From bronze in motion to fake iron trees: Public art at Art Basel

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From bronze in motion to fake iron trees: Public art at Art Basel
A handout photo shows Ai Weiwei’s cast-iron sculpture “Iron Tree,” which was erected in 2017 in one of Basel’s oldest squares, Münsterplatz. (Art Basel via The New York Times)

by Farah Nayeri

BASEL.- The intervention lasted nearly a week. In June 2016, couples getting married at the civil registry in Basel, Switzerland, were treated to a rowdy and wholly unexpected all-day spectacle in the gardens of the building: South African artist Tracey Rose dressed up as a bride, singing, crying and reciting poetry in the company of a drag queen.

But Rose didn’t just happen to be there. She had been commissioned to put on a performance for the public-art section of Art Basel, the world’s biggest contemporary art fair, which has been held in the Swiss city since 1970. The fair is programmed in June of every year, except in 2020, when it was canceled because of the pandemic, and in 2021, when it was held in September.

The performance was, logistically speaking, “a challenge,” said Samuel Leuenberger, who had commissioned Rose to participate that year, his first as the curator of the Art Basel public-art section known as Parcours.

“We had to bypass the actual daily weddings that took place,” he recalled, and deal with neighbors who “felt bothered by the singing and the shouting and the crying.” Many Basel residents viewed Rose as a “very powerful presence,” but there were others who didn’t, he added.

Startling the residents of Basel is all in a day’s work for Leuenberger, who, since 2016, has been putting sculptures, installations, performances and films in unexpected (indoor and outdoor) locales in the heart of Basel’s old town for the weeklong fair. Art is displayed in public squares, but it can also be tucked away in a tunnel, in the back garden of a library or in a disused space.

Since taking over, Leuenberger has exhibited a vast number of artists. In 2017, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Iron Tree,” a large cast-iron sculpture of an aging tree, was displayed on Münsterplatz, a wide-open square that’s one of Basel’s oldest sites. In 2018, French artist Pierre Huyghe showed his “Exomind (Deep Water)” — a squatting female figure with a real-life beehive in lieu of a head — in the garden of the Allgemeine Lesegesellschaft Basel, the Basel Reading Society.

This year, two dozen works will be on view. On Marktplatz, the main market square where fruits and vegetables are sold, British minimalist Martin Creed has been invited to intervene. Creed — whose what-you-see-is-what-you-get artworks have included a crumpled piece of paper and a flattened piece of Blu Tack — is building a large flagpole with a flag that spells out the word “air” in big capital letters, Leuenberger said.

In a private park in Basel, Thomas Houseago is showing a bronze figure in motion, “Gold Walking Man,” paying homage to French master sculptor Auguste Rodin (whose works are on display in the nearby Kunstmuseum), the curator said.

“You’re always trying to somehow surprise the connoisseurs, but also the more amateur public, with things they might not necessarily expect to be a public sculpture,” Leuenberger said. He set out to “challenge the norms” surrounding public art, he added, by encouraging people to think beyond monumental stand-alone sculptures.

The point was to show not just the superstars and household names of the art world, but also emerging talents, and to represent artists of all ages and backgrounds, he said. As for the artists themselves, he sought to “push them to show their works in an environment that’s new to them, or challenging, or unusual,” he added.

This year, Leuenberger’s remit has been extended to putting up art in Messeplatz, the busy square located right outside the Art Basel fair venue, which fairgoers pass through on their way in and out of the fair. For this space, he has commissioned Moroccan-born artist Latifa Echakhch (who represented Switzerland in the 2022 Venice Art Biennale) because of her ability to adjust to large-scale spaces, he said.

Echakhch’s site-specific installation in Messeplatz consists of a set of deconstructed stages — the kind that are rented for concerts, complete with towering steel beams — that look “as if they’ve collided into each other, overlapping in the middle, and conveying a sense of disorder and chaos, of wreckage and ruin,” the artist said in a telephone interview.

Echakhch explained that the installation will host live concerts of experimental music in a program drawn up by Luc Meier, who is the director of La Becque, an artist residency in Switzerland, and her partner in life.

She recalled that during the pandemic, “human relations were altered, impeded, and there was a very strong sense of nostalgia for getting together as a community of people.”

Her installation can be read in multiple ways, she said: as a work of art, as a musical stage or as a political gesture. By showing a deconstructed stage in 2023, she is questioning whether the world we live in is “a stable place, a reassuring place,” she said, adding that the work is also giving the public an opportunity “to come together, listen to the same thing and form a kind of union.”

Michele Bogart, professor emeritus of art history at Stony Brook University in New York and an author of books on public art, said art in the open air is a genre unto itself. Unlike art shown in a gallery, there are no spatial limits on it, nor are there controls over the lighting conditions. And because of the “unpredictability” of the public response, it provides for “a more serendipitous and wider range of experiences,” she noted.

Since the 1990s, Bogart said, “a brand of whimsical public art” has emerged — whether sponsored by cities and local governments, or by corporations and art galleries — which aims to be fun, appeal to a broad audience, and promote the city, corporation or artist in question.

She contrasted these artworks with modern sculptures such as Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” (1981), a curved 12-foot-high wall of Cor-Ten steel that cut right across New York’s Federal Plaza and that some people found so obtrusive that it caused a controversy and was taken down in 1989.

Nowadays, outdoor art tends to be “neither confrontational nor necessarily intellectually challenging,” she said, and “certainly not overtly political.”

Still, “it’s good in any situation to have people be exposed to new experiences and to be aware of art,” she said. “It can broaden people’s world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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