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06 Oct 2009, Posted by Eric Karstens in Off topic: Art, etc., 0 Comments

“Holbein to Tillmans” at Schaulager


The Schaulager in the Basel, Switzerland, suburb of Münchenstein, is one of the boldest, most audacious, and most fascinating art spaces I have seen so far. The building’s stand-offish demeanor begins already with its location: Rather than on posh city centre real estate, it sits in a forlorn industrial area, surrounded by drab offices and warehouses, and is trapped in a maze of motorways, steets, and railway tracks. You wonder if anyone ever tried to reach it on foot, because that appears almost impossible, if not dangerous. The plot seems to never have received the attention of a gardener or landscape architect; it is just an unruly meadow with a cheap fence around it.

The provocation continues with the outside shape of the museum. It is a brutish, virtually windowless box, coated with gravelly beige plaster. Upon seeing the Schaulager for the first time from afar, when approaching it from the nearest freeway exit, it is hard to believe that this huge, ugly block of concrete could actually be a fine arts institution. Only the front side with the visitor’s entrance opens an angular white recess to the world. However, even this facade is pretty forbidding: A narrow band of windows crouches deep into a slanting front yard, and to enter the main building, visitors must walk through a low-ceilinged portal house that would also be appropriate for a medieval stronghold.

The wow effects continue inside where it immediately becomes clear that this is indeed a far cry from any conventional museum. The Schaulager, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (who, among other very notable projects, spectacularly morphed the London Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern), is anything but a solemn place to worship art. Quite the contrary, it is an art storage facility and no-nonsense workshop at the same time, stripping away the fuss and posturing of a traditional gallery in favour of bare-bones engagement with the artworks.

However functional and high-tech, the inside architecture is not at all modest. The bold wow effects continue with the vast open space of the lobby, the arrangement of the four floors of storage balconies, stark neon lighting, a truck-sized inner driveway with adjacent restoration workshops, and even the bathroom facilities. Besides the aforementioned portal house, the cafeteria is almost the only other place where the architects allow for some playfulness: Its gray ceiling and side walls are shaped like waves as seen from under water.

And yet, the overall sobriety of the Schaulager elicits the best impressions from artworks throughout all periods, as exemplified by the most recent exhibition Holbein to Tillmans, which spanned a time frame from the 15th century until today. While the Kunstmuseum Basel was emptied out for a blockbuster van Gogh show, the Schaulager took the opportunity to join up the evacuated master pieces with rarely exhibited works from storage in order to create dialogues between congenial works from different eras. And voilà – the exhibition breathed new life into oft-seen standards as well as less frequently shown works.

As far as video art is concerned, the exhibition featured Bill Viola’s Anthem (1983), Gary Hill’s Bemerkungen über die Farben (1994, a girl reading from a Wittgenstein treatise), Anri Sala’s Làk-kat, and David Claerbout’s Sections of a Happy Moment (2006). The latter is not strictly video, but more like a slide show. It shows a Chinese family in a Belgian suburb, with the children tossing a ball to each other. It is only one frozen moment in time, but photographed simultaneously from a multitude of different angles and distances. Claerbout blends the still pictures in such a way that he creates almost an illusion of movement, which is enhanced by a soft piano music track.

Please also see related posts at Artobserved, Designboom, and Likeyou.