For the last 5 years I have been to Basel to help vet the Design Fair. I join with Simon Andrews from Christie's and a small group of exhibitors and we slowly and methodically look at and assess every piece at the fair. It requires an early morning flight on Sunday and it feels quite naughty sneaking away for a night from the build-up to Masterpiece. But the Design Fair is a very exciting adjunct to the main Basel art event and it is a delight to be able to pore over the treasures at will and with total licence. My co-Englishman Simon has been the design guru for Christie's for many a moon and there is nothing he doesn't know about design from around 1900 to the present day. He looks superficially quite disheveled but each item he wears is carefully chosen and turns out to be either by someone or from somewhere interesting or curious. The end result is that he is a walking visual and intellectual encyclopaedia of 20th century design. My role is to cast a skeptical eye with regard to condition and labelling, as well as to look at and confirm the legitimacy of items which are from the age of antiques, which a few dealers exhibit or have an example of, although the fair is committed to Simon's area.
Our flight arrives and are swept into town in a smart BMW limousine. We both feel slightly underdressed for the car which smells both lush and very new. There are a myriad individual seat and temperature settings - like a child with a new toy I want to push all the buttons and fiddle with all the gauges. Much to the relief of the driver we arrive at the hotel before I have time to fully explore all the possibilities. After a brief pit stop we are delivered to the exhibition hall which is directly opposite the one in which Art Basel is being held. On our way we pass a lighting installation which is a confection of inverted cones of transparent plastic each element has a coating labelled 'Perspex'. I guessed it was sponsored but by the time we return, all the labels have gone and it is pure light. At the cafe dining area we gather for our pre-vetting lunch. We are the guinea pigs for the menu and each dish which comes out is duly tasted and evaluated. To begin with, the members of the assembled company are cool and professional and decline a glass of wine - except me. A beautifully chilled glass of Swiss white wine is brought out and I rave about how delicious it is. A short time later, several of the group break ranks and more glasses arrive. Lunch becomes a very chatty event and we all debate the fraught question of restoration with 20th-century pieces - particularly with reference to the life spans of resins and plastics. The conservator from the Vitra museum is with us and her general advice is to keep everything in the dark and in a vacuum. Back in the real world we embrace our task of vetting with appropriate gusto and soon we are all lying on the floor peering at table frames and pointing torches at joints. Five hours later we stagger out shell-shocked and exhausted but thrilled by having seen some truly magnificent treasures.
A short and fatigued walk is followed by champagne and snacks at the Volkshaus. We gather in the wonderful courtyard which played host to the Basel Design fair party before. Last year it rained in a truly biblical fashion and we all took shelter on the balconies and on staircases. This year it was sunny and balmy and we all gossiped enthusiastically. Eccentric snacks appeared, including a foamy meat mousse with a spray cream on top - most people thought it was made of strawberries so the bitter liver taste was quite a shock, This was followed by risotto, then soup - neither what you might describe as finger food. I got into conversation with the Sebastian and Barquet team. On their stand they are showing pieces by American masters of design George Nakashima and Paul Evans. They had a stand at Masterpiece last year but sadly could not do both shows this year. I did not know Tara and her husband but the gallery assistant Olivia used to work for Mallett, so it was nice to catch up. We ended up eating pasta at a restaurant that smelt slightly of drains down by the river and discussed in detail the benefits of eating M&M s as a healthy breakfast. Olivia was convinced of the benefits; I remain impressed but unconvinced.
The next morning I took a tram to the Beyeler Foundation, it is set in a bucolic suburban setting. They have mounted a large and impressive retrospective show of the work of Gerhard Richter, an astonishingly varied artist who seems to embrace a multiplicity of styles and media, producing twisted photo-realist oils and digitally produced abstract work and almost everything in between. The building itself is a work of art being a light and airy jewel by Renzo Piano. I spent a hugely enjoyable couple of hours watching the art groupies prowl around talking loudly to one another as I admired and immersed myself in the work. Art Basel itself starts tomorrow and I will not have time to see it, but the art crowd are already in town and they are killing time en masse before the fandango that starts with a VIP breakfast at 8.30 am.
Returning to the centre of town, I have enough time before my flight home to visit a project called 14 Rooms. In a pavilion designed by Herzog & de Meuron, white walls with mirrored doors offer a surreal opportunity of the Alice in Wonderland variety. The space is scary and claustrophobic. It is intimidating and nerve-racking to open the doors and step into the rooms. Each one is a separate art work, if they were shown in an open traditional gallery space there would be the opportunity to keep a sense of detachment. But here there is a nightmarish quality to the intensity taking place behind each door in these quite small rooms. The sense of being in a cross between a nightclub and a sanatorium is overwhelming. If you look up 14 Rooms on the internet there is a very good and expressive website where each room is fully described. For me, the experience was not one of art appreciation, however, but was more experiential, and I will remember my fear, shock and timidity for quite some time. As we drove towards the airport I mentally celebrated the fact that art still has the power to both shock and educate.