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Avant Garde Art at Basel

At the heart of lush country landscapes, Art Basel presents an encapsulated world of expression in colours, paintings and sculptures – an overwhelming celebration of riveting art, writes Uma Nair.

Multimillionaires with deep pockets, cultural impact and buoyant buyers – Art Basel at Basel is the stuff of art history and market momentousness. Over the years, Basel has built its own legacy, it has defined art trends and, also, in its wake, reset the clock for avant garde practices amongst galleries in the world. This is where culture meets commerce and, each year, in June, art builds itself into a fancied financial asset born out of multiple fables.

What does an international gallery with cutting-edge art set up in its Booth and what does it look like at Art Basel 2018? Two galleries stand apart in their dynamics of materials and artistic sensibilities – they are Galleria Continua and Galerie Nathalie Obadia in the Galleries Unlimited Sector.

Continua pools into its space a circuit of the finest names. Galleria Continua was founded in 1990 by Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi and Maurizio Rigillo, with the intention, evident in the name, to give continuity to contemporary art in a landscape rich with the signs of ancient art. The gallery opened in a quite unexpected location, far from the big cities and the well-established art circuits – in San Gimignano, a town steeped in history and somehow out of time, in the heart of Tuscany. Over the years, generosity and altruism have formed the basis for numerous multifaceted artistic collaborations. A versatile suite of works are seen in this Booth in the Galleries Unlimited Sector.

Known for his famous documentation Mecca Journeys, Ahmed Mater's Metropolis is a stunning photograph that gives us an aerial view that at once signifies cultures and habitation and development and the interstices of struggles that build its mosaic.

Chair and candles

Then there is the Chinese master Chen Zhen – the conceptual artist and sculptor who explored complexities in Chinese art. Zhen is represented by a chair and coloured candles in a surreal work entitled BIG-Un Village sans frontières – a full-blown imaginary landscape consisting of fragile micro-architectural forms made from candles.

This work arose out of a one-month stay in Brazil together with children from the favelas of Salvador de Bahia. Through art, Chen Zhen helped the children understand and think critically about the city by getting them to explore six different architectural styles, the fruit of six different social strata. In this way, he stirred their curiosity in life, their understanding of society, and nurtured their dream of having a "home" of their own. By the end of the project, all the children had made over thirty small houses from candles.

In Un Village sans frontières (2000), the artist used candles to construct a "universal village", employing a symbolically significant number of children's chairs – 99 – collected from around the world. "Using candles (in China the candle symbolises the life of a man)," he would later write, "has a particular meaning: to build a village without frontiers, which it is up to us to begin, but our hope is always directed towards the future generation."

China's modernity

Qui Zhijie straddles the distinction between humanist artistic practice focused on the aesthetic legacies of Chinese tradition and more critical dialogues with the political and theoretical themes common to the art of the late modern era, contributing independently to both discourses and doing much to bridge their value systems.

Kapoor, Sugimoto and Subodh

Basilica of St Francis by Hiroshi Sugimoto is a gravitas filled photograph of its arched architectural symbolism that at once speaks to us about the power and sensibility of textures in structures.

Anish Kapoor's stainless steel and laquer work from his Split series has shades of oriental blue running into cobalt and it echoes many strains of minimalist as well as eastern and western influences. Kapoor is an alchemist to the core with colour and texture and his quest for unraveling different languages through his colour coded explorations are always a telling statement.

Subodh Gupta's elegant sculpture, Inisde Out, combines simple materials, like plaster, brass and steel to create an organic form. Interesting how he explores the theme of "the void" with defined insides and outsides clearly delineating the created empty space.

Garriga and Banerjee

Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Bruxxels has two great artists – Josep Grau-Garriga and Rina Banerjee.

Since 1993 in Paris and 2008 in Brussels, Galerie Nathalie Obadia has been exhibiting international emerging and established artists such as Rina Banerjee, Lorna Simpson and Jessica Stockholder. In the past years, Brook Andrew, Fabrice Hyber, Laure Prouvost, Andres Serrano, Mickalene Thomas, Jérôme Zonder and Benoît Maire also joined the gallery. Involved in the rediscovery of emblematical artists such as Wang Keping, Martin Barré, Josep Grau-Garriga, Shirley Jaffe, Eugène Leroy, Sarkis and Agnès Varda, the gallery accompanies the artists into numerous institutional exhibitions in France and abroad.

Hores de llum i de foscor (Hours of light and darkness) is a monumental, emblematic fiber work by a pioneer of contemporary textile art – Garriga. The tapestry is composed of cotton, wool, silk, synthetic fiber, as well as clothing from his family. The addition of 'personal' items is representative of the emotional dimension that the Catalonian artist brought to his works.

This evocative piece embodies an expressionist shift in the history of tapestry championed by Josep Grau-Garriga during the 1970s–1980s: a formal and conceptual change representing an inextricable dialectics between personal and political matters. Grau-Garriga's fundamental contribution to the genre was defined by Arnau Puig in his monograph published in 1986, the same year as the creation of this work: 'In his mind a project came into being that he realised little by little, and that consisted of demystifying the high value traditionally accorded to the art of weaving in order to make it an act, rather than a submission to established principles and rules, an act of creative and expressive freedom.'

Rina Banerjee recreates histories from urban tales and dwelling. Her titles are stories in themselves. She has two sculptures at Basel that are riveting. 'Wedding thieves, they stole her away on that blessed day, full that was a day full of frills and ruffles, borders draped, dragged'.... (2018 ). It has been created out of gourd, horn, glass bead, thread, copper crochet copper wire and Murano glass beads.

Her second sculpture is entitled, 'When signs of origin fade, fall out, if washed away, trickle into separations, precipitate when boiled or filtered to reveal all doubleness as wickedness'....( 2017). Created out of mixed media, this is a dramatic ensemble. Banerjee's iridescent sculptural installations and dreamy, exotically coloured drawings and paintings of birds, beasts and demigods explore fusions of materials and cultures. Her work typically incorporates a wide range of objects and media, including taxidermy alligators, wooden cots, ostrich eggs, light bulbs, umbrellas, saris, pigments, shells and feathers. Banerjee has called her practice an examination of diasporas and journeys, "specific colonial moments that reinvent place and identity."

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