• Sofia D'Amico

Highlights of the Art Basel 2020 Online Viewing Rooms

Arguably the crown jewel of the annual art fair circuit, Art Basel celebrated its 50th anniversary in new socially-distanced circumstances this year. Beginning on June 17th with VIP preview and opening to the digital public on June 19th, Art Basel 2020 was the second edition of its Online Viewing Rooms format, accessible via the Art Basel website and app.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first online iteration started in March with Art Basel Hong Kong. Faced with cancellation of the fair, Art Basel Hong Kong mounted an impressive virtual platform to showcase artworks of all galleries accepted to the show, at no additional cost to them. Its Swiss iteration this week carried on similarly, hosting over 4,000 works from 282 galleries, from 35 countries and territories around the world, connecting them with the Art Basel global network. Each gallery opened their room with a title and a foreword to their 15-work shows, followed by artwork images. Galleries embedded buttons for issuing “Sales Inquiries” and additional artwork details, where descriptions and videos of the works could be accessed. Basel also featured a virtual events program, which included performances, gallery tours, artist studio visits, and artist conversations.


Adopting the new online format proved a unique challenge for many galleries this Basel. For years, the art market stood behind many other sectors of the global economy in terms of digital transformation.. Several barriers implicit in the art-buying experience present obstacles to digitizing: that is, the exorbitant prices at stake; the all-important element of discussion with gallerists; and the necessity of experience, where the “Photos Just Don’t Do It Justice” effect is especially pronounced. After much resistance, the art market is being pushed to give digital a chance: in 2019, online sales made up a mere 9 percent — about $5.9 billion — of the $64 billion in total art market sales for major auction houses like Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. While Frieze New York and Art Basel Hong Kong this year saw many six and seven-figure sales, fine-art auction sales had plummeted 75.8 percent in March 2020 compared to the same month in 2019, according to the Artnet Price Database.


Despite this, millennial art collectors are spending much more on online sales than their predecessors. With a different set of spending habits, younger people are more comfortable purchasing consumer goods online and are paving the way for a wave of “digital collectors.” And the new online format, remarkably absent of entry fees, opened Basel doors to a potentially wider audience than previous years. Here, we’ve selected highlights of the most cohesive, visually-arresting Viewing Rooms and a diverse selection of works that impressed even from behind the digital screen.



Galerie Chantal Crousel

Gabriel Orozco’s Mis manos son mi corazon, (1991) is the clay production of a poetic gesture, in which the matrix of Orozco’s two hands pressed into raw terracotta produced an imprint emblematic/resembling of the heart.


Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery


Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2020 (the continuum of insidiousness) tapestry and Glenn Ligon’s neon hand-up piece Notes for a Poem on The Third World (chapter two), 2018, spoke clearly to the current socio-political moment, through images that felt familiar yet addressed a new era.

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn.


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Thomas Hirschhorn’s text conversation in Gravity and Grace (Chat-poster) (2020) depicts a spirited, imagined conversation with French writer, philosopher, and activist Simone Well.


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Danh Vo’s outlandishly satirical gilded beer-box piece Untitled (2014) humorously mocks the affluence of religious and economic systems of imperialism.


Danh Vo, Untitled, 2014, Gold on cardboard (620 g), cochineal-dyed woollen rug, 100 x 169 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn.


Mother’s tankstation

The artists of mother’s tankstation never cease to put on a whimsical, experimental show. Yuri Pattison’s Memory foam memory (2016) is an unexpected assemblage of Amazon products exploring the commodification of health and rest.


Yuri Pattison: mother’s tankstation limited Archive

The presence of Prudence Flint’s Sister (2015) was emblematic of her full-bodied, thoughtful paintings that celebrate womanhood through depictions of their quotidien rituals, all in pastel modernist interiors.


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Sadie Coles HQ

Sarah Lucas’ Cross Doris, (2019) was a very welcome presence in the show. Lucas’ deceit of materials and feminist commentary felt fresh with this continuation of her Bunnies series, which speaks to the art historical trope of the proper female “sitter.”


Sarah Lucas, CROSS DORIS, 2019, concrete, bronze, steel, iron, acrylic paint. © Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photography: Robert Glowacki



Simon Lee Gallery

Pauline Olowska’s collage-like paintings such as Dodes’ka Den, (2020) are built of varying references, icones, and subjects from both popular magazines and legend. The name refers to a 1970s Japanese film of the same name about an impoverished town, and features two stylish women lamenting that “Prices have gone up, It’s a problem,”: a pointed commentary relevant to the state of a global capitalist economy.


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Similarly, Eric N. Mack’s Mood Ring (2020) mixed-media piece on a moving blanket assembles various magazine and newspaper spreads into a non-hierarchical system. Mack’s work blurs the lines between utility and style, the readymade versus the handcrafted, and sees these dichotomies on equal footing.

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Joel and Haze (2020) by Chris HUEN Sin Kan is an explosive large-scale oil painting utilizing the techniques of traditional Chinese ink painting to deliver surrealist abstractions of observed experiences.


Chris Huen Sin Kan, Joel and Haze (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery


Traversía Cuatro

Donna Huanca’s KU IX (2020) is one of many tactile landscapes on canvas that are at once skin-like, yet speak critically to body politics in favor of the non-objectifying gaze.


Veladura Nocturna (NGC - 6369) II, 2018 by Gonzalo Lebrija evoked a hushed and earthy abstracted ascension.


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Queer Thoughts

Diamond Stingily’s racial commentary rings clear in Who Gone Pay For This? (2020) a holographic lenticular photo employing Christ figures to manifest spiritual debt (ie.guilt) and financial debt, contemplating debt as both an economic and spiritual concern. The photo is paired with an ID card from the private Liberal Arts college that Stingily attended.


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Commonwealth and Council

The show’s subtle nods to indigeneity, especially Rafa Esparza’s sun dried earth works and Gala Porras-Kim’s works on paper. Rafa Esparza’s Thanks for staying alive Fern.1994 (2020) depicts Esparza’s older brother in a nostalgic reinvention of Star Shots, the pre-Instagram selfie photography studies that filled Los Angeles malls in the 1990s. Self-representation and sociality take on new depth in Esparza’s adobe panel medium of dirt, dung, and river water.


Image courtesy of Commonwealth and Council and the artist.


Galas Porras-Kim’s 1 dry narrow-mouth jar, undersigned fresco type and plant (2020) is exemplary of her work with ancient Mexican culture, reintroducing artifacts in contemporary modes of representation, and investigating where the lines between fine art and anthropological artifacts lie, especially in the context of today’s arts spaces.


Yancey Richardson Gallery

A captivating show of Zanele Muholi, Tseng Kwong Chi, and Mickalene Thomas: three masterful photographers constructing conceptually layered compositions, each seeming to complete the thoughts of the last.


1 Mira Madrid

1 Mira Madrid produced a solo-show of Juan Downey’s hypnotic works on paper. The cohesiveness of the solo show was key in immersing the viewer in Downey’s experience staying with the Yanomami people from Venezuela: a spiritual quest of self-discovery leading him to capture his abstracted, swirling meditative visions on paper.


Rodeo

Rodeo founder Sylvia Kouvali performed a surprising “social experiment” through her Viewing Room, in which the Rodeo team chose to only exhibit sound art and sell only to collectors who promised to donate the works to museums. Showing works by Iman Issa, Ian Law, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Christodoulos Panayiotou, and James Richards, Rodeo’s viewing room posed a unique philanthropic challenge to Basel’s roots in commercialization and commodification.


James Richards, installation view of Music for the gift in the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, London / Piraeus.


Jack Shainman Gallery

Jack Shainman’s booth consisted of works from multiple artists centered around the theme of touch, resonating with the socially-distant moment, and its dual nature in post-COVID times. Carrie Mae Weems’, Untitled (Brushing hair), part of her iconic “Kitchen Table Series,” as well as Hank Willis Thomas’ Love Hang-Over and Kama Mama, Kama Binti (Like mother like daughter) (1971-2007) reveal small vignettes of the black American’s lived experience, and the joys of touch and communion.


Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Brushing hair), 1990-1999. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman.


Hank Willis Thomas, Kama Mama, Kama Binti (Like mother like daughter), 1971/2008. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman.

Hank Willis Thomas, Love Hang-Over, 1976–2007. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

Departing from the photography medium, perhaps Jack Shainman’s most exciting work on display was Dierdrick Brackens’ Textile shape of a fever believer (2020), employing simple silhouettes and vibrant woven materials to explore the Black queer experience.


Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles.


Kurimanzutto

Gallery show with a strong spirit of experimentation, a diverse range show of 10 artists, first conceived in the late 1990s in New York by Mónica Manzutto, José Kuri and Gabriel Orozco. The large-scale installation work of South Korean artist Haegue Yang took center stage here and in Basel’s featured content. The Intermediate –– Frosty Pom-Pom Shield with Cross Forehead (2020) blurs the lines between modern and pre-modern materials, with folks craftsmanship reinterpreted through industrial fabrication.


Karma International

Karma International brought a show of surging, energetic works. Sylvie Fleury’s sculptural painting Rose Pétale (2019) blows up the proportions of the typical makeup compact, rendering it an abstract symbol of contemporary vanity: seemingly to liken art and objects of desire.

Karma International described the work of Markus Oehlen in a recent press release as a “frenetic postmodernist pastiche embodying the contemporary paradox of identity’s reduction to a collection of cultural references plucked from the world without context.” In his Self-portrait (Pizza backend?), 2019 he approaches the politics of representation through photo paper clippings and thousands of lines raking through multi-hued expressionist strokes of paint: a pushback to Minimalism and conceptualism. With a similar vibrancy, Vivian Suter’s washed-out large-scale painting Untitled (2020) mimics the surroundings of her outdoor studio in Guatemala, through long vertical tree-like strokes and organic elements that counterbalance a sense of abstraction and place.


The Approach

The Viewing Room for The Approach weaves together a narrative that appears to speak, in part, to the subjectivity of human significance: how relationships and experience pick people out of a crowd and designate them as significant. Sara Cwynar’s slime-green photograph Virginia from SSENSE.com in the Pink Rose Prada Skirt (2020) speaks to image infatuation, fading glamour, and the ability of fashion models to achieve an endless “generic-ness,” in the perfect repetition of the same high-fashion postures.


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Mike Silva’s personal memories of space and relationships take form in tender, melancholic paintings created from photographs. In Owen Bathing (2020), the banal bathroom interior seems to denote a painting of almost nothing in particular. Yet Silva paints an intimate, stripped-down portrait of a figure whose significance extends far beyond the viewer’s imagination.



Even in a climate of social distancing and remote experience, Art Basel continues to reign supreme centerpiece in the art fair circuit, having quickly and deftly adapted to the times. However, though individual galleries have stepped up to the plate, the New York Times reported that not a single African American-owned gallery was invited to present this year at Basel. Especially in the midst of the largest civil rights uprising in history, this lack of inclusivity feels like a massive failure for Basel––and indeed the art market at large––to read the room.

Still, Basel is an opportune moment for taking the pulse of the art world, recognizing what is being made and what is making the biggest splash. No doubt patrons and gallerists are thankful for this carefully managed and social distanced online iteration of the fair. The hope is that, just as much as we expect Basel to respond to the times, we respond through our individual support: through Basel we set positive trends, establishing art collections built on diverse dialogues and messages. Though we may terribly miss seeing art in the round, our feet carrying us from booth to booth, the digital democratization of Art Basel will likely make waves in the arts landscape that are simply too vast to see from quarantine.

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