Food courts and pharmacies are Basel’s hottest new art spaces

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When the German curator Stefanie Hessler visited Basel last autumn, she was struck by the number of empty storefronts along the city’s main street. The proliferation of “For Rent” signs is a familiar sight in many cities whose fabric has been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, including New York, where Hessler is director of the Swiss Institute, a tastemaking downtown contemporary art space.

The vacancies inspired her vision for this year’s edition of Parcours, Art Basel’s platform for art in public places. Twenty-two artists will occupy some of the empty spaces as well as functioning shops that are more likely to be frequented by locals than globe-trotting art collectors. For example, the Stockholm-based artist Lap-See Lam, whose work is often inspired by the Chinese restaurant her family operated in Sweden, will present a video installation inside the local mall’s food court.

“Public space is changing so deeply,” says Hessler, looking every inch the curator in an oversize blazer, as we have tea in the library of the Swiss Institute a few weeks ahead of the fair. “We’ve changed how we shop, how we buy groceries, how we interact with one another.”

Oval metallic shapes of varying sizes hang before a black and white projection showing a wooden ship with a dragon head bow
‘Tales of the Altersea’ (2023) by Lap-See Lam © Courtesy the artist/Galerie Nordenhake. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger/Bonniers Konsthall

Fittingly for Art Basel, many of the works in Parcours engage with themes of consumption, commerce and the circulation of goods, people and information. Amid the racks of a clothing store, Poland-born artist Joanna Piotrowska will install large freestanding photographs of hands clutching trees and caressing rocks, a nod to the fashion industry’s extractive relationship with nature. Malaysia-born artist Mandy El-Sayegh and a group of performers will endeavour to enter a trance-like state inside her installation on the mall’s top floor — a reference, Hessler says, to “the connection between spirituality and shopping”.

This is Hessler’s first time organising Parcours. (The section’s veteran curator, Samuel Leuenberger, is focusing his attention this year on Agnes Denes’s project on the Messeplatz.) Galleries apply to participate and finance their own projects; all the works are for sale. Around half of them are new, developed with their unusual sites in mind.

It is easy to be sceptical about projects like these, which, if done poorly, can feel like a safari for billionaires to witness locals in the wild. Hessler says she felt a “responsibility of not just plopping down a project” but rather encouraging visitors and Basel residents alike to “experience the place where you are”. It is a principle that has guided much of her work, including as a curator of biennials in Athens, Oslo and Montreal. As a graduate student, she invited artists to create work about domesticity in her Stockholm apartment. For her final Masters project, she collaborated with the Swedish artist Cajsa von Zeipel to install a sculpture of a futuristic woman masturbating in her bed; Hessler slept on the floor for a month.

A young woman wearing a white, round-collar shirt and black trousers stands before a metallic bookshelf filled with colourful volumes
Curator Stefanie Hessler, whose Parcours section at Art Basel aims to revitalise empty shops in the Swiss city with art installations © Lila Barth

This iteration of Parcours tinkers with the traditional format in several ways. For one thing, the venues are mostly privately owned. (Art Basel confirmed that some proprietors will be paid for their spaces, but declined to specify how much.) While previous editions brought art to remote corners of the city, Hessler is installing almost all the works along a central 700-metre stretch of Clarastrasse, which runs from the fair’s grounds to the Rhine, so they can be experienced in one fell swoop. By bringing art inside local businesses, “I hope it doesn’t feel like art tourism only,” she says. Perhaps a student will unexpectedly encounter Piotrowska’s photographs on a shopping trip and become inspired to pop inside the vacant pharmacy nearby to view works by the French artist Pol Taburet.

This iteration of Parcours required close collaboration not only between Hessler and the artists, but also between the art fair and small-business owners. Hessler visited more than 70 venues in order to land on the final list. Sometimes, she or Art Basel staff simply walked into a store cold and made the initial pitch. From real-estate agents to casino operators to the owners of a local distillery, “I’ve met so many people in Basel that I never would have met,” she says.

The head of a young man wearing golden grills rises from a mix of golden and silver jewellery as well as pearls against a glittery pink foreground and a sunset background
‘Home Sweet Jo II’ (2024) by Pol Taburet © Courtesy the artist/Mendes Wood DM

Was there any concern that regular Baselites might be put off by having their day-to-day haunts or shops interrupted by art and art people? Hessler says many of the venue-owners, who had themselves been to Parcours before, were “mostly really excited” about the collaboration and potential new visitors.

One of the more intimate collaborations is between the London-based artist Alvaro Barrington and the owner of Tropical Zone, a shop for imported African goods ranging from hair dye to vegetables. The store “is serving the immigrant community”, Barrington says, “and that experience of community and identity has always . . . informed my work.” Inside the shop, Barrington will erect a wooden structure inspired by his grandmother’s home in Grenada and hang his paintings next to the normal inventory, which will remain accessible to customers. After all: if Art Basel’s clientele can turn cultural experiences into shopping, why can’t the city’s residents turn shopping into a cultural experience?

Parcours runs June 10-16,

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