Supersize Spree

Nicolas Trembley on Art Unlimited


Left: The entrance to Art Unlimited. Right: Performers with Doug Aitken's hardwood table.

At the Monday opening of the sixth annual Art Unlimited exhibition, Art Basel director Samuel Keller was quick to remind everyone, “The artworks here are for sale”—an announcement that functioned like the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, signaling the beginning of the week’s trading. Keller was making an important point, because while this section of Art Basel, held in a large hall next to the fair’s main space and devoted to large-scale works that do not fit in regular booths, looks like (and is) a curated exhibition—organized by Switzerland-based artist and independent curator Simon Lamunière—it’s still part of the fair. That means that galleries pay to play, but have no say in how their works will be installed. This year, one gallery’s representatives had decided at the last minute to remove their artist’s paintings because of a less-than-ideal placement, then changed their minds when threatened with a substantial penalty fee. Despite such unpleasantness, the galleries continue to pony up because Art Unlimited is superlative in all respects. Everything—not only the art, but the exhibition space itself (almost 130,000 square feet), and even the size of the doormen’s muscles—is just, well, bigger. And let’s not forget the ever-inflating prices of the artworks themselves.

With Swiss precision, everything was ready at 4pm sharp, and the show was inaugurated with a raucous combination of performances, music, and Moët and Chandon-a-go-go. When I called Lamunière on his cell phone to ask him to get me in—I had forgotten my pass—he was understandably a bit stressed, but also happy that so many artists had shown up to install their pieces themselves: “It means they understand that it’s not just a commercial thing—that it can be as important to show here as in Venice.” In total, seventy-two participating artists from twenty-seven countries were on hand. Marina Abramovic was lying naked on a shelf protruding from a wall, performing her Self-Portrait with Skeleton (price upon request at the gallery). “Look,” cried one woman, a Miami collector dressed in head-to-toe canary yellow. “She’s bleeding!” “No,” somebody corrected her, “she’s crying.” “Yes, but she’s crying blood. I wouldn’t like that in my dining room.”

Left: A muscled doorman outside the exhibition hall. Middle: A collector's dog with an official fair badge. Right: Gianni Motti's Broker.

Gianni Motti (who represents Switzerland in Venice) created Broker, a “living sculpture,” by putting a boy in a cage. The guy was in fact the Swiss national badminton champion. The locals were wondering, “Does he need money?” My concern was more practical: How could he get to the bathroom? Motti was the subject of much buzz, but not for this piece. Over at the main fair—not yet open but already visited by important, eager collectors—his bar of soap supposedly made with fat left over from Italian prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi’s liposuction was the subject of intense speculation. Twenty thousand Swiss francs at Zurich Nicolas von Senger gallery. “Does it smell good?” someone asked.

Doug Aitken was represented by two pieces and three dealers (Eva Presenhuber, 303, and Victoria Miro). For one work, he organized a sort of new-age concert with five people dressed in white drumming a hardwood table that he defined as “both a mesmerizing musical instrument and a place for conversation.” (It’s available in an edition of six, performers not included.) Florence Bonnefous, director of Air de Paris gallery, was a bit disappointed because she and Casey Kaplan were presenting a sound piece—Oh Egypt by Trisha Donnelly— but during the opening, a DJ was playing so loud that everything else was drowned out. “Might as well stop the piece and get a drink,” she declared.

It was all a bit much, of course, but the notable thing about Art Unlimited is that it offers the chance to experience installations that even institutions have difficulty showing. It was a pleasure to see Richard Artschwager’s Janus III (yours for a mere $150,000), to walk through Swedish artist Henrik Hakansson’s upside-down garden, with real plants and fog, or to jump on the wooden steps floating above a pool of water in an artwork by Matti Braun. From ‘60s pioneers like Walter de Maria, Joseph Kosuth, or Thomas Bayrle to young stars like John Bock, Martin Creed, and Jonas Dalhberg, the sixth edition of Art Unlimited was consistently strong. The juxtapositions were sometimes strange—for example a huge, color-saturated wall painting by Jean-Luc Moerman applied directly to the outside walls of Alan Charlton’s otherwise entirely gray 750-square-foot maze. But why not?

Left: Marina Abramovic's Self-Portrait with Skeleton. Middle: John Baldessari. Right: Ivan Wirth.

What was even stranger, I noticed, was the curious way people had begun referring to the works by dealers’ names, instead of artists’. “The Mennour piece is sold!” exclaimed a French critic. “You mean the Attia piece,” I answered, pointing out that the artist was Kader Attia and the piece was presented by Kamel Mennour Gallery. Oddest of all was the sensation of wandering through an exhibition and seeing a gallerist in front of every work, cooing, “It’s a great piece!” on repeat. But I got used to it.

When the party finished at 7pm, the armies of collectors who couldn’t wait for the opening of the fair proper at 11am the next day ran to vernissages for two younger, “edgier” ancillary fairs: First LISTE, and then, just a short ferry ride away (Venice dèjá vu) the Volta Show. The latter is in its first year of operation—it seems that alternative fairs are spawning their own alternatives. In any case, between the three, there should be something to suit every taste and, of course, budget.