Attack of the 50-Foot Artworks: At Art Basel's Unlimited, Great Art Hides in the Shadows of Giants

Attack of the 50-Foot Artworks: At Art Basel's Unlimited, Great Art Hides in the Shadows of Giants
The entryway to the curated Unlimited section at Art Basel 2015

Unlimited is the name of the exhibition in Art Basel’s vast Hall 2, and it is also a synonym for unbounded, unrestrained, and incalculable. Its curator this year, Gianni Jetzer, has embraced this concept with maniacal gusto—wildly proliferating the space, which is as big as a Boeing plant, with so many towering artworks that walking in feels a bit like entering a set piece in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You half-sense that a giant art dealer’s shoe is about to step on you. If you have megalophobia or polyphobia, stay away.

In this Brobdingnagian land, a display can’t just consist of a painting. It has to consist of either THE BIGGEST PAINTING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN or—if that’s not an option—SO MANY PAINTINGS THAT YOU JUST WANT TO EXPLODE. Do you like drawings? HERE IS EVERY DRAWING IN THE WORLD. If a sculpture here isn’t big, there are 50 of them. It’s all completely overwhelming. Even the lone performance piece, by Julian von Bismarck, consists of the bearded daredevil whirling around and around and around in a dish—a commentary on the artist as a being who operates in a separate, more extreme reality than the rest of us.

One of the most interesting things about the exhibition, when you compare it to the elegant and restrained display of art across the Messeplatz, is that it may be seen as expressing in physical size and multiplicity the staggering monetary values at play in the fair and the art market overall. The dollar figures are humongous enough (the total value of art at Art Basel has been estimated at roughly $3 billion) to engender feelings of the sublime; at Unlimited, the art is gamely trying to imitate the scale of the money. 

Jetzer, a talented curator, may be playing with this effect. Among the displays are a few installations that surprise and delight as much as they intimidate: Robert Irwin’s row of black cubes painted on transparent white scrims, Jakub Julian Ziółkowski’s room made out of paintings that churn with feverish male panic about women’s bodies, and Martin Boyce’s post-apocalyptic vacation spot consisting of beach chairs and neon-light palm trees. Ryan McGinley’s room of young, fit naked people photographed being happy and sexy against bright colors is pretty much irresistible. Zhang Enli’s adumbral maze of painted cardboard boxes is smart, spooky, and ingeniously thrifty in its choice of material.

Because Jetzer is merciful, he also provides a scattering of darkened spaces where viewers can seek shelter from the gigantomachia being waged outside. Here, one finds the best works of the show. One of them, a new piece called Happy Soul by Sanya Kantarovsky, is among the most exciting pieces this writer has seen all year. The artist, already a splendid painter of floppy-footed, cartoonish men in existential extremis, has taken a huge leap forward here. He presents a single painting of a naked male figure against a white background, which soon becomes flooded with inventive animations and video projections.

A spotlight follows a butterfly as it flaps to alight on the figure's shoulder; a magician's white-gloved hands emerge to caress the painting; a cascade of blank canvases crashes down around it; figures stalk, sullenly, in front of it. The thumping soundtrack and immersive multimedia experience recalls Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue and Jordan Wolfson’s Raspberry Poser, and Kantarovsky's piece takes its place alongside these shamanic feats that seize the viewer.

Among the other standouts to be found in these darkened art caves is Darren Bader’s first foray into video animation—a loopy, sci-fi cartoon following the artists’s inimitable absurd yet trenchant logic (in one sequence, a football stadium is put in a ziploc bag and sent into outer space.) Also here is Ólafur Elíasson’s transportingly simple installation of a single metal ring that rotates in the middle of the room as a projector illuminates it, throwing off bands of light that slowly envelop the chamber’s occupants, and Oliver Payne’s crisp and hip meditation on doubling and originality (with identical settings showing identical video games played differently).

Below is a good-sized smattering of artworks from the show, followed by more stills from Kantarovsky's Happy Soul.

spinJulian von Bismark’s Egocentric System (2015)

westFranz West’s Untitled (10 Sculptures) (1990-1997)

baderDarren Bader’s The Vagrant (2015)

shrigDavid Shrigley’s Life Model (2012)

blackwhiteEmilio Vedova’s … in Continuum (1987/88)

talTal R’s GARBAGE MAN (1993-2013)

vitrineKader Attia’s Arab Spring (2014)

sheilaSheila Hicks’s The Treaty of Chromatic Zones (2015)

boyceMartin Boyce’s We Are Resistant, We Dry Out in the Sun (2004)

discJesús Rafael Soto’s Sphère Lutétia (1996)

ryanRyan McGinley’s Yearbook (2014)

thingsRoman Ondák’s Signature (2014)

paintings roomJakub Julian Ziółkowski’s Imagorea (2014)

hammockOPAVIVARÁ!’s Formosa Decelerator (2014)

armlederJohn Armleder’s Medium Green, Woodland Scenics, Realistic Trees (FS) (2014)

flowersPascale Martine Tayou’s Plastic Tree (2014)

boxesZhang Enli’s Space Painting (2014)

potsMaha Malluh’s Food for Thought ‘Almuallaqat’ (2014)

irwinRobert Irwin’s Black(3) (2008)

umbrellaHéctor Zamora’s OG-107 Scenery (2012)

greyMarcia Hafif’s An Extended Gray Scale (1973)

laddersJim Lambie’s Shaved Ice (2012/2014)

sturtevantSturtevant’s Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Blue Placebo) (2004)

bikesAi Weiwei’s Stacked (2012)

butterhandblowsanya2sanyamoremoresanyamoresanyaSanya Kantarovsky's Happy Soul (2014)


a treasure trove of fine art from the world's most renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.


through exclusive content featuring art news, collecting guides, and interviews with artists, dealers, collectors, curators and influencers.


authentic artworks from across the globe. Collecting with us means you're helping to sustain creative culture and supporting organizations that are making the world a better place.


with our art advisors for buying advice or to help you find the art that's perfect for you. We have the resources to find works that suit your needs.


Artspace offers you authentic, exclusive works from world-renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Collecting with us helps support creative culture while bringing you art news, interviews and access to global art resources.