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Retrospective of Art Basel 2019

The first impression on walking in was spectacular: a great hall with a super-chic vegetarian restaurant, surrounded by 400 year old olive trees in large containers, roots bound in plastic.

The work by Enzo Enea, titled Use / Abuse, was testimony to the topicality of green politics over the year.

The studio-like lighting shone down on the trees, while we sat and enjoyed our strawberry smoothies.

"It's a stress for the trees, but manageable, 'never, ever would I do anything that would damage the trees long term' – 'these trees have stress in order to help many other trees have a voice.'"

There was something uncomfortable about this massive natural installation that carried through into the main Art Unlimited hall.

The theme of celebrity, use and abuse of power and human solidarity, was extended with perhaps the most publicised work of Art Basel 2019: Andrea's Bowers work in Unlimited.

The installation comprised a wall of images from the 'Me too' movement of recent years, showing photos, transcripts of testimonies, personal experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of the rich and powerful.

Publicity was forthcoming after one of the victims Margaret Carrigan, who hadn't been consulted about her contribution, complained to the artists: "Cool that my fucking photos and trauma are heading Art Basel – thx for exploiting us for 'art'."

The quote seemed to add to the artistic statement adding to the power of the work to raise questions about media, image and subjectivity.

Unlimited is Art Basel's exhibition platform for works that go beyond in terms of scale the classical boundaries of art.

So, we have installations, live performance, large-scale paintings and sculpture and video installations "too big, too loud, too smelly for the normal galleries; more serious, more political than in former years!"

This year's unlimited was curated by New York based curator Gianni Jetzer.

On entering, we were confronted with Uno Rondinone's sublime 'the sun', 2018. A gilded bronze huge circle, reaching about 5m high.

Is it a vacuum of glitz that we experience or true inner sun awakening as we feel into this space before us in this environment?

We move on to another widely commented upon piece Huma Bhaba's We Come in Peace, 2018.  Vanity Fair article

The sheer presence of this large sculpture is awe inspiring. Over 4m of painted patinated bronze, its other-worldly androgynous form somehow speaks in a distant way to the debate around the Me too installation. 

The human figure is there, raw and somewhat brutal, but with a power and majesty, in stark contradistinction to the digital photo images and written comments lining the boards of Bower's Me too installation.

What is such a work saying about our human position in the twenty-first century?

Our reliance on media, our political debates and our subjective narcissism?

Yet, also reflecting on the society we are creating – exploitative or creative – Coco Fusco brings these questions together in a work depicting the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz.

– You know the one, 'if he only had a heart' he wouldn't get stiff and need Dorothy to give him some oil – The less hysterical of the three in the 1939 movie.

Moving on, perhaps my favourite was the installation by Daniel Knorr Laundry, 2019.

How is art produced, but for that matter how are we produced by the 'system' we live in?

The work raises aesthetic, psychological and sociological questions.

The wooden cars are painted as in a car wash by multicoloured sprays, mechanically, like a production line, while the digital display above flashes 'pop', 'minimal' etc as each work is being produced.

There was a strange 80s feel from the car wash, and a buzz around the performance, while the abstract reflection on ideas about art production and creativity were intriguing.

There's something about seeing an everyday machine producing basic sculptural forms at work with human operators that is haunting, for me this work was a kind of 'total work', bringing together many abstract and philosophical ideas with sensual effect.

Finally, Marc Brandenberg's Camouflage Pullovers, 2018 was a mixed media film, showing people completely enclosed in sock-like uniforms, going about everyday activities (going to the cafe, going to the park, etc), with real examples of the uniform suits in the installation, as if you could try them on for yourself. 

Again, clever and thought-provoking. Looking at oneself from outside, what is this skin that separates the outside from the in? 

Knitted by our grandmothers, like hats and gloves, enclosing the whole body? 

What does it feel like to be in the 'skin' of a tree, inside the 'other'; Was this question the curator's intention? 

The poetry of political and humanitarian ideals counterposed with subjective sensual and philosophical experience? 

I left wondering how long it would take the trees to regain their roots after the long trip back to southern Italy.