India remembered at Basel

Anytime is a good time to be in Europe if you are a culture vulture, but June is the standout month. And Basel is the place to be, because art, creativity and diversity are this riverside city’s calling card. It may lack the glitz and glamour of Zurich or Geneva, but it hosts one of the most important art events in the world—Art Basel. In 1970, three Basel gallerists, Ernst Beyeler, Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt, created an international art fair with 90 galleries and 30 publishers from ten countries. It proved to be an instant success with an attendance of more than 16,000 visitors.

Today, it brings the art world together, with 290 of the world’s leading galleries showing the works of more than 4,000 artists. I have already written about this year’s Art Basel. But a quick flashback to two things I missed to mention is warranted. One is Unlimited—Art Basel’s pioneering exhibition platform for projects that transcend the classical art-show stand, including massive sculptures and paintings, video projections and live performances. This year Unlimited was curated by New York-based Gianni Jetzer and one of the exhibits was our own Sudarshan Shetty’s Shoonya Ghar (Empty is this house).

Design Miami also opened next door the same time. Apart from the usual fare of publications’ booths, cafes, restaurants and bars there, was a section called Conversations—curated talks by Mari Spirito, founding director of the art organisation Protocinema.

Photo: Shoonya Ghar (Empty is this house) by Sudarshan Shetty.

Moreover, Basel boasts some 30 museums, including the world-class Kunstmuseum, Foundation Beyeler, Museum Tinguely and Schaulager Basel. The Schaulager has an amazing show by Bruce Nauman—Disappearing Acts [till August 26]. The Foundation Beyeler, in its Renzo Piano-designed building, is expanding the museum space with the help of Swiss architects Peter Zumthor & Partner. Both the Kunstmuseum and the Foundation has world-class collections, from Rembrandt and Rubens to Monet and van Gogh. The Kunstmuseum houses the largest and most significant public art collection in Switzerland, and is listed as a heritage site of national significance. The Gegenwart, also known as The Museum of Contemporary Art (Museum für Gegenwartskunst), is a wing of Kunstmuseum built in 1980, and was the first public museum in Europe exclusively dedicated to the production and practice of contemporary art. In 2016, it was enlarged and renovated, and was turned into two buildings designed by the Swiss firm Christ & Gantenbein. The other interesting museum in Basel is the Vitra Design Museum near Basel, designed by Frank Gehry and Herozog & De Meuron.

But Museum Tinguely is where you’ll find truly wacky installations. It is head-scratchingly good. Jean Tinguely was a 20th century master of mechanical sculpture, whimsically transforming machinery, appliances, and items straight from the junk heap into ironic and often macabre statements. He was the Swiss version of Kerala’s Perumthachan. One of Tinguely’s more elaborate constructions, Le Ballet des Pauvres, from 1961, suspends a hinged leg with a moth-eaten sock, a horse tail and a fox pelt, a cafeteria tray, and a blood-soaked nightgown, all of which dangle and dance on command. Many of the sculptures are activated at preset times, usually every five to 15 minutes, so it pays to wait and see them in action.

I had first met Tinguely Museum director Roland Wetzel during CiMAM’s (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art) annual conference in Tokyo. Then he visited the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale during which the work of Gauri Gill caught his attention. He invited her to create a show at Tinguely Museum during Art Basel. I was proud to see a larger collection of the same series of black and white photographs from her ‘Notes from the Desert’ project set in Rajasthan. Somehow, India can’t be ignored, even in Basel.