“The street is more important than the museum . . . ” a billboard in Basel declares, part of a work by the artist Tony Cokes in this year’s Parcours, Art Basel’s platform for works of art in public places. It is a sentiment that its curator, Samuel Leuenberger, cannot wholly endorse but with which he feels an affinity.

“The thing about Parcours is it is absolutely inclusive. Anybody can go, even the works that are in [pay-to-enter] museums are free to see. And you can stumble across them — nobody stumbles into an art fair by accident,” he says.

The title of this year’s event, Word of Mouth, Leuenberger explains, reflects the fact that people might not know the works are there at first, but will be “telling everyone to go and see them by day three”.

It is the Swiss curator’s eighth year of running the initiative, which began as an Art Basel-backed project of 10 works in 2010 and has grown into something very different. Now the Parcours selection, pitched by exhibitors participating in the fair, numbers many more — there are 24 this year — and the galleries are responsible for producing the works, which are mostly for sale.

Three billboards in an underpass. Orange: ‘Maintaining control over the way the rest of the world was to perceive its image was important to Munich.’ Blue: ‘The street is more important than the museum . . . ’ Green: ‘No more art . . . ’
‘Some Munich Moments 1937-1972’ (2022) by Tony Cokes © Courtesy the artist/Kunstverein München/Haus der Kunst/Greene Naftali/Hannah Hoffman/Felix Gaudlitz. Photo: Max Geuter.

The locations have also become more inventive and Leuenberger highlights those that are new this year. These include a tunnel with a canal under the prestigious Trois Rois hotel, where French artist Laure Prouvost is staging a video called “No More Front Tears” (2022), a play on the word “frontiers”. The work is flagged at the tunnel’s entrance with a newly made neon of its name; visitors need to go down a staircase and walk along the canal to see the film.

The location is not without risk — “If there’s a lot of rain, then it could get flooded,” Leuenberger says — but this is something Prouvost is comfortable with. “She originally came with a completely different idea [to show a glass work in a public fountain] but when she saw the tunnel she was so taken by the bizarre location that she changed her mind,” he says, adding that most artists similarly conduct a site visit to Basel ahead of time.

A large silver arm gives the peace sign
‘Duality (Reflection)’ (2022) by Hank Willis Thomas © Hank Willis Thomas. Image courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts

The Prouvost is probably not something that people will stumble upon by chance, but plenty of other works are. A roundabout on the south side of the Wettsteinbrücke bridge is the site of a 3.6-metre-high mirrored stainless steel peace sign made — again especially for Parcours — by Hank Willis Thomas. This too was a challenge to organise. “It might look simple just to put a work on a roundabout, but there are lots of local departments involved,” Leuenbeger says.

For the Münsterplatz, the most popular site, an installation of eight supersized straw men by Swiss artist Kaspar Müller is still in production when Leuenberger and I speak a few weeks before the opening. Again, potential rainfall is an issue but, Leuenberger says, the works are conceived as ephemeral anyway. “Müller is playing with the cliché of this epic, historic square with a very fragile and non-commercial work,” he says.

A large straw man
Untitled (2023) by Kaspar Müller © Courtesy the artist/Société

More than half of the Parcours works are outside this year, something of an achievement in the event’s relatively small Grossbasel area (south of the Rhine). These include a mini sculpture show in the gardens of the private Haus zum Raben, with works by Berlinde De Bruyckere, Thomas Houseago and Wyatt Kahn.

There are plenty of indoor highlights too. New York-based Canadian artist Chloe Wise has made a film of recreated late-night US commercials for the decommissioned Gothic Martinskirche church, complete with custom-made welcome mats to sit on. For the grand contemporary-art library of the Kunstmuseum, Portuguese artist Luís Lázaro Matos is staging an intervention that subverts its austere quiet with a work about desire “with an underlying, sexy side to it”, Leuenberger says.

This year, there is even a work in a bar, which, as well as serving up a late-night drink inside the Kunsthalle, will have a set of Playmobil toy houses by the young German artist Julian Irlinger that explore his country’s national and cultural identity.

25 small toy houses in a grid of 5 by 5. They look like traditional German houses
‘Untitled (Fachwerkhaus)’ (2021) by Julian Irlinger © Courtesy Julian Irlinger/Galerie Thomas Schulte. Photo: Andrea Rossetti

It seems a shame only to display the works for a matter of days — June 12-18 — but there are practicalities in play, not least that certain sites command a full programme of art throughout the year. Vincenzo de Bellis, director of Art Basel’s fairs and exhibition programmes, hints that Parcours could be a launch pad for the group’s wider activities. “[It] represents a very diverse experience compared to the white-cube model that is still dominant in the art world. I believe in the white cube very much but if we can have other contexts and experiences, it is enriching for everyone.”

Galleries too seem to recognise the opportunity — Gagosian has announced the forthcoming closure of its space in London’s King's Cross and committed instead to a programme of putting art in public sites across the city. Leuenberger says that for younger artists in particular, the Parcours project generates excitement: “They are usually so geared towards the gallery show or art fair booth, this is more fun.”

It seems tunnels, bars and roundabouts are part of the future for commercial art exhibitions.

June 12-18, artbasel.com

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