The thing about Basel is…

* You cannot shower after 10pm. You also cannot shower on a Sunday. Because this may disturb your neighbours. I cannot help but think their idea of transgression and rebellion is to hop into the bath for a minute or two during these forbidden hours. It worries me.
* It’s an industrial town ~ a little grime-sheathed and metallic. You can smell it in the air and feel it in the rain.
* It has three different main train stations ~ Swiss, French, and German.

* From some high-rise buildings, you can see three different countries. No points for guessing which they are.
* It produces a lovely, citrusy local beer called Ueli made by Brewery Fischerstube.
* It’s the birthplace of LSD. This begs the question ~ “And then what happened?!”
* It doesn’t seem to have many nice areas and grows cloistered and sullen around the Rhine River. (Although to be fair, I did spend most of my time there in two big halls filled with art.)
* It hosts Art Basel ~ one of the largest contemporary art fairs in the world.
Art Basel 42 itself could be safely ignored. This was the gallery display in Hall 1, essentially a super-sized shop selling bland “oh that will go well with my sofa” art. Mostly uninspired collectible sculpture, photographs, paintings, and bizarre light installations. Big names, little imagination.Art Unlimited in Hall 2, however, was well worth a visit.
There was a screening of “How Can I Help You?” by Erik Van Lieshout, a man who The Guardian calls “the Ali G of the art world”. This mock-documentary-style film revolved around Zuidplein, a 30-year-old shopping mall in Rotterdam whose glory days are long over. Erik opens a “shop” in the building, and entertains us through a variety of antics ~ especially where he’s thwarting rules, being cheeky to cops and generally creating a little mayhem. Underlying all the fun, however, is a poignant exploration of capitalist machinations and consumerism as well as a study of a society struggling to catch up and keep up, no matter what they lose – humanity, compassion, kindness – along the way. “Real Luxury is Buying Nothing” says a banner in Erik’s shop. (Especially helpful when everyone around me were carrying very pretty ipads.)

Also interesting was a collaborative project between artist Callum Innes and writer ColmTóibín titled “water/colour” ~ Innes painted 101 watercolours in response to Tóibín’s text of the same name. The paintings aren’t spectacular but they do go well with the prose excerpts on the wall, including one in particular that was my favourite (it reminded me of Philip Pullman somehow) ~ “filled with strange light, filled with absences, a place where it was easy to imagine that the dead might gather when they were learning what it was like not to be anything anymore, as they were coming into the realm of silence.”

Artist collective Masbedo screened “Kreppa Babies”, a short yet stunning documentary on Iceland that combined social, economic, folkloric and anthropological elements and exploredthe ancestral customs of a community imbued with a strong sense of identity and belonging.The video is fragmented over five screens, alternating between shots of interviewees, spectacular landscape and urban streets. In one scene, an old man walks through a misty, barren field, saying: “To dream, to save oneself, the dream, the invention, the poetry. This country seems deserted, but is full of secrets and full of provocation for the imagination. As my friend the writer Einar Mar says, the fogs creates wings on the soul, on the brain, on the mind. I think it is easy to exaggerate nature in your mind when you are out in Icelandic nature because it’s so vast. You can see as far as the eye goes. In other countries you have many forests, and this blocks your mind. The trees become barriers to the mind.” In another, a lady refers to their ancient pagan beliefs ~ “We are half human and half waterfall. We all forget that.”

You could walk right past Anish Kapoor’s “Push-Pull” installation, which looked like a giant chunk of Edam cheese had dropped through the roof. Unless, of course, that was the point.I also liked Katarzyna Kozyra’s “Rites of Spring” video installation, especially because I’ve never really understood (or enjoyed) contemporary dance as an art form. In this work, inspired by Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, she animates a section called “Dance of the Chosen Victim” ~ the dancers are nude elderly people, with ambigious sexual parts, through whom Kozyra questions the idea of youth and physical limitations that contemporary dance usually lays a stress on. The video ends with a “death” scene where all the dancers fall from exhaustion. It was very moving (except for the fact that some of the audience burst into sniggers, which just goes to prove how secular and transcontinental stupidity really is).

Not particularly stunning, but singularly clever was a photo-exhibition of people asleep on public transport. These large-scale images showed them with mouths agape and heads awkward ~ they might have been humourous (everyone in the room had a smile on their faces), but the artist also raised the issue of how manipulated and controlled our “public faces” often are. These pictures capture us (not just the people in them, I think) at our most vulnerable, unpreened, unprepared.Alright, back to Basel.

* To be honest, I’m not really inspired to write about it.
* It disturbs me, that thing about the showers…* I found the city vacant. And not in an un-peopled, un-crowded way.
In “How Can I Help You?”, an employee at one of Zuidplein’s stores tells Erik that people buy to fill up their emptiness. Some say that’s the void art tries to fill too. Perhaps it explains why Art Basel takes place year after year, relentlessly tugging at the wheels of the industry. Yet sometimes, as we know, all you end up with is more emptiness.

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