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“ART IS LIKE HAVING A HOT GIRLFRIEND”: ART BASEL IS THE BEAUTIFUL CESSPIT WE DESERVE

I have a much better time sipping spritzers with six-foot Serbian sex workers than sitting through yet another insipid speech about the intersection of art and ecology. writes Victoria Comstock-Kershaw.

Basel Social Club. Photography courtesy of Gina Folly.


It’s difficult to write about Art Basel without sounding like a dick. I don’t think this is anybody’s fault in particular; really big art fairs have never lent themselves to particularly accessible or interesting journalism unless you indulge in excessive gonzo bitchiness – tremendously tempting, I admit, but unfortunately a route that a) opens you up to libel lawsuits and b) gets you uninvited from press evenings with the rapidity of a Miami billionaire snatching up the last MSCHF at Perrotin.


You can go the ARTnews/George Nelson route where you name-drop everyone from Josh Baer to Michael Ballack, which makes for a tremendously fun read but only really works if you’re cool enough to get invited to every afterparty in Basel (I was only invited to one of the events Nelson attended, where I spent the majority of my evening chatting with an art influencer's camera crew about the horrors of Swiss cigarette prices). You can go the overly-intellectual route, or the art economist route, but there’s very little to be said that hasn’t already been covered by bigger and better art magazines: on the money side, it’s all going just about alright (with a few background grumbles about the wars out East) and on the art side it's mostly testing the waters to figure out what the new generation of collectors is interested in. Oh, and everybody loves Basel Social Club.


So, what else is there left to say? There’s the obvious tension between big, serious galleries and, as Nelson puts it, the “new kids on the block from the NFT, crypto, and generative AI world”. I found the inclusion of tech to be relatively unobtrusive this year – a few more galleries than usual made use of screens, and there’s the obligatory first-year-at-SAE virtual reality stuff, but the NFTs were surprisingly good. I was genuinely impressed with the Digital Art Mile, including some extremely good AI art from the likes of Charlie Engman, Mind Wank, Simon "Raion" Lavi, and Vikki Bardot. It's a nice reminder of how far we’ve come since Bored Apes (or whatever the hell Bonhams thought they were doing with Philip Colbert).



From left to right: Charlie Engman, Horizon Horse (The New Yorker, Cover), 2024,

Simon "Raion" Lavi, 12 LOVE # 27, Changing Places, 2024


A lot of the rest of the art, I am told, sits at the “intersection of art and ecology” (which, I suppose, is better than the “intersection of art and technology” that permeated every press release from 2020 to 2023). Rising concerns about climate change is a possible reason for this, but I also think we’re thinking more carefully (or constantly) about our role in nature as a reaction to the increased potential of nuclear annihilation (there’s a reason media like Fallout and Planet of the Apes are making such a cultural killing right now). The exploration of the post-apocalyptic was present at the Venice Biennale and it’s present here, especially in booths like Esther Schipper, Galerie Chantal Crousel and Temnikova & Kasela with works like Mona Hatoum's Fossil Folly (group of 2) IV (2024), which sees corrugated fossils bloom from a pair of discarded oil drums, Pierre Huyghe's Camata I (2024) depicting a single, abandoned skeleton beneath foreboding robots limbs in the desert (reminiscent of the Fallout 1 game-over screen) and Edith Karlson's appropriately named Doomsday (2017-24), a swinging chandelier of exhumed flesh.


I'll do a rapid rundown of the booths/artists/galleries that I loved: Nathalie du Pasquier at Apalazzogallery (there's not enough De Stijl/Neoplasticism in the world), Julius von Bismarck at Sies + Höke (I'm a sucker for anything taxidermy), The Approach's booth (it's good to see galleries still have fun with wall shapes, colours and angles) and the collection at Galerie 1900-2000 (a remarkably well-balanced selection of works spanning the 20th century with some clever curatorial threads running throughout).



From left to right: Nathalie Du Pasquier, 'Così fan tutte' (2015-2023). Photography Courtesy of Thomas Annaheim Lambert.

Sies + Höke, Photograph courtesy fo gallery/Gerhard Richter.


Alright, onto the bitchy stuff. I very rarely indulge in Euro-jingoism, but I have to admit that I’ve had a lot of fun watching Americans both off- and on-line lose their minds over the level of debauchery that people at Basel have been getting up to. I overhear an American woman in line for the ladies at L’Avventura conspiratorially suggest that one of the advisors she spoke to that morning was, gasp, hungover. Jerry Gogosian has been posting about the toilets at Les Trois Rois as if bathroom fellatio hasn’t been a staple of New York culture since the seventies. A very nice sales director from Connecticut asks me if I ever get in trouble with the Swiss police for smoking on the streets. The only Americans to have written about the fair with any appreciation for the simple European art of weekday depravity appear to be The Art Daddy (who has announced a start date for the official Darius Himes replacement hunt) and one anonymous The Art Newspaper reporter who, while contemplating the cow shit covering the Basel Social Club, slips off his wedding ring and ponders 'why are humans (dealers) hellbent on monogamy while the rest of the animals (artists) are free? '.


Maybe I am not being invited to the really scandalous parties, or maybe I’ve been massively desensitised by my Eurotrash upbringing, but Basel seemed to me to be all very run-of-the-will degeneracy: little baggies being passed over booth desks, condom wrappers and reagent test strips on the bathroom floor (hey, at least people are being safe!), horror stories of so-and-so from such-and-such gallery ending up in the Utniversitätsspital on Day 1 because they “did a Pulp Fiction” (mistook krokodil for ketamine). Of course, there is the money laundering, the shady backroom deals, the associated blackmail (I admit I did overhear one conversation that, if repeated, would land several people in jail) but that all seems pretty axiomatic at this point. Deeply improper, certainly, but all very par for the course.


Tom Wesselman’s Smoker, 1975, Lévy Gorvy Dayan. Photography courtesy of Art Basel


I don’t do drugs myself but I do enjoy speaking to people who are on them (client confidentiality tends to go out of the window after half a gram of cocaine and a few rounds of Wendy Wok’s bespoke cocktails). There is a natural point in the evening, however, when the scale hits zero and people start disappearing for half-hours at a time while they try to wrestle a dealer's number from the exasperated concierge. During one of these intervals I look around and realise, to my pleasant surprise, that there are only women left in the hotel bar. It hits me: these are, of course, the escorts and sugar babies of the art world, staying sensibly sober. In absentia of her regular sponsor (a well-know German collector who has wandered off to find some MDMA), I offer to pay for the mocktail of a glorious six-foot-something Ukrainian who compliments my perfume (&Horace, if you were wondering) and we strike up a conversation. She introduces me to a few of her colleagues and by the time the men have come back, noses running and eyes watering, I am halfway through one of the most enlightening conversations about the contemporary art world that I’ve ever had.


These women are, naturally, far more interesting and intelligent than any of the men who have hired them. Despite the language barrier (many of them are from Eastern Europe and speak only rudimentary English), we navigate a thoroughly insightful colloquy about art-as-commodity and, even more interestingly, the parallels between prostitution and art collecting. One exchange in particular really sticks out to me:


“When [my employer/date] buys something, he isn’t just buying it,” explains Sara* from Sarajevo to me. “He buys the idea. When he pays for me, he is paying for the idea of other people to think he has a hot girlfriend. It’s the same for art.”


“Art is like having a hot girlfriend?” I ask, and she nods fervently. 


“When he has people in his home and they see he has a big, expensive painting, that is what he is paying for, not for the painting. He is paying for the reaction. He is paying for what people think of him.”


I spoke in my latest Substack about how cultures of collecting have remained broadly the same across the ages, irregardless of their contents: from sixteenth century wunderkammern to today, we have indulged in the act of collecting in order to impress, to arbitrate, to validate the taste and judgement of both ourselves and of our peers. To own something is to approve of it – not only as an object, but as a microcosmic representation of every choice that has led to it's creation and acquisition. This, we say when we buy, sell and display artworks, is Good and Interesting, and I, by association, am also Good and Interesting. Of course, the content of a collection defines what kind of good and interesting you are - are you a champion of minority artists, like Jason Foster or Amar Singh? A revivalist of 90s YBA culture, like Damien Hirst? A post-war pedant like David Geffen? An eclectic power-coupling like or Eli and Edyth Broad or Beyoncé and Jay-Z? A suspiciously divinatory marker of artist success like Paul Allen? The answer hardly matters: the performance of identity and belonging to a class of tastemakers and trendsetters is where the money is really going (well, that and offshore bank accounts). 


As facilitators of this culture, it's natural for art fairs like Basel to fall into sort of social depravity that can really only endear us to the societal structures it relies on. Man is, after all, a self-staging being that constantly seeks recognition and is that not what all art is ultimately about? The desire to be remembered, to make a mark on a world that often feels indifferent to our existence, a world that that, long after the ashes of the nuclear bombs have settled, will only know us by the art we leave behind? Possibly— but I still have a much better time sipping spritzers with six-foot Serbian sex workers than sitting through yet another insipid speech about the intersection of art and ecology.


*Names have been anonymised for obvious reasons. God bless you girls, and hit me up if you’re ever in London.

 

Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is a London-based critic and contemporary arts writer.

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