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Even at Art Basel, the Politics of Culture
by Olga Stefan









Comprised of special installations by individual artists,  the Art Unlimited section of the influential fair Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, always seemed an attempt by the picture gallerists to feel a little more museological. This year’s edition of Art Unlimited held few surprises. Doug Aitken, Bill Viola, Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone, Ryan Gander, Christian Marclay. In this crowded field of art stars and icons three installation stood apart, with their strong and strange takes on the intersection of culture and politics.

Agnes Varda Basel 1

Two years after her late career autoiographical-documentary masterpiece, The Beaches of Agnès, the eighty-two year old French filmmaker Agnes Varda organized an installation (presented by Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris) where she revisits the beach as a poetic. For this work, Varda created a beachside cabana, complete with beach chairs and sand, perfect for drinking some beer and lounging around while watching a game. But the TV screen played the gruesome movie The Mediterranean, with two r’s and one n, between Sete and Agde about a beached whale on the shores of Sete, France. Varda’s message resonates: We have become entirely immune to suffering, which has become mere entertainment. “Be careful. It’s (The whale) is angry because the world is sick.” States Varda on the artist statement accompanying her work.

New York-based artist Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (presented by Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich) also managed to interestingly engage with uncomfortable political realities with his work on view from 1992, Animal Farm. Almost 3m high and 14 meters long and painted on the pages of Orwell’s iconic book Animal Farm, Rollins’ gigantic opus portrays various notorious political figures’ heads on different animals’ bodies.  Made in collaboration with Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), a group of young people from the South Bronx from disadvantaged backgrounds, this work presents a different dimension of political commentary at Art Unlimited, one which plays with the tension between culture and politics over time. The rather unique collaboration of the artist with troubled kids from the South Bronx, started in 1984 by Rollins and continuing today, is an example of real engagement with real impact, in contrast to the often superficial political work shown and sold at the larger fairs.

Tim Rollins KOS1

Tim Rollins KOS2

Environmental politics emerge again in a subtle but arresting installation, The Conference, 2010, by Swiss duo Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger. Located in a darkened room, the installation’s composed of a large white table, surrounded by several black chairs that disappear into the blackness of the space. Alongside the table and chairs are common conference accessories, including laptops, notebooks, and coffee cups, complete with leftover coffee. A bright white light shines overhead, illuminating the white table, while the only color to penetratethe scene the bright red crystals that have taken over this sterile environment. The organic shapes of the natural world contrast beautifully with the perfect geometry of their human-derived counterpart. Steiner and Lenzlinger’s atmosphere serves as a reminder of humankind’s inability to fully control our environment, as much as we would like to.  Nature will reclaim its territory, and humans, so used to making the decisions, will be left trying to deal with the consequences.

Steiner and Lenzlinger at Basel

- Olga Stefan


All images by the author.

Posted by Olga Stefan on 6/21/10

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