Art Basel / Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola


Art Basel / Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola

The 42nd edition of Art Basel, the art world’s most prestigious fair, has just closed its doors with a great final act. The number of visitors and sales has improved over last year and it’s been said that the art market has once again hit a stride reminiscent of 2007-2008. Maybe it is an illusion, but the huge amount of people (and especially buyers), who invaded Basel last week are a clear indication of an art market recovery.

In any case, Art Basel is not only about the market, and during the fair, visitors can have a relaxing break from ‘fair stress’ profiting from the outstanding summer exhibitions proposed by the numerous art spaces in the city. This year, in addition to the wonderful exhibition by Brancusi and Serra at Beyeler Foundation, Shaulager presents, at Kirschgarten Haus, an unusual project by Francis Alÿs enitled Fabiola.

The contemporary Belgian artist, who lives and works in Mexico City, instead of displaying his videos, drawings, paintings or photographs decided to exhibit his own unique collection of around 370 Sunday painter, amateur and professional reproductions of Jean-Jacques Henner’s 1885 portrait of Saint Fabiola. (He is truly a versatile artist!) The collection is the result of about 20 years of flea market and antique shop searching that the artist carried out to find portraits of the Christian saint known as Fabiola (d. 399 AD).

Even if, at first glance, all the portraits seem similar – in each one the Saint is depicted in profile, turned to the right, wearing her red-purple veil – on closer examination, you can see many variations. Unique versions made on canvas, glass, wood and even realised with painted sesame seeds have different colour intensity, frames and textures, but also features and expressions that draw the attention to the details, sometimes subtle, which renders the portraits hypnotic. Drifting around the house, visitors can see the pieces arranged among the objects – porcelain, furniture and toys – of 18th and 19th century domestic life. Aligned in galleries or disposed as ornaments, the works sparks off a sort of game to find all the clearly visible or hidden pieces. Iconic representations of saintliness with all their religious references overwhelm the house in a way that recalls pop culture reiteration of images, giving them new meanings and creating an atmosphere of dialogue between sacred and popular.

Alÿs’ project represents a change in the act of collecting, which is more comparable to a sort of fetishism that comes close to obsession of the icon itself. Using this curious monographic collection that looks like a collective work, Francis Alÿs underlines the distinction between kitsch and valuable, original and copy, anonymous people and famous artists’ production and, of course, the role and structure of market and the issues of authorship.

Even If you missed Art Basel, it’s still worth a visit to the city to discover its cultural offerings, and the exhibition will run until August 28.

Monica Lombardi – Images courtesy Shaulager