Art Basel │ Unlimited 2019 – A paradoxical review

Katinka Wendt | 12. Juni 2019

Art Basel │ Unlimited 2019 – A paradoxical review

This year’s Art Basel │ Unlimited, curated for the last time by Gianni Jetzer, convinces with 75 large-sized artworks. The Unlimited sector frankly could also be called Parcours, as one of Art Basel’s other sectors, since it feels like following a maze-shaped predefined structure. It is chaotic but at the same time composed. It is paradox on many levels – and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Being paradox allows it to be controversial and polemical, which is why people will want to talk about it. And art should be talked about – it should ask questions, open up discussions and offer answers.

“the sun” is the title of the work by Ugo Rondinone, which is the opening piece of the Unlimited sector. A giant golden circle made of what looks like barbed wire. It is classical but kitsch. It is violent but of a symmetrical beauty. It is monumental but fragile. It is paradox. The first artwork that the visitor sees sets the tone for the exhibition. Other works that are paradox within themselves are Sarah Lucas’s “Champagne Madonna”, which is weirdly phallic for being a sculpture of a woman, and “Rose of Nothingness” by Belu-Simion Fainaru, which is calming but at the same time disturbing.

Two opposing and recurring themes in Unlimited are on the one hand a connection to nature and mother earth and on the other hand a futuristic vision of the world. “Cedro di Versailles” by Giuseppe Penone is essentially a small tree carved into a big tree. Working on a meta level – a tree within a tree – the big tree could also be called “mother tree” as an allusion to mother earth. Speaking a similar language, Sam Falls’s work “California Flora (National Forest Condensation Wall, North to South)” put me in an instant state of relaxation. The nine big canvases are painted with earth tones. Being surrounded by them allows an immersive and calming experience, which conveys a connection to nature. In contrast, Lawrence Lek’s “Nøtel” promotes the scary anonymity of our future lives. It is a multi-media installation conceived as a marketing suite for a luxury hotel of the future, which is fully automated and, thanks to AI technology, caters to every whim. This futuristic vision of the world might sound tempting to some people, I think it is frightening but, nonetheless, important to be confronted with. Unlimited also offers less daunting futuristic approaches. “BREATHING ROOM II” by Antony Gormley is one of them. A hologram-like drawing appears in ten minutes of darkness, followed by 40 seconds of intense light to reveal a space frame. Several interconnected rooms rise from a drawing on the floor, which suggest spaces within spaces. The piece is hard to explain, it has to be experienced since it highly depends on its site and, even more so, its beholder.

Four more works, related to the issue of contradictions, shall be mentioned. Firstly, the most annoying artwork of Unlimited: “Breathing” by Monica Bonvicini. This giant, moving object in the shape of a witch’s broom makes the most obnoxious sound, which is audible in the entire Unlimited hall. There is (almost) no escaping. Which leads us to, secondly, Ari Macopoulos’s “The Park” – the escape. This uninterrupted 58-minute video of the action of an unfenced basketball court is voyeuristic but, at the same time, tremendously meditative. In my opinion a lot more meditative than, thirdly, “Nirvana” by Xu Zhen. The piece consists of several baccarat and roulette tables, whose game patterns will be constructed in the manner of a sand mandala during the fair. It symbolizes tradition, ritualism, productivity, creation, destruction, greed, etc. How much meaning can you possibly try to squeeze into one work of art? I’m not a huge fan of performance art to begin with but this is just one of those artworks, which wants to mean it all and ends up meaning nothing – at least to me. But, to finish on a positive note, on to my favorite piece of Unlimited: “A complete set of ‘Untitled’ individual puzzles” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The photographic puzzles exemplify the artist’s interest in the fragment and the whole. They depict presence and absence. A longing. A void that is almost tangible but too vulnerable to fully grasp. Each individual puzzle reveals that everything can easily break into pieces and, thereby, alludes to the preciousness of time, the beauty of life. A moving work of art given to us by an artist who died too early. Definitely a must-see during this year’s Art Basel │ Unlimited.


PS: Jannis Kounnellis will never be Beuys – no matter how hard he tries to be.