Basel: the joy of dances with death

For my research work at UCL I’ve been reading this year a lot of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century religious texts, protestant and catholic. This is post-reformation media, as it were. It looks to justify, frighten, unify, inspire, confirm or explain. Much is highly intellectual; some is pure propaganda.

And there are the illustrations. In very general terms, for this is a blog entry written on the caffeine-heavy hoof, not a footnoted research paper, the florid religious art of the Italian part of Tom’s trip is not what we’re talking about; this art speaks to the harsher, increasingly realistic imagery – of pain, death, martyrdom, evisceration. Revenge and punishment.


Suddenly this kind of art is everywhere; in Basel it’s part of the cultural landscape. I have dropped myself into the dark recesses of the “northern” imagination. This afternoon I will see one of the more remarkable (visceral) art installations of my life. By a contemporary artist whose work I know, who, through a brilliant collaboration with a New York based curator, has produced a show that illuminates not only his work, but also these bloody post- and pre- Reformation images. It is the imaginative landscape that can give us Lear or Bosch. And even today, in an era of SAW 9, or whatever, both the new and old art seem truly shocking.

But first the cathedral. First-first the frustuck, in a cavern with a better brand of suit than I’ve seen to date, and thus a tiny more froideur in the “good mornings”. I wander the stairs of the Rathaus, then cross the Rhine to coffee on the far bank in order to get a little perspective in the landscapes of Basel. Where the spires sit with the map, the GMAP app, the basic old town. There’s a steep, narrow road, first turn on the left, back on my bank, close to the market square and the Rathaus. It climbs: and each building is taking me back towards Tom, the dates are early, some of these buildings were already well established when Tom came through. This is a Rhine-side ascent towards a famous cathedral where it’s not impossible to say some of the fault-lines of Western Europe collide. One building is now a bookshop, or publishers, with less is more editions of proper big intellectual books, those of Jean Bodin, Cervantes, Kafka…The next building is a very posh dildo store, with elegant glass models, or carved wooden with Dutch-cheese holes.

The Basel Munster started catholic, but was at the very centre of the protestant movements that follow Luther, Zwingli and the reformers who believed the catholic church had come a long and the wrong way from the church of Christ. They went back to The Word – and the images in the churches suffered. But there were other images, those of the pain, often almost sadomasochistic, inherent in belief. it’s just a more cruel world. I stress this is not the academic take, just that of a visitor: I sit for a long time in the Munster, not really doing anything but trying to unlearn. I don’t and can’t share Tom’s passion for tombstones, so instead I savour the sense of quiet. I know that in Strasbourg, another famous cathedral city, the cathedral mood is a cross between The Ministry of Sound Nightclub, and – at night – a Queen concert. So, here, before the crowds arrive, I’m happy to just sit. Outside in the square the boys are beginning to dismantle the seating and the screen used for outdoor showing of movies, sponsored by Orange phones. One guy in black t-shirt has the word “Help” in that famous Orange type. It is the end of summer; school has started, college soon enough. The tourists change, thin down. Perhaps that’s why there is some peace; it is still very early. The dildo shop isn’t even open.

Around the nave a great series of glass-cased manuscripts and even better explication. Tom could have done with history written this well. I learn, for instance, about the initiation rituals of the new university students in the late 1590s: they were forced to dress as wild animals. The academic regimes were tough. This is a very different world from ours, entitlement was worlds away. But death seemed vey close. Erasmus was here; is buried here. I read a little of his In Praise of Folly sitting watching the gentle movements of the morning. It’s more interesting than the BBC news app.

The suffering, that’s the hardest thing to begin to conceptualise. the plague-fears, the intellectual bravery. What people actually did to help create what we might call Europe’s Promise. A promise that lost its way, but whose ideas fissured, and went global, and still do, despite the Twentieth Century it still means something, there are inspirations buried, here – and not here.

Tomorrow in the history museum I’ll see the Basel “Dance of Death”. It tells a compelling imaginative story – of our temporal being. Sometimes, often, when I’m riffing on how I am a European, I’ll define this state through a relationship or series to culture, or a rough understanding of the histories, the Risk Game of it all, the alliances and the battles. The juxtapositions: Milan or Zurich; Paris or Strasbourg; Barcelona or London. But there’s a geographic thing that comes with the walking, a sense of lost things, lost connections. A sense of difference, that in Strasbourg revealed itself as really just another way of looking at things – more closely, I guess. More slowly.

These dark religious images are the counter-culture to the formal portraits, the Holbeins and the Durers. Seen in museums they are very powerful, but of course they were not created for museums – so first I must take the Kunsthaus out of their meaning. And locate them where…?

The number 11 tram stops in the Market square. Soon I am past the barnhof and off out past a mini “Canary Wharf” of modernity. The gallery I am visiting, the Schaulager, is the stop. I wonder how far I will go? As far as the Gehry Vitra museum…?

The tram stops. 100 feet away a gorgeous white rectangle. Something is very cool here.

I wikipedia from the IPAD:

The Schaulager in Münchenstein/Basel

The Schaulager is a museum in Newmünchenstein, a sub-district of Münchenstein in the canton of Basel-Country, Switzerland.

Built in 2002/2003 under commission of the Laurenz Foundation, is was designed by the renowned architectural office of Herzog & de Meuron, the Schaulager was opened in 2003. The Schaulager was conceived as an open warehouse that provides the optimal spatial and climatic conditions for the preservation of works of art.

The institution functions as a mix between public museum, art storage facility and art research institute. It is primarily directed at a specialist audience but is also open to the general public for special events and the annual exhibitions.

This is amazing. The Schlaulager opens at midday; my Swiss tram was, of course, on time. There is 30 minutes to wait. There is no problem, the artist who has inhabited the space has two video installations playing outside. Surreal narrative based video pieces, in one a young girl first seems to be burying something, then she takes a tram to somewhere. Then we realise she is coming here…we see her enter the Schlaugen, and then begin to climb. She is (as in reality) an amazing climber. She navigates the walls of this Herzog & de Meuron space. And then she falls….falls into some primordial goo, falls, as it were, off the page, and out of the canvas.

In the other video a man – The “Artist”, somebody – is arranging the installation of the “piece”. By the time we’ve watched both videos there is a small crown, French, elderly, Swiss Capellio-glasses Men.

And then the show. After ten minutes I have to stop, go back to the bookshop and buy “Matthew Barney – Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail.” I read it cover to cover. And then I start again.

In his great essay, the curator Neville Wakefield, explains how he worked with Barney to create the show, a juxtaposition of Barney’s “Drawing Restraint” series, with some of the mini-masterpieces of post-Reformation Christian iconography. Corneiius Cort, Crispjin de Passe, Jan Luyken…Durer’s Ecce Homo.

Two floors, a ground and a crypt-like basement. Video, drawings, stuff: Barney’s complex, allusive work is beyond blogging. Certainly my own. But his work succeeds, for me, that day, in taking the Kunsthaus out of these old classics. In demonstrating the restraints, and the physical sufferings, of ritualised, what, behaviour? The whole show – and a truly amazing two hour film set on board a Japanese Whale hunting ship at whose conclusion Barney and his wife, Bjork, eat each other…yes, I know, on paper it sounds gruesome. IT is, and the elderly French walk out of the cinema with a “bouffe” of displeasure. But it does make sense.

Just go see. Mortgage the dog. It is an amazing show.

Barney/Wakefield’s vision changes the way I see Basel. The next day the history museum and the classical section – no Warhol for me – of the Kunsthaus make total sense. Art as a very close encounter with death; art as the eternal opposite to the Warhol-thesis of fame for 15 MegaBytes. Art viscerally unabstracted, and yet somehow universalising.

During the summer the courtyard of the Kunsthaus in Basel is turned into a cafe cum live radio station. At night, moody lights and that rap-jazz-funk thing that screams Euro-Sophistry. I talk to a chemist from Dresden. He’s taking the midnight bus for Zurich, but he wanted to hang out for a bit. You know of the “Hexenhammer” of course?” Peter tells me about the last witch burnt in Europe, Anna Goldin. Wow.

In the Kunstmuseum there’s a great Hans Bock painting of the Baths at Leuk. It is dated 1597. Near enough to Tom’s time. It is sensuous in this northern way: all known vices included, but none of that intoxicating Italian colour. In other paintings Death Meets the Maiden. And the Christ in the Tomb, a Hans Holbein, the younger, masterpiece obsessed Dostoievski. It’s funny, all these dances with death are so utterly life affirming. a new way of seeing.

Tomorrow a gay Englishman’s book launch, explaining “The Swiss.”


About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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