VITRINE, Basel’s current group exhibition explores how transient artworks are challenging the existing systems of value surrounding art. ‘If it’s not meant to last, then it’s Performance’ brings together work by Tim Etchells, Paul Hage Boutros, Sophie Jung, Clare Kenny, Hannah Lees, Wil Murray, and Rafal Zajko.
Alys Williams, the curator, talks about how the exhibition came to be and the ways in which performance is reshaping the art market.
(Susie Pentelow) - ‘If it’s not meant to last, then it’s Performance’ includes work by seven artists practicing across a diverse range of mediums. What prompted you to bring this work together?
(Alys Williams) - The exhibition initiated from conversations I was having with artists, collectors and other curators and gallerists about acquiring performance - and, as ever, from looking at what was happening in artists’ studios. In other areas of our lives, we increasingly value experiences over physical objects, and I noticed a growing number of artists creating work involving a transient experience designed to exist in a particular moment.
The works in the show explore these ideas through diverse materials and processes – from ice, water, and wax, to light, painted words and a cedar tree. In Zajko’s work, the coloured ice encasing his metal assemblages will melt over the course of a day, leaving dyed stains on the wall around the exposed metal skeletons. Using the artist’s mould, we will replenish the ice weekly. Each artist will give us a set of instructions to perform while their work is in the gallery - these would be passed on to the collector when acquired.
(SP) - In the context of the show, all of the works are considered under the umbrella of performance. Can you talk about this decision?
(AW) - Jung and Etchells are both known for their work in performance. However, they will not perform and there will intentionally be no performance event accompanying the exhibition. Instead, the changing nature of each work can be constantly observed. The other artists in the show do not identify as performance artists: it is the process of material evolution that brings them together under the umbrella of performance.
Looking at a group of ephemeral works through the lens of performance has allowed for an extremely experimental process to evolve for each artist. For example, Murray’s unexposed and unprocessed negatives will be packaged in envelopes and individually mailed to the gallery throughout the course of the exhibition. The envelopes are designed to let in a small amount of diffused light, exposing the negatives over time. The envelopes will be painted with opaque paint strokes and contain loose opaque shapes that will move around during travel, blocking the light and leaving sections of the negative unexposed. The works will be exhibited inside their packaging. An acquisition would involve the collector taking a risk on the contents and choosing when to open and print the negative - if at all.
(SP) - All of the works in this exhibition change over time - some quite dramatically! What can viewers expect from visiting at different points throughout the show?
(AW) - The materials in each work differ greatly, and works will develop and alter at different speeds. For example, the colour of the water in Kenny’s fountain will be changed weekly, but the form and colour of the plaster will alter slowly, building over the duration of the show. Since VITRINE, Basel is situated in the public square and viewable 24 hours a day, the evolution of these works can be constantly observed, giving those who walk by every day a more intimate knowledge of the show than those who visit just once.
(SP) - The nature of performance – and experiential work in general - can make it difficult to operate within the confines of the art market. As a commercial gallery, how do you address this?
(AW) - We are always discussing how to evolve our business model to allow for the most relevant and experimental programming - even if this creates exhibitions that are potentially challenging to the confines of the art market. Today’s market continues to be driven by the need for permanence - whether guided by the conventions of museum conservation or the assessment of art’s value for investment and future resale. Performance sits on the periphery of this, so I wanted to explore how it could lead us towards a new model.
All the works in this exhibition have a realistic mode of acquisition. For example, Etchells’ ‘Further Provocations’ (2016) is comprised of 45 phrases, which will be periodically painted onto the gallery wall before being covered over and replaced with a new line of text. Acquiring this work would involve the collector receiving the set of phrases, instructions, and a contract - much like Sol LeWitt’s paintings, which both offer a good guide when considering acquiring live art and operate successfully in the art market!
The show is allowing a deeper conversation with collectors and we have had more interest in acquisitions of these ephemeral works than expected at this early stage.
(SP) - It can be risky for galleries to take an experimental approach to programming. Is this show typical of VITRINE?
(AW) - Absolutely. Our core purpose is to encourage artistic experimentation and development, and I aim to create an ambitious and challenging programme. Our model of ‘vitrine’ spaces allows for this. Firstly, the lower running cost means that we can take risks: we don’t need to limit our programme to conservative curatorial choices to be sustainable. Secondly, we believe that using an innovative space encourages artists to develop ambitious, experimental works.
I have always thought about exhibition-making as installation and I am drawn to artists who work with strong material-led and process-based practices. Each artwork in this exhibition exists as an individual piece while concurrently becoming an element in an installation. ‘If it’s not meant to last, then it’s Performance’ could be considered a three-dimensional Vanitas: its slow alterations reminding the viewer of the shortness and fragility of life.