Gianni Jetzer on Art Basel Unlimited

Installations, videos and experiments that challenge what it means to be a viewer
This year’s Unlimited sector at Art Basel marks Gianni Jetzer’s eighth and final year as its curator, and includes six installations by Hauser & Wirth artists. Since its inception in 2000, Unlimited has provided a platform for contemporary and large-scale artworks that stretch and break the limits of a conventional art fair booth. Jetzer, who is also curator-at-large at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, declares this a lively space and fertile ground for viewer interaction, since ‘people whisper in museums, but never in a fair.’ Larry Bell, Zoe Leonard, Paul McCarthy, Fausto Melotti, Mika Rottenberg and Franz West all feature in Jetzer’s 2019 selection, that provides visitors with groundbreaking examples of artists working across fields of technology, sculpture, video and installation.

Larry Bell’s place in the evolution of contemporary sculpture is inimitable; he was at the forefront of the Light and Space movement in 1960s California, and his oeuvre expands to installations such as ‘Hydrolux’, which is part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel Unlimited. ‘Hydrolux’ is a multi-media work embodied via closed circuit cameras, projectors, strobe lights, and water. It was recently on view as part of the artist’s comprehensive survey at ICA Miami. The artist recalled creating this work with an element of spontaneity, and how ‘the addition of live, and recorded video images projected into the falling water produced a wonderful, and totally inane viewing experience.’

Installation view, ‘Zoe Leonard. How To Take Good Pictures’, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland, 2019 © Zoe Leonard
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Installation view, ‘Larry Bell. Hydrolux’, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland, 2019 © Larry Bell

Zoe Leonard’s ‘How to Take Good Pictures’ was conceived for the artist’s 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and comprises stacks of different editions of the same vintage photography manual. Leonard recalls the thought processes for this sculptural work: ‘The sculpture follows the life of this publication in print; the stacks are arranged chronologically starting with the first edition in the early 20th century until it went out of print in the mid 90s. This tracks a history of amateur photography and the family snapshot in America.’

Leonard explains how the work challenges the relationship between sculpture and viewer, that ‘The book stacks turn the tables; instead of being a viewer, you are being addressed as a photographer. […] There is a direct form of address to you, as a person who takes pictures. So, it shifts something, it implicates you, or involves you in the action.’

Paul McCarthy, C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment Mary and Eve, 2017 © Paul McCarthy and Khora Contemporary. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Xavier Hufkens and Khora Contemporary
Installation view, ‘Paul McCarthy. C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment Mary and Eve’, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland, 2019

Paul McCarthy has expanded his ground-breaking video and installation work into the realms of virtual reality. In ‘C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment Mary and Eve’, McCarthy’s trademark marriage of high and low culture draws on the titular, uncanny aspects of the medium; ‘reality’ is perverted and the viewer is immersed in a suffocating space with strange characters. The protagonists in this experiment are ‘Mary’ and ‘Eve’, who appear to duplicate before and surveil the viewer. The work takes inspiration from John Ford’s 1939 Western of the same name, at once inciting the position of the viewer, the history of cinema and American popular culture. McCarthy felt ‘…this is reminiscent of being in a dream: in a box, in a room, or in a skull.’

Installation view, ‘Mika Rottenberg. Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3)’, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, 2019 © Mika Rottenberg
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Still from Mika Rottenberg’s ‘Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3)’ (2017 / 2018) © Mika Rottenberg

Mika Rottenberg’s ‘Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3)’ draws on the absurd qualities of real places around the world: a market in Yiwu, China; a dollar store in Calexico; and on the other side of the border wall, a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali. All sense of space is collapsed in Rottenberg’s video and installation work, which is populated with deadpan, silent characters amidst plastic flowers and colorful tinsel, and navigating the border wall between the US and Mexico. Place becomes a critical object for political and aesthetic enquiry — coupled with an eccentric, if humorous sensibility. This summer, the New Museum in New York will mount a major solo presentation of the artist’s work, ‘Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces’, opening 26 June 2019.

Franz West’s 1994 work ‘Test’ continues this playful relationship between viewer experience and artwork. Beginning with his ‘Auditorium’ (1992) created for documenta IX, the artist began making colorful and comfortable objects, which served to be a meeting place to bring visitors together to relax and to discuss works of art. A reincarnation of the original 1994 installation, at Unlimited ‘Test’ features new, bold covers by artist Gilbert Bretterbauer. West was preoccupied by psychoanalytical readings and in particular Sigmund Freud, whose ideas around ‘couch’ therapy the artist translated to a sculptural, interactive object. Summarizing his approach, West stated that ‘[I want] to be able to step into it, to sit on it, lie on it … this is the art of today, lying down on the bed looking up into space. It doesn’t matter what the art looks like but how it’s used’.

Installation view, ‘Fausto Melotti. La Sibilla (The Sibyl)’, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland, 2019 © Fondazione Fausto Melotti, Milan
Installation view of ’Test’ by Franz West at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA, 1994 © Estate Franz West. Photo: Sue Tallon

For Fausto Melotti, sculpture is a three-dimensional, delicate and theatrical force; a mode of storytelling and formal precision. ‘Art’, he wrote, ‘is an angelic, geometric feeling … The fundaments of plastic harmony and counterpoint are found in geometry’. Melotti’s ‘La Sibilla (The Sibyl)’ (1981) is made up of three components and merges these theories of composition with the artists interest in theatre and music. ‘The Sibyl’—a classical reference to the Greek mythological figure of a prophetess, is placed in a harmonic balancing act. Here, a sphere levitates in space, and lines arch up from the structure of a stairwell, protruding against gravity. The work is representative of Melotti’s redefinition of sculpture, as he combines a rich sense of history with inventive materiality.

Works by Bell, Leonard, McCarthy, Melotti, Rottenberg and West are included in Art Basel Unlimited from 13 – 16 June 2019.