Art is a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed. ¬ Khalil Gibran
Luckily I did attend this year‘s artBasel. And, seemingly insignificant but actually significant, I talked my GF into coming along. One forever underestimates the change of perspective another person is likely to effect. Maybe we‘re too fond of the hoky image of the independently thriving individual, becoming evermore special and unique.
With somebody else‘s VIP card I waltzed in through the very important people entrance without even being very important. There was no difference time-wise, nor did the valets or, no, what?, securtiy-typish people look at me in a way that suggested additional consideration or assassination anxiety. 40 bucks is or would be steep for students; the price itself is like a nod towards keeping the imagined plebs out without being really serious about it. The art is once a year so whoever cares for it, whatever the class-origins, will somehow muster up and shell out.
It‘s been four or five weeks, perhaps even more, so whatever I manage to recall now without powering up the canon could hold weight. The faceless portraits. Nomhle called them out first. The CDJ-doctrine applied to them: If it‘s small yet impressive, it‘s truly impressive. This applied to them. Studying the paintings their power was hard to deny. Literally faceless portraits of people in prototypical portrait poses, both intimate and hum-drum.
What should this mean? The portrait, it seems, attempts to catch a single, typical marker of individuality within the context of an everyday situation. The portrait, despite only being a painting, is intended to be something infinitely more: you! Your little oil-colored, immobile but immortal Doppelgaenger. The good one‘s succeed. And so naturally are uncanny, unheimlich – by way of colour pigments, oil, canvas, a few deft brushstrokes, your existence has been doubled. Who needs a clone if you can have this?! And in case you are unconvinced, on otherwise calm Sunday afternoons family members, relatives and friends amble up to the painting, take a long gander and exclaim: hey, that‘s you! Not ,Hey, that‘s a good painting of you!‘ nor ,That‘s an incredibly photorealistic picture. Is that you?‘. Just: That‘s you! And there is a cold spill down your back: Am I double? Will I ever pay off the debt incured by this portrait?
Anyway, having now fired up the ixus the wind is knocked right out of my measly argument. The picture I took of the work is supremely underwhelming, slapdash even, like the painter couldn‘t be bothered with doing a good job on a person without a face. So what must have stuck in memory was Nomhle‘s rapid-fire approval and my favorable impression of the concept, not the thing itself, the grim data known as reality. Oh what a circumstantial thing the past is! How memory always will find some lovely garb or other for it to wear to the remembrance prom.
Could I remember anything else? Yes, though too garish to bother. LaChapelle if you need to know. That dollhouse photograph with the gay crypto-orgy in the living room. It‘s too flagrant not to stick. People clotted around it like blood cells around an open wound. In fact, i can only recall a single other explicitly sexual work; outrageous in its own right. A pre-pubescent, semi-nude Nicole Portman. Silly girl, wicked photographer. Better not to dig deep.
Other than that, everything has been emptied out of memory or been transferred to deep storage where it can only be accessed by hypnotic recall or some technique along those lines? Extreme aesthetic trauma maybe. No! One more object. What‘s-his-face with the extremely expensive, very technical, bigger-than-life-aluminum sculptures. This one was a six-legged blow-up swimming-aid bug interspliced with a regular household ladder. It takes a while to realize that the bug is not inflated plastic but fullmetal aluminum; incredibly, the only rubber are the knobs sealing off the rungs. Damn! The saleswomen imagined having a good scoff at Nomhle for being incredulous: Ahhh, bombshell to men, boob to us connoisseurs, torch-bearers of feminist sophistication. And, clearly, this is a partial raison d‘etre of these big art fairs: for the different classes and castes and cliques to collide and be disdainful of each other. To be convinced that throwing your Prosecco in that other person‘s face would be doing humanity one helluva job.
At the three or four hour mark your module for the sublime and the total crap gives out, phsssssssst!, and you have to come up for air. Outside we hunted down affordable food like true postmodern foragers, calculating prices against distance walked against time in the scorching sun. These type of mathematics are hard to get right in the absence of decent local knowledge. Ultimately, we somehow messed up the calculation, I seem to recall, as the end result was a sore back and a mediocre falafel.
Then back into the maw. With the aid of photography, I can see we came across two or three Basquiats. There were neither many on-lookers nor any other source of palpable excitement; I told Nohmhle that this is my favorite painter but even I could feel my lack of conviction. It suddenly felt like something I had said a thousand times before, the robotic ritual of ennumerating one‘s favorite-this and favorite-that and now had to say it again. Why did I have to say it again? Because I am a creature of habit? Because I had convinced myself that this is indeed my favorite painter? Because I wanted to punctuate our ambling with some sort of symbolic highlight even when it was only stating my own baseless, unoriginal preference? She gave me an underwhelmed look and fired off four or five rapid questions as to what I thought was so great about the guy, his paintings, a question which once again reconfirmed my conviction that the fundamentals of art appreciation are non-rational. I answered them not even half-convincing and on we went.
At one point I made a lucky snapshot of T[Nomhle]‘s twirling skirt and her long, pale, elegant legs against the dark brown carpet doused in a buttery light. Can you imagine from these few inadequate words? It looked sort of cool and I immediately felt inspired for an art project of my own. Photograph random congregations of legs! It could be called legwork or so. It wasn‘t half a bad idea but I didn‘t go very far with it as people seemed to definitely notice when I was snapping away, however inconspicuous I attempted to be. I don‘t care much for irritating people if I can help it. So I abandoned my promising career in photography.
Anything else? Yes, the marble sculptures. These were impressive from a craftsmanship point of view: I couldn‘t imagine how on earth the guy had sculpted a super-sized scissor stuck in a gigantic realistic brain from one or two or three chunks of stone. Maybe you can. The CDJ doctrine didn‘t apply but it didn‘t have to; I was impressed. As well as aesthetically touched. If that‘s not enough you must be some sort of discourse nut. And also, it turns out, the combo of brain, pear and scarab looked heavily symbolic to me even if the words to supply that symbolism with significance ellude me. The scarab points towards ancient egyptian immortality. And the pear with its stem makes the brain look like it just dropped from a mythological tree, that of knowledge or Yggdrasil itself, I cannot tell. But writing this type of stuff out is a sureshot way to have it dissolve into triviality. The mystery, the power, resides in the juxtaposition of observer and work in shared spacetime.