Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

What does the new $15,000 Art Basel Inside experience buy you?

The answer includes underwater-poetry listening and performances in the desert

Art Basel Inside curator Mark Olivier Wahler. Courtesy Benjamin Schmuck
Art Basel Inside curator Mark Olivier Wahler. Courtesy Benjamin Schmuck

It’s been a week of high-profile announcements of new collaborations in Abu Dhabi: today had the Hay Festival and last week was Art Basel Inside. The three-day event taking place in the capital next February has the shocking price-tag of $15,000 (Dh55,000). But details were thin on the ground. What is Art Basel Inside, and what will your 15 grand buy you?

Marc-Olivier Wahler, director of the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, is curating the event, which runs jointly with Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism. “It’s not an exhibition, it’s not a summit, it’s not an art fair; it’s nothing that you have seen before,” he says. “The idea is to get people immersed in an experience where they would be physically involved.”

Events could include, he says, a trip to the desert to hear a lecture – Wahler cites critical theorists Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway as potential authors – while tramping through the vast Arabian sand, and coming across installations and performances. Other days might include diving with specially engineered sound systems that play poetry underwater. “You can only hear them for 30 seconds because you will have to come up and breathe,” he says. “The poems take this into account in their content and their rhythm.”

Physicality is key. Participants will visit Louvre Abu Dhabi and amplify what he calls the “natural choreography” of a museum visit, being guided by dancers or children speaking different languages, while outside loudspeakers positioned in wooden boats “broadcast live sounds of the deep ocean and remote mountains”.

“You are not just a spectator facing something,” he emphasises. “Each time you do something with your body while experiencing art.”

Art Basel Inside is decidedly unique. Run by Art Basel, a conglomerate of art fairs named after the prestigious yearly summer fair in Switzerland, it will take place in February and is aimed at existing collectors as well as potential ones.

People who are interested in art, but don’t have the opportunity to know enough to collect. They’re perhaps new to art, they need to fine-tune their taste or educate themselves.

Marc Olivier Wahler

Wahler describes the potential audience as “change-makers” andpeople who are interested in art, but don’t have the opportunity to know enough to collect”. “They’re perhaps new to art; they need to fine-tune their taste or educate themselves,” he says. “This is a way to enter art through ways that are less authoritative than going to a museum and seeing works on the wall.”

Art Basel has launched non-commercial events before, most notably Art Basel Cities in Buenos Aires in 2018, held with the Argentinian government. But Art Basel Cities is distinct from this new initiative, which is focused far more on the client side. Participants must apply to a selection committee for tickets, and are likely to be the same cadre of wealthy individuals who might go to Davos or the luxury art tours that now accompany major biennials. Effectively, it enhances the organisation’s offering to collectors in an ever-crowded fair marketplace.

The competition heats up

Within the art world, many noted that the dates of Art Basel Inside coincide with those of Frieze Los Angeles, the art fair launched last year by Art Basel’s arch-rival. The abundance of art fairs is a recurrent subject, squeezing not only gallerists and buyers but also the fairs themselves, which are looking for ways to attract collectors to their events over those of their competitors.

“There are a huge number of fairs in the world, and one of the things we strive to do at Frieze is distinguish the fairs that we do and make sure that we benefit the entire ecosystem of cities – the museums as well as the galleries and the artists,” she says. “Essentially, art fairs exist to support galleries and artists, but they’re also places where a huge number of the public come – plus art students, curators and collectors – so we’re trying to serve all those different audiences.”

Throughout the past year, Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, has divested itself of smaller events, such as Art Dusseldorf and India Art Fair, and appears to be concentrating on its flagship fairs – Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach and Art Basel Hong Kong. But it seems we have yet to reach peak art fair. Frieze Los Angeles was launched last year amid widespread “fair fatigue”, surprising many with its popularity and financial success, and the London-based company is persistently rumoured to have an eye on China next.

Instead, as the overlap between Art Basel Inside and Frieze Los Angeles suggests, the competition might simply become more ruthless. Many collectors and gallerists have complained that, over the past two years, Art Basel in Hong Kong has moved its dates closer to those of Art Dubai. Ben Floyd, chief executive of Art Dubai, says that given the number of art fairs, date clashes are “inevitable,” and arevery much welcomed by international visitors who can combine them as part of the same trip”. But gallerists feel forced to choose.

“Deciding which art fair to go is not easy for a gallery, despite the emotional side of the decision,” says Jal Hamad, director of Sabrina Amrani Gallery in Madrid, which shows Middle Eastern artists such as Manal Al Dowayan and the late Chant Avedissian. The gallery began attending Art Dubai in 2013, but stopped four years later. “The investments the galleries make into fairs are quite heavy,” he says. “In our case, the proximity of dates between Art Dubai and Art Basel Hong Kong, and the amount of fairs we were doing in March, prevented us from doing both.”

Whether Art Basel Inside draws collectors from the busy fair circuit or attracts new ones remains to be seen. But for those who can afford it, Wahler’s programme promises to be one of a kind.

Updated: September 22, 2019 05:45 PM

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