No One Told the Cows Not to Lick the Artwork

On Sunday morning, Roman Mathis, a farmer on the outskirts of the bucolic Swiss city of Basel, noted with concern that one of his cows was standing in a small wading pool filled with beans that had recently been installed next to his barn.

It wasn’t wholly unexpected: Mathis had allowed gallerists and artists to use his property as part of a freewheeling art event called the Basel Social Club. As he stared at the pool, he couldn’t tell if it was it was an artwork or a random piece of detritus, and if he should shoo the animal away.

“Some of this art speaks to me, though at a certain point it passes a threshold,” Mathis said, gesturing to black inflatable tubes that had been affixed to his barn’s facade. “But it’s been interesting to go along with it.”

The pool was indeed an installation, by Alondra Juárez Ramirez. But the Basel Social Club — a combination of art fair, party and public exhibition that will run through Sunday on farms and public land in the city — is meant to blur the boundaries between the art world and everyday life. The annual event, which changes locations every year, has become compelling counterprogramming to Art Basel, the world’s largest art fair, which takes place this week in the nearby convention center.

Most of the work is for sale, and for galleries and artists, the event is an opportunity to show and sell their works in a setting less dominated by the art market’s commercial concerns. “I really believe an artwork sticks in your mind more if you form an emotional relationship with it, and you cannot do that in a fair booth,” said Victoria Dejaco, a participating gallerist from Vienna. At an event like Art Basel, she said, “it all blends together.”

The first two editions of Basel Social Club were set in an abandoned villa and an empty mayonnaise factory. This year’s event is entirely outdoors in Bruderholz, a pastoral area southeast of the center of Basel. About 70 exhibitors, including the galleries Esther Schipper and Andersen’s, have set up works on the rolling hills. The dozens of exhibited artists include the environmentally oriented installation artist Tomás Saraceno and the kinetic artist David Medalla.

In a group video interview, the event’s three organizers — Robbie Fitzpatrick, a gallerist; Hannah Weinberger, an artist; and Yael Salomonowitz, a performance curator — said they chose the setting to highlight artworks made to be shown outdoors, in part because such pieces are rarely exhibited at fairs, and also to highlight climate and ecological themes.

Fitzpatrick said that “art fairs have remained essentially unchanged since they were created in the last century” and that such events rarely offer the social freedom and fun encounters that many people missed after the lockdown phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The costs of taking part in Art Basel, furthermore, largely limit participation to top-tier galleries. The related financial pressures lead to a disproportionate emphasis on paintings, he said, because they are more easily sold to buyers, narrowing the prospects for artists working in other forms.

The Basel Social Club, by contrast, is light on painting and heavy on sculptures, installations and performances. It includes a dance piece by Mette Ingvartsen, a Danish choreographer, featuring nude performers wearing masks as well as a country music show by the artist Sophie Jung that will be performed with goats. It also features less high-minded social events: On Wednesday, there is a concert by the musician Haddaway, best known for his dance-pop anthem “What Is Love?”

“The Basel Social Club is a new way of bringing galleries together,” said Marc Spiegler, the former global director of Art Basel. He added that the many similar events that have popped up alongside international art fairs, including at Frieze London and Art Basel Hong Kong, were a testament to its appeal. “But I haven’t seen any imitator be as successful.”

The event emerged in 2022, after the owner of an empty villa in Basel offered it as a potential venue. The organizers decided to create an event to coincide with Art Basel, in part to take advantage of the art-world influx in the city. They installed electricity and water in the villa and set a comparatively low participation fee for galleries.

The name, they said, was as an ironic joke, given that a “social club” is usually members-only. “We wanted this to be accessible to all,” Weinberger said, recalling that the villa became a raucous meeting spot for teenagers and neighbors.

The second Basel Social Club, held in a defunct part of a factory, drew 30,000 people, many of whom were not regulars on the art scene. Fitzpatrick said he knew they had hit a nerve when people lined around the block for a concert by the American rapper Mykki Blanco. “There were people from the art world crying in our spaces,” Weinberger said, because they had grown so used to experiencing art in a “generic context.”

This year’s outdoor setting has come with new challenges, including the weather. An opening performance of a piece by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, involving a tractor outfitted with percussive objects, had to be called off with short notice because insurers were nervous about potential rain damage. Other artworks have been licked by cows, and Weinberger said that a swarm of bees that was part of a work by the Swiss artist Sandra Knecht disappeared after its installation, spurring concern the bees might attack visitors. (The bees were eventually recaptured and driven off site.)

Salma Jamal Moushum, a member of Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, a collective from a village in northwestern Bangladesh showing vibrant textile works made from reused saris, said that she felt more at ease showing her work in a chaotic outdoor setting than indoors. “In an institution, people have to be silent and follow protocols,” she said. “At home, we install our projects outdoors and invite the neighboring villages and it’s like a party.”

“That’s how it feels like here,” she added.

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