Rushing directly to the Messe exhibition center from the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport last Monday morning, I snuck in late to art historian Boris Groys’s lecture, part of the ongoing chatter known as “Basel Conversations.” I immediately told Maria Finders, who had organized the series with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, that she must send Groys and his copanelists—artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov—downstairs to take part in the Andy Warhol–style Polaroid photo shoot of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” put together by Art Basel director Samuel Keller and critic-curator Stéphanie Moisdon. “Who are these two old people?” an assistant taking pictures—one of the multitudes of new Art Basel characters who are not so much art lovers as cool-hunters—had asked me on my way in. “The Kabakovs,” I answered. “Really? What’s a kabakov?”
On Monday evening alone, four satellite fairs opened simultaneously—LISTE, VOLTA, Scope, and bâlelatina—followed by a party at the Beyeler Foundation (hosted by NetJets) and chic dinners all around town. I opted for the Swiss Art Awards ceremony, held each year in the convention hall, facing Art Unlimited. This year, the mood was less than cheerful. Most in attendance agreed that the beleaguered Commission Fédérale des Beaux Arts, which also selects the artists representing Switzerland in Venice, had organized a mediocre event for this year’s Biennale. Dealer Eva Presenhuber’s critical comments were reported in the papers, and everyone was well aware that artists Ugo Rondinone and Urs Fischer hadn’t bothered to attend the official opening. The Swiss Awards themselves were largely devoted to unknown young artists, a decision that prompted further criticism.
Chatting amiably with my grumbling countrymen, I forgot to attend the Jens Hoffman–curated Rirkrit Tiravanija performance at the Theater Basel (which was much better received) and wound up with photographer Ezra Petronio (of Self Service magazine and the aforementioned photo shoot), who had reserved a table at the Krafft Hotel’s restaurant, where I spotted T: The New York Times Style Magazine editor Stefano Tonchi and “hot” young artists Latifa Ekrach, Brice Dellsperger, and Valentin Carron.
Petronio and I decided to hit the kunsthalle for a nightcap. The bar there is a Swiss version of Le Palace or Studio 54 ca. 1981: The rich and the poor, the beautiful and the ugly, the fat and the thin, artists and gallery owners—everyone in the game mixes with a healthy dose of art-world interlopers (Yves Saint Laurent creative director Stefano Pilati, starchitect Jean Nouvel). Because the space is tiny, the crowd mingles outside in the square, shouting louder with each gin and tonic. “It’s always like this,” a friend commented. “Everyone’s under so much stress that they try to relax the first evening and wind up with a weeklong hangover. This is hard-core.”
Our friend, artist Sturtevant, still pounding the pavement at 2 AM, was interviewed on the spot by journalists who didn’t know who she was but found her impressive nonetheless. Their complex question: “What, in your view, is the artiest thing in Basel?” Her answer: “The art!” Good night!
On Tuesday, the fair’s aisles were crammed with VIPs, as were the city’s restaurants that evening. I headed to a dinner hosted by collector Katharina Faerber, honoring curator Christophe Cherix, who was celebrating his birthday and his impending departure from Geneva’s art world to join the ranks at MoMA. Other guests included artists Sylvie Fleury and Allen Ruppersberg. On Wednesday morning, it was on to the annual Schaulager brunch. This year, the private foundation presented a Robert Gober retrospective, which I toured with artist David Lamelas, who was extremely pleased to have sold everything his two dealers brought to the fair to respected collections.
That evening, galvanized by record sales of design objects, Vitra was launching limited-edition objects by major names in industrial and furniture design, such as Alberto Meda, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Konstantin Grcic. I arrived at the company’s headquarters, just across the border in Germany, at the same time as Zaha Hadid, who seemed somewhat out of sorts and categorically answered “No!” to every question she was asked. “Mrs. Hadid, have you had a chance to rest?” “Do you want a drink?” “Are you OK?” She stayed all of three minutes.
For my final dinner before dashing off to Kassel, I joined the owners of Casey Kaplan, Meyer Riegger, and kurimanzutto galleries, who received everyone on a pontoon on the Rhine. The assembled revelers raised a glass to congratulate Cay Sophie Rabinowitz on her new job as artistic director of the fair. She in turn generously congratulated her husband, curator Christian Rattemeyer, who had just opened “Lines, Grids, Stains, Words,” his first exhibition at MoMA. After speaking with critic Daniel Baumann, collector Richard Massey, and Frieze’s Matthew Slotover, I decided to call it a night. Having ricocheted across the city for three days, I thought about which event I was most disappointed to have missed. The answer? The Art Lobby panel session consisting of a Ping-Pong match between artists John Armleder and Gianni Motti, with Tony Conrad as referee. There’s always next year.