Over forty years ago, in the sleepy town of Basel an art institution was born. Art Basel now runs in Basel Switzerland, Miami and Hong Kong. Forming at its fringes are ‘young’ fairs like Scope, VOLTA and LISTE. Switzerland in many respects remains a central hub of economy and culture despite separating itself in many respects from the slowly homogenizing outside world. An example of how the smallest art market can make the biggest waves, Art Basel and its surrounding fairs continue to attract artists and galleries from all corners of the globe. Though Basel itself may be dominated by big names, VOLTA, LISTE and Scope tie in an array of up-and-comers from lesser-known hubs. Comparing Art Basel, VOLTA and LISTE, the fair with the highest number of CEE artists, with consistent quality and market potential was unquestionably LISTE. This is despite two note worthy presentations by Erika Deák (Budapest) and Dymchuk Gallery (Kyiv) at VOLTA.
This year Basel included 14 Rooms the 4th edition of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach’s Art Basel the exhibition partners with the Foundation Beyeler and Theater Basel, with Herzog & de Meuron having designed the overall layout. Put plainly, the space built within a warehouse, was a tall, long white hall, enclosed by two mirrored walls at either-end, and 14 discrete doors. Behind the doors was a series of “activated rooms exploring the relationship between space, time and physicality with an artwork whose ‘material’ was the human being”. Each piece (performance) offered visitors insight into interactive art practices, some of which had clear geographical focus. Poignantly, Santiago Sierra’s Veterans of the Wars of Eritrea, Kosovo and Togo Facing the Corner, that featured an actor facing the wall in traditional dress, anonymously and silently filling space. Among the 14 Rooms many of the works were re-creations of previously exhibited pieces, some iconic. Asad Raza, a curator, and colleague of Obrist, sitting in a café just outside the exhibition, reiterated the point that 14 Rooms overtly reinforces; performance art like any other manifestation of art, may be exhibited a hundred times and its value, just like that of a painting, does not diminish after its first performance. This may be considered a contemporary evaluation, contrary to many early definitions of performance art.
At the centre of performance art history is Yugoslavian-born Marina Abramović. Perhaps one of the most infamous works included in 14 Rooms was Abramović’s Luminosity. Basel running just over 6 days including previews, meant that Luminosity included several players (not Abramović herself). Each performer retained Abramović’s test of endurance, physically and mentally. Entering the room in the final moments of one shift, the artists purple legs distracted from any shock or excitement that even an unfamiliar eye may have attained from the nude body above. Having only seen video of Abramović’s performance of this work in 1997, I cannot truly attest to the quality of its deliverance in 2014. By confining us to the relatively small room, in which the ceiling disappeared into a black abyss over head, I wondered if our proximity to the person would cause our relationship with the work to become more interpersonal. The act of regulating our numbers immediately suggested we were having an intimate interaction. This, I worried would contrast with the hall of limitless worship, where before the image of human suffering we may have the collective yet alienating experience of transcendence, that Abramović had intended. I searched the anonymous persons face for emotion, to distract me from the raw, sacrificial purple of her knees, but I found nothing. I felt no personal connection, only a physical reaction. The performance successfully distanced me from the enlightened human whose militaristic focus allowed her to achieve a feat of physical stress that I could not image. As other visitors left the room I asked them to describe what they had seen. Every person described her body and the movement of her arms and colour of her legs. Not one person qualified her as a “pretty” or “intelligent” looking woman. She had successfully transformed into an object of observation, autonomous from her human audience.
Abramović, it has been written, now refers to herself as the “grandmother of performance art”. True or not, she has inspired a generation of endurance works. Her tests of strength often led her to practices that involved repetitive, self-molestation, and thus characterized her as being a more ‘male’ than ‘female’ artist. Though not overtly in the world of performance, artist Anna Ostoya born in Krakow Poland in 1978, currently living and working in New York, also focuses her practice on engaging audiences in conversation with their own judgments. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Anna at her show with Silberkuppe gallery (Berlin) at LISTE. The show included Untitled (scroll) 2011, a photo collage “revisiting the histories of lesser-known avant-garde movements in East-Central Europe in parallel with their well-known Western counterparts”. On the opposite wall, smaller works on canvas formed a series of ideas for future projects. A kind of “what if” wall that engaged the viewer in the process of creation. Pieces varied from Pussy-Painting using the artist’s blood, to other more abstract, geometrical formations in multimedia. Anna was clear that her work, titles and mediums were all part of an interaction she intended to create between her and the viewer in which she hoped they would question their assumptions, reactions and readings. She steers clear of overt associations with particular mediums, styles or labels like feminine or masculine. Her work intends to adapt to its subject matter, rather than create a singular artistic identity.
The worlds of performance, object and experience are converging, though, perhaps more visibly within installation practices like those found in 14 Rooms. Ostoya’s work finds itself among a movement of artists perverting the hierarchal manner in which artists have customarily delivered their reactions to human or artistic circumstances. The experience art movement favours listening and interacting with audiences, opening up discourse on creation and exhibition. This is not only the culmination of a long art history, but sits at the centre of a long process toward formal institutional change.
Sabot gallery from Cluj-Napoca, chose to stage their booth like a living room. The setting accentuated the desired result of a fair, when art inhabits our home. It also offered the artists’ complete control of the space to capitalize on conceptual arts analysis of everyday objects, right down to the plant in the corner by Vlad Nancă. Architecture for the Page Turn was one of two pieces by Alex Mirutziu (The Artist and himself at 29 “TAH29”) whose CV includes exhibiting at Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (Warszawa), IASPIS (Stockholm), The Power Plant (Toronto), and Műcsarnok Kunsthalle (Budapest). He also entered the scene through performance with a flair for “ontological spectacle” creating “hyper-objects” through his self-reflective alter ego TAH29, by combining images found in the online spaces of Google and YouTube. One to watch, his work comments on the high-functioning, (post)language world we live in and responds with equally layered and sensory experiences.
Galeria Dawid Radziszewski (Warszawa) brought together a dynamic group of works by Łukasz Jastrubczak. An artist who sports a sense of humor, matched seamlessly with a consistent minimalist aesthetic. The works exhibited, explored themes of displacement, disruption and the dematerialization of art and money in the 1960’s. Among them were: Sleeping Cowboy (2011), that’s creation involved sending his clay sculpture of the iconic figure in a crate to the states and back, then casting in cement its disfiguration post journey; a beautiful 10 x 11 photograph entitled Ghost (2011), documenting the artists walk over Spiral Jetty dressed as the ghost of conceptualism. Radziszewski did not hesitate to confirm that conceptualism is in fact dead! Many of the works presented documented a performance that pre-dated the exhibition and therefore denied the audience access to the creative process. However, in the context of a fair, full of so much engagement and analysis, it is equally evocative to fall upon work so concrete.
Finally, represented by Dymchuk Gallery at VOLTA was the incredible series Donbas-Chocolate (1997) by Arsen Savadov, from Kyiv Ukraine. This work, if it can be compared to anything, easily holds a candle to the staging of Jeff Wall, the intensity of Yousuf Karsh, Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus’s ‘unusual people’. The series depicts miners from the eastern industrial region of Ukraine, clearly engaged in theatrics choreographed by the photographer. However, the realism behind their surroundings and personal innocence, often lacking in the figures of staged photography, add an incredible sense of realism. These images are perhaps contemporary photography’s equivalent to reality tv, in which real people are engaged in acts they would not normally preform yet are drawn to capture on camera. In 2013 Savadov was included in the exhibition entitled “Contemporary Ukrainian Artists’ as Saatchi Gallery in London and the Sotheby’s survey of contemporary Russian art.