To write a review of Art Basel 40 would be a near-impossible task. An event to be experienced, it doesn’t pretend to offer ideal conditions for looking at art, but it does provide an endlessly exciting train ride through what different artists are making and what and how different galleries are showing. I’m glad that I didn’t miss the work of Guido van der Werve, presented by Galerie Juliette Jongma as part of Art Statements, nor A Lapse in memory, by Fiona Tan, presented by London’s Frith Street Gallery, in the Art Unlimited section of the show.

Fiona Tan: A Lapse in Memory, 2007, video; image held here

Van der Werve, born in Papendrecht, near Amsterdam, in 1977, originally trained as a classical pianist. His works, recently numbered as compositions, have often inspired critics to cite Walter Pater’s famous aphorism, “all art aspires to the condition of music.” Rather than moving towards the abstraction which music can achieve, however, van der Werve’s interest lies in the potential for music to immediately connect with an audience, and in translating this into visual expression. Romantic, Van der Werve’s work has featured a perfect death, complete with tragic ballet, a one-man attempt to stop the world by standing on the earth’s axis and rotating counter-clockwise, and a slow walk on a frozen ocean in front of an enormous ship which follows him, crashing through the ice.

Guido Van der Werve: Nummer Acht: Everything is Going to be Alright, 2007, 16mm film; image held here

At Art Basel, Galerie Juliette Jongma showed Nummer twaalf, Variations on a theme: The king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky and why a piano can’t be tuned or waiting for an earthquake (single-channel 16mm film-to-HD installation), a three-part epic based on three impossible, irresolvable problems – a chess game opening with the King’s Gambit (a romantic, suicidal move, which leaves the King vulnerable from the very beginning), tuning a piano, trying to count the stars in the sky. Each of the three sections of the piece have been filmed in appropriately sublime settings – the famed Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan (of which Marcel Duchamp and Bobby Fisher were members), the active volcano Mount St Helens in NW America, and the San Andreas Fault in California.

Guido Van der Werve: Nummer twaalf, Variations on a theme: The king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky and why a piano can’t be tuned or waiting for an earthquake, 2009, video; image held here

Also part of the exhibition was a curious piano-chessboard by which, when a planned game of chess, opening with the King’s Gambit, is played, the players also play a composition by van der Werve in the key of A minor. The satisfying clunkiness of the machine and the uneven surface of the board make this piece, in the artist’s own phrase, a taut ‘one-liner’ – the romantic idea of the heaviness of choice, even in a light situation; the tension between sticking to the script or the alternative chaos; to use another romantic’s phrase, ‘the unbearable lightness of being’.

To me, what is immensely interesting about the romanticism in this work is the fact that it is essentially private – the element of the ridiculous ensures that the man in black, counting stars, running and scurrying frantically around the sublime San Andreas Fault, is not offered as a new hero or a way to be, but rather as a meditation on one individual effort, one individual heroic task, however essentially futile it may be. [1]

Guido Van der Werve: Nummer twaalf, Variations on a theme: The king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky and why a piano can’t be tuned or waiting for an earthquake, 2009, 4k video, 42 mins; image held here

To a certain extent, what van der Werve uses to draw the viewer into his film pieces is the indefinable associative content of ideas: emotional pull, a sense of familiarity, often bathed in the sepia of old tragedy, a sense of old-world romanticism. Rather than placing the focus squarely on the image itself, he draws on the edges of its meaning. In interviews, van der Werve has identified this as being what drew him to music, rather than visual art: first – the idea of a gut feeling, moving away from the need to get to grips with a conceptual basis before being able to have some connection with a work. In essence, his work reduces complexity into simplicity, and delivers a ‘one-liner’ that expresses and communicates its full gamut of emotions, ideas and dilemmas in one fell swoop, one shot of an arrow.

Guido Van der Werve: Nummer twaalf, Variations on a theme: The king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky and why a piano can’t be tuned or waiting for an earthquake, 2009, 4k video, 42 mins; image held here

Fiona Tan’s A Lapse in memory (HD cam, 1:1,77 widescreen anamorphic, surround/ dolby, colour, edition of 4) is visually stunning. The film follows Henry, the only character, an aging man of graceful limbs and proportions. He lives alone in a sumptuous but faded interior; the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, remodeled by architect John Nash for King George IV into a fantastic neo-oriental extravaganza in 1815 – 21. His day is filled with a sense of urgency, pattern and ritual that at times seems to have no purpose or direction: the precise arrangement of clothes and blankets before sleeping, anxiously brushing the floor where nobody has walked, carefully laying out a trail of small paper lanterns, only to return and gather them again, just as carefully, into his arms, erasing his own path. His modest presence doesn’t fit his ornate setting, and it offers him no comfort; he sleeps on the floor, and sits on the floor. As the camera follows his movements, a narrator gently speaks about his possible story, sometimes focusing on his mental state, on his seeming distress at not being able to locate himself within his surroundings, sometimes conjecturing on how he arrived in his place, whether it is somewhere he has traveled to, or somewhere he has returned to. At times, the narrator observes his movements, and gives directions on how he is to be filmed, focusing on his foot as he sleeps, etc. He seems to exist in a fitful, anxious dream, unable to piece together his shards of memory to construct an identity. He moves almost noiselessly through spaces that were built for parade, pomp and ceremony. Tan, born in 1966 in Indonesia and representing Holland at the 53rd Venice Biennale, explores the overlapping connections between representation and identity in her practice. The use of the Brighton Pavillion in this piece is evocative of early Victorian imperialism, of the acquisition and use of exotic architectural styles as representative of the triumphant extension of the British Empire.

Fiona Tan: A Lapse in Memory, 2007, video still; image held here

The contemporary experience of the building is much like Henry’s existence; the slipping of memory, living with the architecture – the ‘alphabet’ – of former kings which is written on the landscape, and which structures identity, but in a way which is increasingly indefinable. In an era where buildings are important as icons of national identity, integral to the development of a nation’s image as a tourism experience, and showcased at events such as the architecture biennale at Venice, Tan uses the architecture of the past as a ghostly presence, an amnesiac revenant, which is most terrifying because it obviously means something, but just what is increasingly unclear.

Niamh Nic Ghabhann is a post-graduate student in TRIARC, the Irish Art Centre at Trinity College, and works in mother’s tankstation, Dublin. Thanks to Gallerie Juliette Jongma and Frith Street Gallery for their help in putting this review together.

[1] The ideas of the Romantic and the Sublime are often linked in art; van der Werve’s interpretation of the sublime reflects something of Burke’s original motivation. Edmund Burke, the great eighteenth-century orator and philosopher, outlined the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful in art in, rather terrifyingly, a hastily written undergraduate essay which became one of the most influential tracts on aesthetics in the following centuries. Central to his understanding of the sublime was his experience of suffering experienced by those who did not fit into the cool, irrefutable Enlightenment machine – Burke’s essays relentlessly emphasise the human and the individual in the face of a logic which sliced off the inconvenient.