BASEL – Aside from being the world’s most prestigious art fair, Art Basel also offers a range of projects across the city. Louisa Buck explores.

Art Basel may now be firmly established in Miami and Hong Kong, but the original Swiss fair remains the world’s pre-eminent commercial showcase for modern and contemporary art. This year the Art Basel mothership celebrates its 45th edition with nearly 300 participants offering some of the best work available, ranging from early 20th-century Modernism to the latest offerings from artist’s studios worldwide; but apart from its two floors of gallery booths, what also makes this event so special is the range of curated projects taking place away from the shop floor. Innovative and ever-evolving, these elements offer a depth and richness of artistic experience that remains unparallelled in any other art fair. 

Most prominent and long-standing is Unlimited, the section devoted to projects that are too large to be contained within a fair booth. For the first time, in addition to their usual home in a capacious hall adjacent to the fair, Unlimited’s array of sculptures, films and installations will also occupy an even larger new open-plan wing designed by Herzog & de Meuron. 

“The extra space is the biggest treat,” says Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer, who this year is basing his ground plan on the compositions of Hungarian Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy. One of the most dominant elements is a 100-metre-long floorpiece by Carl Andre that was first shown at Documenta in 1982. “It will be installed diagonally within the exhibition structure and will slice through it like a huge catwalk,” says Jetzer. 

Gianni Jetzer, curator of art basel’s unlimited section.

Around the “core spine” of the Andre will be some 80 artworks that underline Art Basel’s chronological range by combining classic figures with emerging names. A mirrored piece by Michelangelo Pistoletto is offset by a steeple-like “witch’s hat” structure by the Transylvanian artist Andra Urstua. Other works articulating the space include a draped swathe of digitally-printed cloth by young British artist Alice Channer and a hanging sculpture made from window blinds by Haegue Yang of South Korea and a draped textile piece by Californian Sam Falls, rising diagonally from floor to ceiling. 

In the Parcours section of Art Basel the art is literally embedded within the city itself. This year’s series of site-specific interventions returns to the lively Kleinbasel area, a five-minute walk from the main fair. “Traditionally Kleinbasel has always been inhabited by outsiders and foreigners – those on the margins who are a bit different,” says Parcours curator Florence Derieux, who is also Director of FRAC Champagne-Ardenne. “The context for Parcours has changed, and the projects have to fit this new environment,” she adds. Previously focused on the historical and cultural sites of the Kleinbasel, Parcours is now infiltrating the area’s grittier commercial and social fabric with around fifteen radical new projects. 

The interactive and performance elements that have become an increasingly conspicuous feature of both Unlimited and Parcours are given full expression in 14 Rooms, a major new initiative for which fourteen artists have been invited by curators Klaus Biesenbach, Director of New York’s MoMA PS1, and Serpentine Galleries’ co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist to “activate a room” in an exhibition hall near the fair. Among the artists “whose material is a human being” are Marina Abramović, Roman Ondak, Santiago Sierra and Damien Hirst, with world premieres of new performative pieces by Ed Atkins, Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster and Otobong Nkanga unveiled. In order to fit in all of this unprecedented additional activity, fairgoers will need to plan their visit to Art Basel with military precision.

Louisa Buck is a contemporary art correspondent for The Art Newspaper.

Art Basel will take place from 19–22 June.