Installations: outsized and complex

Adam Jasper at Art Basel’s Art Unlimited

Martin Kersel, Tumble Room (2001)

Martin Kersel, Tumble Room (2001)

Art Basel is the largest and richest art fair in the world, a weeklong face-off amongst prestige galleries in the cavernous halls of the Basel convention centre. It’s an obligatory appointment for collectors and dealers, very much the business end of the art market. However aside from all of the dour deal making of the central fair, Art Basel offers some extraordinary secondary events. Art Unlimited is a subsection of Art Basel that specialises in unusual, outsize and complex works. It provides a forum for works too ambitious to be accommodated in the small booths that fill the exhibition hall, and caters to a different sort of customer: the public institutions that can purchase an installation of, say, 12 x 8 metres that generates as much noise as a small building site and has energy requirements that are measured in kilowatts. Also, unlike the main fair, Art Unlimited is curated as a stand alone exhibition, so that the large works ‘communicate’ with each other, as curators like to say, rather than simply jostling for attention. This year’s Art Unlimited comprised work by 74 artists from 26 countries and was curated by Simon Lamuniére.
Martin Kersel, Tumble Room (2001)

Martin Kersel, Tumble Room (2001)

The absence of constraint and the desire to create a spectacle turn Art Unlimited into a sort of amusement park for middle class adults. It’s crowd pleasing stuff: as the Danish scandal artist Kristian von Hornsleth said, “Unlimited is cool. We sense the budgets and the freedom attached.” The fairground impression is reinforced by the monumental entrance provided by German artist Julius Popp’s Bit.fall (2006). Bit.fall is an interrupted waterfall in which short streams of water are precisely released via electronic gates so that letters are formed, printed onto open air. Words and phrases tumble down: “Airbus Execs fear Investigation”, “Peace hopes for Iraq.” The content was fed live from Internet news sites. Popp has effectively created the world’s largest and wettest news ticker.

Not quite as big, but louder and at the centre of the hall stood Martin Kersel’s Tumble Room (2001), a typical Californian bedroom for a teenage girl, a space of pink walls, posters and innocuous furniture. What sets this bedroom apart is that it is set in a large circular steel frame mounted on industrial ball bearings. The entire structure spins around its horizontal axis: the floor and the ceiling sickeningly and lurchingly swap roles. It moves slowly at first, so that the teenage girl who inhabits it can clamber about—as an associated video attests—but then faster and faster. By the end of the exhibition the piece seemed to have more to do with the trapped violence of Chris Burden’s The Big Wheel (1979) than Alice through the Looking Glass—the imperfectly glued down furnishings had long since broken free of their moorings and smashed each other to kindling, turned glass into shards, tore posters to shreds. The work had effectively destroyed itself, a concrete mixer full of the refuse of family life. The piece takes itself to its own logical conclusion, starting as the embodiment of a child’s fantasy of the inversion of the everyday through to a nightmarishly literal illustration of the parental exaggeration: hey, it looks like a bomb has gone off in here.

Off to one side I enter an unmarked entrance, because the weird schadenfreude of the people staring at the trashed bedroom is giving me the creeps. A mistake. Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize in 1996 for doing spooky work and it has gotten spookier. Black Star (2002) is a darkened hall punctuated geometrically by fluorescent tubes giving out ultraviolet light, so that, not for the first time in a gallery, we feel like we are wandering in an abandoned space station. Our teeth glow and our dandruff shimmers. Other lingering visitors give us blinding Cheshire Cat smiles. Over the top we hear Gordon read from the gothic novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg, 1824), a tale of schizophrenic breakdown or satanic possession, depending on your point of view, recited in a mordant Scottish brogue. Is this futuristic archaeology, are we aliens investigating the ritual beliefs of 19th century Protestants? We didn’t know, but we liked it.

Luca Pancrazzi’s extraordinary Il paesaggio ci osserva (2006) (which according to the whimsy of catalogue babelfish translates to “the landscape observes to us”) reminded me of how much I’ve always admired men who play with train sets. A blank doorway leads us into a maze punctuated by a couple of surveillance monitors showing a blurry, nondescript landscape. A couple more turns and at the centre of the maze we discover a model city built at eye level. The miniature town is bisected by a river, and on one side what appears to be an industrial estate is made entirely of old computer components that, when arrayed in rows, provide an impeccable precinct of Bauhaus and international style structures. On the other side of the river is an old city composed of typewriter and linotype parts, set off by the frob of an IBM golf ball printer suggesting the dome of an urban nuclear power plant squeezed in amongst the slate roofs of a 19th century central European city. We leer over this landscape like Godzillas, delighted by the simplicity and inventiveness of the diorama, and it is only then that the security monitors make sense. They are filming the city. I almost run back to look, only to see a shadow of movement above the town. The cameras themselves are embedded in the city, but so small that they are almost impossible to find: presumably medical cameras, endoscopes—the things used for colonoscopy. It was as if the journey through the maze had made me bigger, much bigger, and here I was, looming like a giant predatory reptile over a terrified Lego town. Oh, what art does to us.

Art Unlimited, Art Basel 38, Messezentrum Basel, June 13-17

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 56

© Adam Jasper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006