Unlimited ambition in the Art Basel section for non-standard works

Newsletter: FT Weekend

One of the pleasures of a visit to Art Basel in its Swiss home is to stroll through the Unlimited section. Located in the huge Hall 1, Unlimited houses anything that is too big for a stand in the aisles of the main part of the fair. Unexpected and unusual pieces deliver small shocks at every turn: the artists stretch their imagination and their dimensions, without limits.

Installations the size of a modest house can fit here, as can large ‘flat’ works of art such as (this year) David Hockney’s huge photographic drawing, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ (2018 -2021), or similarly sized pieces by Gilbert and George or Michel Parmentier, as well as substantial sculptures (Barbara Hepworth) or light works (James Turrell) and much more.

“Unlimited has always been very eclectic, from young artists to very established stars – it’s the mix that makes it interesting,” says Giovanni Carmine, director of Kunst Halle St Gallen and curator of Unlimited. His tenure – he was appointed two years ago – has covered pandemic shutdowns.

The opening of Unlimited display next week is, he says, the result of two years of work and change: [Unlimited] is more international than ever – except, perhaps, that we miss Asia a bit. But it is understandable. Global logistics are so complicated. But we were able to bring 62 projects to the fair.

Giovanni Carmine, curator of Unlimited, says the section is “a chance for people to meet in front of art”

There is no thematic framework as such. “It’s a dialogue with the galleries,” he says. “They come up with projects, and then I start to get a feel for the works that will work together and the audience’s experience in the space.”

Digital work is included, along with sound installations that might disturb neighbors in a conventional fairground booth. When I ask if Carmine has spotted any particular trends – for example, a rush for more digital works – he doesn’t engage. “Young artists are obviously moving more towards digital or non-object-based works, but there are also a lot of young artists who paint and make traditional sculpture.

Multicolored human figures fly across the room in a vat

‘HolyHellO’ (2018) by Kris Lemsalu © Mark Blower 2018

Obviously, in a commercial setting, the simple question arises: who buys them? Bringing massive pieces to a fair is a serious investment for galleries: do they hope to attract mainly institutional clients? “You should ask the galleries,” Carmine answers judiciously, “but I don’t think it’s just the classic institutions. There are visionary collectors who are interested in stimulating art, ambitious and interesting projects.

And of course, with the growth of private museums, there are collectors with a lot of space to fill in search of powerful work on a large scale.

Carmine is, however, a curator, not a merchant, and he’s more interested in talking about his section’s experience. “This is one of the interesting parts of the fair for art lovers, a special place where people gather – a chance for people to meet in front of art.”

A black and white photo of many pieces of tracing paper with markings on it hanging on a wall

‘February 14, 1990’ by Michel Parmentier is a long sequence of tracing paper strips

He also believes that this adventurous large-scale work is “a mirror of what’s going on in the art world – at least for a certain type of work.” Some projects are totally connected to what’s going on, artists responding to the situation we find ourselves in.

Speaking of the situation we find ourselves in, I have to ask the thorny question, that of the environmental impact of art fairs. Carrying such huge and complicated projects over a long distance, just for a few days of exposure, is quite controversial. Is this a concern now and for the future?

“Absolutely,” he replies. “There have been a lot of discussions but our discussions are not over because there are no easy solutions. I would say the pandemic in one way accelerated the discussion, in another, stopped the discussion altogether. “

A woman looks at a large dark blue and purple painting

“A Brief History of Known” (2020) by Nari Ward © Courtesy of the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein

It is an admirably frank and very realistic admission. We agree that the urge to get back to normal is currently the dominant sentiment. There are “sincere efforts,” he says, but “for now the main focus has been to make sure that artists and clients can continue to work and that the fair can take place. We are a cosmopolitan community, an international community, always connected, and it is so important to see the works of art in real life.

We’re talking little things – more sustainable transport, more digital works – but it is not fair to corner a curator with this still intractable question. “The solution is not easy,” he said, “but we all need to do more.”

Finally, when asked which of this year’s Unlimited works is particularly remarkable or of which he is particularly proud, he points out to me Marion Baruch (with the Urs Meile gallery), a Romanian artist based in Italy who, at the age of 87, did a job in textiles, using the remnants of Milan’s fashion industry. A convinced believer in the future.

September 23-26, artbasel.com

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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