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Exhibition brings together an ensemble of newly commissioned and existing pieces by fifteen artists
Installation view Ungestalt, Kunsthalle Basel, 2017. Photo: Philipp Hänger.

BASEL.- Uncanny, gleaming technoid forms; some appear to be functional (note their wheels, handles, and tubes), but are actually without apparent purpose. Nearby, thrift store blankets and textile scraps hang limply, still bearing a price tag. The gooey traces of the artist’s hand sticks to imitation leather in another work whose insistent materiality renders that most auratic of art history’s mediums—painting—less noble, more strange, icky somehow. But perhaps little could be more strange and icky than a doll, swaddled in a silicone rubber cast of a baby blanket so only the uppermost part of its forehead and hair spills out. The eerily casual way it lies on the floor can only be de- scribed as creepy. These are amongst the first things you see as you enter the space.

There is no easy way to account for an exhibition that goes by the title Ungestalt. “Ungestalt” is a somewhat untranslatable German term, signifying neither exactly the English “formlessness” nor the French “informe,” yet sharing something of their essence. Indeed, the rather arcane German term coveys wildly different senses, which seems perfectly fitting for the present circumstance. In one sense the word is a description for something that struggles against delineation, indeed, against the clean, articulated wholeness suggested by “Gestalt.” In another sense it describes what is simply clumsy and ugly, monstrously so, even. Under these rubrics, amorphous, gooey, formally unstable, shape-shifting, and fugitive emanations might be described as “Ungestalt.” Perhaps something that both is a form, and actively undoes that form, comes closest to a term that itself escapes capture. But how might we apprehend this notion not only materially, but also perceptually and concep- tually? And how might thinking about it offer a vehicle for understanding the divergent practices of the artists, living or dead, who made the work half a century ago or as recently as in the months immediately preceding the ex- hibition’s opening?

These are exquisitely strange, recalcitrant works that, each in their own way, refuse to behave like good, stable, well-balanced forms. And that is the case even if some might be attractive and elegant too. Yet often there is something obscene, unsettling, or (quite literally) rotten about them. While the exhibition features drawing, photography, sculpture, textile, and video works characterized by a bodily, amorphous excess, it also poses the question: how can an exhibition itself become subject to a certain degree of unforming? One answer is: through some abdication of control. Accordingly, an artist was invited to exert her influence upon the exhibition; her intervention into some aspects of the show’s preparation, presentation, and communication constituting her artwork. Another artist was invited to present immaterial artworks, one of which quite literally changes the conditions of the exhibition, manipulating humidity levels in the galleries according to unseen forces. Still another artist inserted an ever evolving, slowly rotting element into the very center of the exhibition.

Spread across the ground-floor galleries of Kunsthalle Basel, Ungestalt brings together an ensemble of newly commissioned and existing pieces by fifteen artists and one artistic duo. They represent varied generations and each has responded to his or her moment with works characterized by a tantalizing, yet unnerving, volatility.

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