BASEL – Maurice Mentjens, whose interior-design accolades include those for a café at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, has been visiting Art Basel since the 1990s. For him, the most fascinating part of the Swiss fair is Unlimited, an exhibition platform for large works of art presented in a vast hall. Of the 86 projects on show in June, five in particular caught Mentjens’ eye. ‘Every morning when I wake up and hear the birds sing, I still think of Samson Young,’ he says of the Hong Kong-based artist whose sound performance and installation, Canon (2015), sees a policeman using a long-range acoustic device – a sonic nonlethal weapon – to broadcast the cheeps of birds in distress. ‘The birdcalls created a captivating aftersensation.’
Mentjens felt a magical quality emerging from Out of Ousia (2016), a work by Alicja Kwade. The sculptural environment features a two-sided concrete wall, a double mirror and two boulders. One rock appears to be natural and the other is made of aluminium. ‘It’s like a philosopher’s stone: the transformation of matter into gold or, in this case, silver. The wall with glass and mirror also reminded me of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.’
Hans Op de Beeck’s The Collector’s House (2016) – a grey interior adorned with art objects, among which an African mask, still lifes, a Brâncuşi and a Monet water-lily pond – made Mentjens think of Pompeii. ‘There was a mysterious atmosphere; the whole room felt like a memento mori,’ he says of the Belgian artist’s piece. ‘It was like a grey layer of dust covered all the objects, as if no one had been there for 50 years.’
Mentjens describes Ai Weiwei’s White House (2015) as ‘a beautiful surreal object, like a heavenly temple’. The artist coated the frame of a house from the Qing Dynasty in white paint, alluding to the way in which China’s modernization is overwriting its history. As Mentjens notes, however, the installation ‘would have done much better outside in a park’.
The fifth work to attract Mentjens’ attention, Tony Oursler’s template/variant/friend/stranger (2014) comprises six oversize faces imprinted with networks of nodes. Video screens replace eyes or noses in the piece, which draws on the biometric data of facial-recognition scans used by the authorities and ATM machines. ‘I’ve always liked Tony Oursler’s work, and this was like a great psychedelic freak show that felt very “now”,’ says Mentjens. ‘The giant heads brought to mind the statues on Easter Island.’
How does visiting Unlimited impact Mentjens’ own work? ‘I always have a narrative concept in my designs,’ he replies. ‘It’s influenced by works of art, movies, literature, large cities and architecture. Art is the highest form of human expression. If you’re interested only in design, you’re at risk of mental inbreeding.’ Specifically, the Dutch designer names Donald Judd as an important inspiration for the work he’s done over the past 15 years.
When asked which other art fairs and events he attends, Mentjens says he ‘used to go to Art Cologne before it was overtaken by Art Basel. I’m looking forward to next year, when I hope to visit the Venice Biennale, as well as two interesting fairs in Germany: Documenta in Kassel and Skulptur Projekte Münster.’