$3.4 billion worth of art in a little corner of Switzerland

Updated 29th June 2015
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Art Basel 5
$3.4 billion worth of art in a little corner of Switzerland
Written by Janelle Zara, for CNNBasel, Switzerland
Art Basel is a behemoth. Think of it as the ultimate superstore of the art market with its endless aisles and swarms of shoppers. The annual event that bears the cliché distinction "mother of all art fairs" is in its 46th year, open for business now through June 21 in its namesake Swiss hometown.
It features 300 or so international exhibiting galleries hailing from five continents, and reportedly $3.4 billion worth of art. And if it's anything like it was last year, it will draw a crowd of more than 92,000 people over the course of the week-long event.
Insiders will know that by the time the doors open to the public, most of the works have already sold; in the days prior to the official opening, stalwart collectors bearing VIP badges scoop up hundred-thousand- to multi-million-dollar artworks like candy. For everyone else, the display booths are a snapshot of the best of modern and contemporary art.
The first thing you'll see entering the Herzog & de Meuron-designed exhibition venue (an aluminium-clad marvel in itself) is Art Basel's Unlimited sector, what the fair describes as a "platform for projects that transcend the limitations of a classical art-show stand." In other words, it's where you'll find everything that is huge, immersive, and Instagram-worthy right now.
Just ahead of the entrance, the Berlin-based artist Julius von Bismarck is milling about a makeshift bedroom, tucking himself into bed, at times getting up to sit at his desk and have a glass of red wine. The art of his otherwise mundane performance is that it's happening on the slopes of a giant spinning concrete bowl, where centrifugal forces are all that's holding the furniture in place.
"What's your cure for motion sickness?" we asked the artist.
"It's best to focus your eyes on one place," he said. "Preferably something inside the bowl."
Elsewhere on the Unlimited showroom floor, there are screenings of films by artists including Ed Atkins, Sarah Morris, and Wu Tsang. Photographer Ryan McGinley pasted 500 images on the walls and ceilings of a room to make "YEARBOOK," an all-encompassing, pop-hued collage of sexy young things in the nude.
The Scottish artist David Shrigley set up a circle of chairs and easels so that visitors can pull up a seat and sketch "Life Model," a three-meter tall, naked Pinocchio-like sculpture that blinks and urinates intermittently.
Despite Unlimited's impressive array, Art Basel's mainstay is its Galleries sector, where 223 exhibitors are showing works from the 20th and 21st century that span painting and sculpture to video and digital. It's where you'll find the more modestly sized works by blue-chip contemporary artists; the Picassos; the Giacomettis; and other top sellers.
Other sectors include Parcours, large-scale, site-specific works installed around the historic Münsterplatz; Statements, a space for emerging artists; and Feature, where the booths are curated presentations on single artists or themes.
Outside of the fair, art in Basel is plentiful.
In addition to the city's venerable permanent institutions (Paul Gaugin and Marlene Dumas at Fondation Beyeler, as well as Anicka Yi and Bernard Tschumi at Kunsthalle Basel are must-sees), there are myriad satellite fairs and installations that have sprouted throughout town. There's Volta and Liste, two fairs devoted to new and emerging art, not to mention Design Miami/Basel, Art Basel's sister fair. There, the focus is on functional art.
The ground floor features Design at Large, an architectural survey of historic and avant-garde dwellings that includes works by the iconic Jean Prouvé and contemporary Atelier Van Lieshout. Upstairs, there's no shortage of mid-century French and Scandinavian design classics, plus new sci-fi inventions. Swarovski's inaugural Designer of the Future presentation features the young new talents Studio Swine, Tomás Alonso, and Elaine Yan Ling Ng, whose work toys with themes of light and outer space.
Swiss luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet launched a new series of artist commissions that will take place at every art Basel. Robin Meier, a hybrid composer-artist, delivered a living environment: an ecosystem of blinking LEDs, plants, and scientific instruments in a tightly sealed tent, erected in the back of the Volkshaus gallery. The ensuing symphony of light and sound—cricket recordings, metronomes, and subtle vibrations—stimulate the fireflies ethereally circulating around the interior, creating a surreal experience for the viewer. Following a high-impact week of sensory overload, it might be the perfect destination for a moment of peace and quiet.