It takes a full year to bring one of Art Basel's most popular exhibits to life. Here's how it all comes together.

Updated
Ugo Rondinone's "luminous light."
Ugo Rondinone's "luminous light."Monica Humphries/Business Insider
  • Giovanni Carmine has curated Art Basel's Unlimited show for four years.

  • Carmine told BI that picking the art, building a hall, and installing it for the latest show took a year.

  • This article is part of BI's 2024 Art Basel series, taking you inside the art fair's global scene.

Giovanni Carmine tosses out words like "dialogue" and "conversation" to describe the relationship between artworks in Unlimited, an exhibition at the annual Art Basel show in Switzerland.

Carmine, the director of Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, told Business Insider his goal as the exhibit curator is to find a way for pieces with vastly different subjects to flow together and converse.

While some pieces, like Lutz Bacher's "Chess," have literal sound, others, like David Claerbout's "Birdcage," intentionally leave out noise. Regardless of the sound a piece omits, Carmine hopes it ignites a discussion among the observers.

A person sits in front of David Claerbout's "Birdcage."
A person sits in front of David Claerbout's "Birdcage."Monica Humphries/Business Insider

"The people that come here, they will have — maybe for the first time — an experience they will never forget," Carmine said. "This is the proposition that art makes: Let's discuss things together, let's figure it out, and let's challenge ourselves, too."

For Carmine, creating a space to welcome those conversations doesn't start weeks or months before the show. Curating a space like Unlimited takes a year to complete.

Giovanni Carmine stands in front of a Keith Haring artwork.
Giovanni Carmine stands in front of a Keith Haring artwork. Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Curating this year's Unlimited show started at last year's Art Basel

For one week each summer, the Swiss town of Basel ushers in an influx of visitors. Gallery owners, museum curators, artists, and art-curious tourists arrive for the Art Basel show.

The weeklong event is divided into a handful of sectors. Art installations dot public spaces, creating the Parcours program. Inside one large hall, more than 250 galleries display art from around the world. Films are showcased, and experts host discussions, Q&As, and debates.

Perhaps the most popular part of Art Basel is the Unlimited sector, famous for its large-scale works. The exhibition doesn't have a theme, but Carmine describes it as "an overview of contemporary art and what is interesting at the moment in the market."

In a hall the size of three football fields, artists can create and showcase work without physical barriers.

This year, 70 projects were featured in the 172,000-square-foot room. The works include immense installations, seemingly never-ending paintings, captivating live performances, encompassing photo series, and striking video projections.

For example, Chiharu Shiota's "The Extended Line" takes up about 1,550 square feet of the hall. Miles of red rope hangs above a bronze cast of the artist's open hands and arms, urging viewers to question what it means to be human. In another area of the hall, 1,200 of the world's most popular names stretch across a wall in a project titled "The World: A Moment in Time" by Allan McCollum.

Carmine said the placement of each piece is intentional. But before he can decide where an artwork will find its home in the hall, Carmine must select what will be displayed — something that starts a year in advance.

"The moment we open the show is the moment we are starting to work for the next year," he said.

Julio Le Parc's work "Zepelin de Acero."
Julio Le Parc's work "Zepelin de Acero."Monica Humphries/Business Insider

This is Carmine's fourth year of curating Unlimited. He spends the week of Art Basel conversing with gallery representatives, discussing artists' works, and planting seeds for the next exhibit.

Once Art Basel is over, Carmine said these conversations get more serious. Instead of an individual artist submitting a project, the artwork is featured with the support of a gallery.

Carmine's next step is to visit galleries to view artworks and artists. He might head to another Art Basel show in Paris or Miami and continue exploring potential works.

Then, a committee works together to select the projects by the end of January. Like most years, a selection of old and new works were picked this year.

Carmine is given the blank canvas of an enormous white hall, and for the next two months, he'll work with an architect to design the space. Walls will need to be built, and rooms will need to be created to house each project.

Seba Calfuqueo performs during Art Basel's Unlimited showing.
Seba Calfuqueo performs during Art Basel's Unlimited showing.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Carmine estimates there were about 50 iterations of this year's hall. Each year has hurdles, and this year, Carmine was tasked with developing a space for unusually long pieces.

"I knew that having some really long paintings would be a challenge to show them in a way that's good for the paintings, first of all, and for the visitors to see," he said.

Carmine said the team landed on the use of diagonals. Two long walls divide the room. Keith Haring's "Untitled (FDR NY) #5-22" stretches across one wall, and Sam Falls' "Spring to Fall" fills another.

"Through the placement, you can generate also a kind of dramaturgy," Carmine said.

For example, Carmine said it was intentional to have Mario Ceroli's "Progetto per la Pace" be the first piece visitors see. The mixed-media work, composed of 365 white silk flags staked in soil and hay, represents a vision of peace.

"In these moments of human history, I think it's interesting to put an exclamation on this topic at the beginning of the exhibition," he said.

Mario Ceroli's "Progetto per la Pace."
Mario Ceroli's "Progetto per la Pace."Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Once the hall's layout is finalized, walls and lights are built and placed. Finally, the galleries and artists arrive to install their projects about four days before Art Basel begins.

A view of Art Basel's Unlimited hall.
A view of Art Basel's Unlimited hall.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Carmine watches as the bright white room is transformed. During installation, he estimates he walks about 30 miles a day while supervising the process.

Then comes Carmine's favorite part: welcoming an audience.

Faith Ringgold's"The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro."
Faith Ringgold's"The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro."Monica Humphries/Business Insider

'A little town of art'

For the next week, viewers will wander through what Carmine calls "a little town of art." The projects invoke a wide range of emotions.

Kresiah Mukwazhi challenges cultural norms and taboos placed on girls and women in her 26-foot-long work, "Nyenyedzi nomwe (The Seven Sisters Pleiades)." In the piece, she uses more than 1,000 pieces of salvaged bra straps and lingerie fabric from sex workers in Harare, Zimbabwe, to showcase lived experiences.

Across the hall, viewers do exactly what Julio Le Parc set out to do with his installation, "Zepelín de Acero." His piece, which uses stainless steel and mirrors, stimulates active engagement. People of all ages walk around the reflecting pieces as they catch glimpses of themselves and others.

Carmine said the response this year has been overwhelmingly positive, adding that the commercial aspect of the Unlimited exhibit has been a success.

The 70 projects are listed for sale, and because they are so large, the target buyers are typically museums or private foundations. Installations like Christo's "Wrapped 1961 Volkswagen Beetle Saloon," a recreation of the artist's earlier work, were listed for $4 million. Christo was known for these large-scale works, such as wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2021.

Carmine said everyone from art collectors to galleries to the general public has shown appreciation and amazement for the exhibit.

And, he added, conversations seem to be sparking.

"What I was reaching for, it's happening," he said.

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