WHAT TONE SHALL I ADOPT to describe the familiar fun-cum-freakiness of Art Basel week? Exhaustion, elation, tipsiness, world-weariness, boredom, excitement? Whatever. Let’s begin, as they say, at the beginning. I arrived in Basel with a vicious cold gleaned from either Rome, where I had spent three days at the Swiss Institute’s gorgeous villa as part of Paweł Althamer’s Draftsman’s Congress, or Kassel, where, well, you know. So Art Basel’s opening days comprised events that I only heard tale of from the spy I sent in my stead.
Among these was a Sunday night kickoff dinner that artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy and curators Scott Cameron Weaver and Nikola Dietrich hosted at Elaine, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst’s project space, for a younger, less religious crowd than attends the Maja Hoffmann dinner, which was held in Zurich the same night. Apparently, Lutz-Kinoy’s gorgeous handmade ceramics spilled across a tablecloth emblazoned with feminist declarations while performances (Trisha Brown, John Cage, less canonical works) spilled around attendees Danh Vo, Hannah Weinberger, Ingar Dragset, Daniel Buchholz, and Fabrice Stroun, fresh off the triumph of his Josephine Pryde show at the Kunsthalle Bern. The nose-to-tail lamb dinner must have been spiked with love, as the evening ended with particularly ardent dancing.
I finally made it out of the home infirmary Tuesday for New Jerseyy’s Perros Negros opening, ostensibly the project of the lovely Adriana Lara (who will be back this fall with a solo at the Kunsthalle Basel) but also including contributions by Josef Strau, Mathew Cerletty, Xavier de Maria y Campos, and others. Text mapped the walls while a face-masked dummy slummed it in the corner, freaking everyone out. “Is that a real person?” writer Christy Lange asked me, shivering. Curator Daniel Baumann, in teal, shook his head and sniffed the cup of wine he had just poured before handing it to me. It was that good.
Part of Lara’s concept for the evening was déjà vu—an appropriate conceit when it comes to Art Basel’s astonishingly reliable similitude. Thus she asked guitarists Oliver Falk and Paolo Thorsen-Nagel to re-create their insane street performance of Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio (with ten guitarists, a pyramid of amps, and a bag of complaining neighbors) from the opening the year prior. But Jerseyy sleuths Emanuel Rossetti, Tobias Madison, and Dan Solbach took it even further, re-creating the love parade of the 2011 opening—until 6 AM.
Wednesday night brought nourishment. After the fantastically packed exhibition of Paul Sietsema’s new films and works at the Kunsthalle Basel—his 2012 film Telegraph spells out “Letter To a Young Painter” in colored driftwood, here a semaphore-like missive to the fair’s ambitious youth—we settled into the Restaurant Kunsthalle’s chandelier-strewn private room for dinner. Kunsthalle Basel director Adam Szymczyk and artist Alexandra Bachzetsis bookended the clearly elated Sietsema, who sweetly confided how happy he was with “just everything,” while Matthew Marks and Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein and her husband, artist Christopher Williams, took their spots opposite.
As the white-coated waiters began bringing the bottles, the guests started bringing the mayhem: A certain unnamed curator began to doodle on the restaurant’s walls as Tulips & Roses’ Brussels-by-way-of-Vilnius duo Jonas Zakaitis and Aurime Aleksandraviciute giggled and artist Mandla Reuter built a precarious tower of half-full (half-empty?) wineglasses. Cigarette breaks found me, Szymczyk, Marks, and Jack Bankowsky talking poetry (what?). And though the Campari Bar raged just next door, we were soon off with Sietsema to the Lady Bar. There I met up with Karma International’s Karolina Dankow, who looked a bit dazed. “I went home,” she said, “but then you were all here and I got lonely.” When I left at 4 AM she was in the middle of the smoky basement’s thrashing crowd, dancing away any semblance of solitude.
Thursday began in church, as it should. Kunsthalle Basel associate curator Fabian Schoeneich and Brussels artists Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys organized an organ concert of Erik Thys’s eerie film scores—think equal parts Suspiria and Carrie—at Sankt Antonius Kirche, the famously Brutalist Basel cathedral. As we sat down in a pew, Lara and artist Shana Lutker slipped in beside us and the organ started pumping. With stained-glass shadows slipping across the church’s concrete curves, it felt quasi-religious.
Then we were off to SALTS, the Basel off-space run by Samuel and Anna Leuenberger in a former butchery on the bucolic banks of the petite Birs river. On my way in I ran into ever-noir curator Beatrix Ruf making her exit. “What’s happening tonight?” she asked me, roguishly. “What should we do?” I gestured helplessly, picking events out of the air, distracted by the smells of the homemade sausages that Swiss artist Raphael Hefti had made earlier that week, and which hundreds of artists and dealers were now devouring in the courtyard below.
After hellos and goodbyes, we were off to the countryside for Martin Hatebur and Peter Handschin’s (the current and previous presidents of the Basel Kunstverein, respectively) annual soiree at Handschin’s art-filled abode at the Black Forest’s edge. Dusk was falling over the tents when we arrived. I briefly sat down with artist Shahryar Nashat at one of the long tables outside, but was quickly up for the dancing filling the interior. Dankow, Bachzetsis, and I started twirling with the beautifully clad Goshka Macuga and her tall, kilt-wearing companion. Home came sometime after that. Our ride had long since left, so a cab was called. A taxi from Seltisberg to Klein Basel? 111 Swiss francs. A dance party? Priceless.
Friday found me at Liste, where the fair’s performance project’s curator Burkhard Meltzer and I caught up as he showed me around the low-key performances taking place that afternoon by Rebecca Stephany and Matteo Rubbi. Dinner that night was in the garden of the newly remodeled Union to celebrate Hilary Lloyd’s expert survey at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Her dealer Sadie Coles greeted guests before we sat down for a family-style meal. As we spilled onto the pavement out front, groups from other dinners began to show up. I chatted with quietly legendary designer Yvonne Quirmbach, who still looks no different from the famous photograph that Rosemarie Trockel took of her in the 1990s, and then it was off to Lady Bar again (I think).
On Sunday, the last (!) day of the fair, I headed to the afternoon Art Salon conversation with Tim Rollins and K.O.S., who employed jazzy metaphors to pronounce on the role of beauty and political commitment in contemporary art. It was the perfect end to Art Basel’s focus on excess and access. But there would be a coda: That evening, a group of us, including Danh Vo and Julie Ault, made our way to the annual Kunsthalle Basel finale dinner. We picked a long table outside under the canopy of trees and lights, and Sam Keller came over, avec shades. “Have you been on vacation all week?” he asked me, twinkling. “I haven’t seen you.” Had I been?
Keller wandered off and our table mused over the fair. Vo mentioned that he had bought a small Paul Klee drawing of a fishtail and my and Rollins’s eyes bugged out. “No, Paul Thek, not Klee,” Vo corrected us. “I knew you were doing well, but I was like, Da-a-a-mn,” Rollins drawled. That got us going on Susan Sontag’s journals, full of her friendship with Thek. Ault and I discussed the merits of the desert versus the city, and her house in Joshua Tree. I was convinced to have one last drink at the Agora Bar (near my house, in the desert of Kleinhüningen!), and as our cab pulled up, there were Szymczyk and artist Daniel Knorr, resplendent in pale suits, smoking outside. The men in white. “Friends Bar!” they recited, in accented unison. One more beer and it would be time, finally, to go home.