New York Times: Art Basel’s Other Exhibition Hall Is a City

It was an odd yet endearing interaction that would likely have stuck out in anyone’s memory. While in the countryside outside Oaxaca, Mexico, almost a decade ago, the Mexican artist Rodrigo Hernández saw a pigeon on the street. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, a monkey came up and gave the bird a hug.

“It was incredible because the pigeon allowed this to happen because they are very fast and as soon as you approach them, they disappear,” he said, adding that the encounter lasted only a few seconds before the pigeon started moving away. “There were some kids around and we all looked at each other like, ‘Did you see that, did that just happen?’ It was almost like this vision.”

Mr. Hernández has captured that intimate embrace in one of 12 brass hammered sculptures in varying sizes — other pieces include lovers in bed and dancing couples — that are, as he described, “like snapshots or short scenes” inspired by touch where the perception and memory of the moment lasts longer than the physical contact.

His installation, “Nothing Is Solid. Nothing Can Be Held in My Hand for Long” (the title taken from lyrics by Sonic Youth), will be shown in the vitrines outside of the recently renovated Theater Basel as part of Art Basel’s Parcours sector, which focuses on site-specific performances, sculptures and installations dotted around Basel, Switzerland, during the fair.

Parts of the installation had been shown in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2019 at the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. But when the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic made physical contact almost forbidden, Mr. Hernández said, these “fleeting moments of touch became more meaningful.”

While Parcours, which means “journey,” is not new to the fair this year — this will be the 11th edition — it has taken on more resonance and urgency during the pandemic. In part, it is because of the renewed appreciation for space, the idea that people now think more about their proximity to others and about how comfortable — or uncomfortable — they feel about being in enclosed areas.

There is also a revitalized gratitude for the outdoors, and a rediscovery of cities and locales that before the pandemic were maybe not thought about or appreciated as much. Parcours presents an opportunity for all of this to be considered, with 20 artists from across the globe being featured in a variety of settings.

Some will be shown inside buildings: A video and participatory dance by Cecilia Bengolea of Argentina will happen inside Theater Basel while 12 large-scale paintings and performances by the Swiss artist Claudia Comte will be in the refurbished Stadtcasino Basel concert hall.

Other artists will take to the streets. Hamish Fulton, a British artist and a keen hiker who reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2009, has organized an hourlong participatory walk on the Marktplatz on the first day of Parcours, which starts ahead of the fair. Videos of that performance piece, “Walking in Every Direction,” will be shown on large screens on subsequent days.

Meanwhile, gargoyle-inspired towering sculptures by Bunny Rogers, a Texas-born artist, will be installed on the Münsterplatz.

“I always say that Parcours is a great counterpoint to being in the fair hall all day because you are out in the open often,” said Samuel Leuenberger, the curator of Parcours, who added that the sector drew 10,000 to 12,000 visitors each year. “With 20 locations and short walks between locations, we never have a space that’s overfilled.”

It is a chance for art lovers — and even those who usually are not interested in art — to come across works that have been created or curated specifically for the space in which they are being shown, all free of charge.

“People who are not interested in contemporary art might stumble upon a public intervention that can, for a moment, productively disorient them or make their everyday stroll more exciting,” wrote Klara Hosnedlova, a Czech artist based in Berlin. She will be presenting free-standing mixed-media sculptures and framed embroidered compositions in the Maurerhalle at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel. She added that she appreciated how site-specific works could help “call attention to various mundane elements that might otherwise go unnoticed.”

That certainly is the case for the project “Breed” by Pakui Hardware, the Lithuanian duo of Neringa Cerniauskaite and Ugnius Gelguda. The site-specific work includes stainless steel tables and handblown glass sculptural compositions that look like a mixture of test tubes and limbs. It will be installed in the Peter Märkli-designed visitor’s center of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, a new space for Parcours this year.

For the past three years, the artists have been exploring the relationship between bodies and contemporary medicine. Their work is focused on the idea of how bodies — human and other — can be breeding grounds for new life-forms. Ms. Cerniauskaite said that when they were coming up with the idea for the project, they kept returning to the fact that every day over 10,000 Novartis employees who work on the campus would be passing by their installation.

“For them to stumble upon something unexpected on their way to work,” she said, might resonate with their own work, “because it has references to laboratory design, the context of research and growing forms of life.”

Ms. Cerniauskaite added that it was an interesting year to be a part of the Parcours programming, in part because “people started discovering cities and going to neighborhoods that they would have never ended up going to before.” Also, she said, for architects, city planners and politicians, “it is a good moment to think ‘What is the public space?’”

That is something that the New York artist Sarah Sze, who will be having her first solo Swiss show at the same time at Gagosian’s Basel gallery, has also thought about a lot. “Timepiece,” Ms. Sze’s first major outdoor video work, will transform the facade of a building that is part of the University of Basel, and it will examine how, like nature, digital images have unpredictable lives of their own.

“I think for the time we are in right now it is incredibly important in terms of being outdoors,” she said, “experiencing outdoor physical space in an entirely different way.”

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 23, 2021, Section S, Page 2 in The New York Times International Edition

Photo credits and captions: 1) Credit…Rodrigo Hernández; 2) Credit…the artists and carlier/gebauer (Berlin/Madrid)