Art Basel: 270 exhibitors show Art market's resilience as decaying bread takes the cake

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Something's cooking in Basel. If you're looking to get a taste of what's happening in the global art market, there's no better place than Switzerland's sprawling Art Basel fair.

After an entirely online event last year due to the pandemic, Switzerland's behemoth Art Basel fair returned in-person on Tuesday (21 September).

Created by Swiss visual artist Urs Fischer, an exhibit called the "bread house" is being exhibited as part of Art Basel's plus-size 'Unlimited' section. After all, there's nothing so evocative of memories as the staff of life itself.

"It's a piece which touches everyone, I think, not only because bread is a very common thing or common metaphor for everybody, but also because it's a piece of art that smells and talks about decay and it's a very poetic piece but also on a sculptural point of view, I think it's surprising to see using bread to build basically a one-to-one house," says Giovanni Carmine, curator of Unlimited.

Almost bursting from the convention centre walls, 62 large-scale works are appearing, including David Hockney's 'Pictures at an Exhibition'.

Over 270 galleries from around the world are exhibiting at Art Basel 2021, which is back in the physical world.

"I think collectors were active over the pandemic, artists were active over the pandemic anyway. And I think every actor of the art world is happy now the online time is at least not the only possibility at the moment, but that we are able to be in front of amazing pieces and to discuss about those pieces together," says Carmine.

British-Guyanese artist Frank Bowling's son, Ben, has accompanied this large-scale work, named 'Samson's Circle', to Switzerland.

Now aged 87, Frank's no longer travelling, but Ben says he has taken advantage of recent COVID-19 lockdowns to produce new works.

"For him, having an imposed lockdown has meant no visitors, no studio visitors, and in some ways, despite the tragedy of the pandemic, for him it has been liberating," he explains.

"He has this very intense work ethic which means that at 87 years-old he still has to go to the studio to make art as long as he is physically fit. So in a sense the pandemic has been a gift to him to free him from all other constraints and to just say: get on with the work, Frank."

There may be fewer buyers from the United States and South America attending in person, due to ongoing travel restrictions, with the art market bouncing back strongly after 2020 this should not preoccupy galleries too much.

Despite continued COVID-19 restrictions and economic uncertainty, the outlook remains positive, with sales in the sector growing by ten percent, according to a recent report.

A survey of over 700 dealers conducted before the fair found over half (51 percent) saw an increase in sales in the first half of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Sales in the sector as a whole increased by ten percent.

"When there's great art in the market, there is demand and if anything we saw a lack of supply at various points during the last year and a half because collectors were unsure about putting things onto the market at auction or selling through a gallery," says James Sevier, head of contemporary art, Europe, Sotheby's.

"But I think that the market has remained strong, the prices have remained very strong and in fact we've seen prices going up because of the lack of supply."

"There's more collectors now who are looking at adding to their collections than we had early 2019."

Art Basel opened with media previews on Tuesday 21 September. The general public are invited to attend from Friday 24 September to Sunday 26 September.

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