said Demir. And as we looked, I thought about that ineffable movement toward making our relationship to art feel more real. Sometimes, even in the expensive yet cheapening context of the fair, you glimpse these splendid moments of shared respite, when even sharks seem worth saving.

Allese Thomson

Left: Dealer Sam Orlofsky (left). Right: Art advisers Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner.

Left: Dealers Nick Koenigsknecht and Javier Peres. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg.

Left: O32c editor and founder Jörg Koch. Right: Dealer Maxwell Graham.

Left: Dealer Oliver Newton and Design Miami curator and Barney's creative director Dennis Freedman with artist Margaret Lee. Right: Dealer Anna Furney.

Left: Artist Harold Ancart. Right: Adviser Rob Teeters.

Left: Artist David Godbold and dealer Finola Jones. Right: Dealer Tyler Dobson.