House & Garden | Diary of a Somebody

Nigel Coates

The architect braves the mayhem of Art Basel to find a wonderland of pure magic

Nigel Coates

June 15 2011
Nigel Coates

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Go down to breakfast to discover my modest hotel full of well-heeled art folk. They must have got the last rooms available in Basel. One collector I recognise later in the day by spotting her multiple-faceted titanium bracelet at the next table. I meet my friends at the entrance to the main Art Basel fair beneath a huge Swiss clock with sweeping hands. The size of the crowd is worthy of a football match.

At one minute past we are surging through the doors and in a continuous shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle towards the barrier. Angry VVIPs (I’m someone’s morning date) are arguing with the security guards just ahead of me. Then the pressure breaks: people are climbing angrily over and under the barriers. I discover that apparently, we were at the exit turnstiles. The ones for the entrance are way over to the right.

Inside, comfortably beyond the mayhem, the fair is pure magic: the best contemporary art everywhere you look in a two-storey labyrinth. The event is so international that half of New York seems to be there. Of course there are plenty of young blades, most of whom must either be artists or gallery assistants, but there are also plenty of very mature collector types. We think of the money that is about to change hands in the building (and the amount already spent on surgery).

We head upstairs, and visit various galleries that one or other of us knows, including Maureen Paley, which has a giant Wolfgang Tillmans print of Princess Julia. Funny to see a friend frozen on an art wall. Down on the ground level the big boys strut their stuff, with the Marlborough flexing its Bacon muscles. I stop in my tracks at the site of Maurizio Cattelan’s upside-down cops at Gagosian and across the way we marvel at the beaded giants by Liza Lou.

Tired and with overstimulated brains and somewhat splintered vision, we return to base, back to the design hall which is pleasantly quiet. I realise that on the adjacent stand to mine two of my mates are exhibiting. In a line, but with a wall in between, there’s an Arad, a Hadid and a Coates. Quite a line-up. The back of my sofa reminds me of that famous Irving Penn photo of a torso with corset (that I’d seen in the flesh just minutes before).

Around six it’s time to take off for the airport. Airside is swarming with French soldiers in fatigues. Those of us in civvies are the early defectors heading back to London. I can see the runway: private planes are landing like moths, no doubt attracted to the great flame of art.

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