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Ai Weiwei's art invades the streets of Basel

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Contemporary art dotting the city of Basel, part of Art Basel art fair
  • Artists engage with the history and architecture of the city
  • Aim: get fair visitors into the city and art direct to the locals

(CNN) -- Dotted among its quiet, tree-lined streets; on the shore of its snaking river; and up as far as its medieval walls: contemporary art is invading the very fabric of the Swiss city of Basel.

Commissioned as part of the 42nd Art Basel, described as the world's top fair for modern and contemporary art, which opens this week, Art Parcours is putting art out in the urban landscape, inviting locals to appreciate it for free and getting visitors to the fair to see more of Basel.

Sculpture and installations by artists including incarcerated Chinese sculptor and performance artist Ai Weiwei, and British-Nigerian multimedia artist Yinka Shonibare, are displayed publicly at various points around the city for the duration of Art Basel.

"The (organizers of the) fair were very interested in bringing the art away from the exhibition hall and into the city, so that the citizens of Basel could experience what was going on during the period," explained Art Parcours curator, Jens Hoffman.

"I was thinking it would be interesting to introduce the viewer to the history of Basel from these different buildings and have artists make interventions into these buildings," he continued.

Most of the pieces ... they have this idea of somehow activating the city or changing how you get to know a city through the public space
--Federico Herrero, artist

Ai Weiwei's contribution features banners composed of photographic portraits of 500 of the 1,001 Chinese people that he brought to Kassel in 2007 as part of art work "Fairytale."

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The images are being displayed on Basel's old city wall. "The work is about different types of walls that you need to overcome to get to a place, so it was interesting to connect that piece to that message, and see the symbolic value of the city walls," said Hoffman.

Other works include American artist Anne Chu's project in the Hohen Dolder House, one of the oldest buildings in the city that houses murals detailing the life and times of Swiss folk hero, William Tell. Chu's work reinterprets the story with clay puppets, creating an encounter between the mural's depiction and her own reworking of it.

Belgian artist Kris Martin is filling the aisle of a church with coins and Ugo Rondinone is presenting gnarled and twisted sculptures in the same church's courtyard.

The River Rhine will be brightened by colored kites hanging from trees along its bank, courtesy of Shonibare, while Costa Rican painter Federico Herrero has built frames around the walls of four fishermen's houses along the river and painted brightly colored patterns onto them.

"I have this intention of inserting a landscape within the previous landscape, so that you have another perspective and you activate something very different in the area," Herrero explained.

"I would say that most of the pieces in the Art Parcours program somehow don't relate or function inside of the traditional gallery or white cube, so they have this idea of somehow activating the city or changing how you get to know a city through the public space," he said.

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Locals who witnessed him painting the houses seemed pleased, he said, that he was working in the neighborhood and taking art out of the museum or gallery and into the community -- and brightening it up in the process.

Such local approval is exactly what curator Hoffman had in mind when he first came up with the idea for the project, which is now in its second year.

"Art Parcours is an off-side event that is connected to the main fair but is disconnected from just being purely about the market," he said.

"I like the idea of the neighbors bumping into (the work) and having some kind of reaction to it," said Herrero.

"That's where the Parcours bit comes in," he added.