Let me begin with a disclaimer and beg my readers to indulge the following attempt to parse the contents of my thoroughly art-addled skull. For the sheer quantity of said material that the brain within said skull has been exposed to over the past five days could and should starkly challenge the cognitive capacities of even the most ardent and hardened of art viewers. That quantity includes, but is far from limited to exhibitions at Basel mainstays such as the Kunsthalle Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Schaulager, Fondation Beyeler, the annual Swiss Art Awards, and Art Basel Parcours. I also checked out New Jerseyy (Basel’s edgy quasi-institutional artist-run space) and other more impromptu offerings, like the project space (apartment) SALTS and Ausstellungsraum Klingental.

Was there a theme? Some sort of red thread? Not necessarily, but if I were to artificially impose one upon everything, I would say (and this much to the dismay of many a flummoxed post-internet artist): ceramics. Quite literally the new black, glazed ceramic could be descried in abundance. Not just in both of the main fairs, i.e., in the work of older and younger artists like Betty Woodman or Nick Mauss, but also in Paulina Olowska’s architectural models at the Kunsthalle Basel, and in Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s combinatory sculptures of furniture and lopsided pottery in Art Basel Statements and “Emmy Moore’s Journal: An Exhibition Based on a Letter in a Short Story by Jane Bowles,” a small, quaint group show curated by Quinn Latimer at SALTS. Of course, this could be an eerily self-replicating coincidence, devoid of any but the most paranoid significance, and sponsored, what is more, by Rosemarie Trockel’s gorgeous ceramic sculptures and those of Hutchins herself, but I am inclined to see within it an allegory of flagrant and process-based materiality, a lens that may or may not lend a plausible organizing principle to everything I have seen.

Oddly enough, the two most discussed shows in town, namely, Steve McQueen’s extensive and exquisitely installed retrospective at the Schaulager and Michel Auder’s solo survey, “Stories, Myths, Ironies, and Other Songs: Conceived, Directed, Edited and Produced by M. Auder” at the Kunsthalle Basel, do not necessarily contradict my tenuous thesis. McQueen’s ponderous cinematic examinations of reality are liable to invest an image with an uncanny materiality, while Auder’s exhibition engaged such issues in a more classical, if radical, fashion. Consisting largely of footage taken on hand-held cameras and even phones, Auder’s cinéma-vérité videos, often shot from hotel windows, testify to a patent physicality. Everything about Auder’s raw and highly personal videos speaks to the presence of the hand and the filmmaker himself, while dealing with film as a very corporeal medium. Anything but over-produced, Auder’s work elevated messy, low-fi-ness to a new level.

Process, experimentation, and materiality were the explicit points of interest in the group show “Some End of Things” curated by Nikola Dietrich and Scott C. Weaver at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Featuring an international assortment of artists, this exhibition could be said to privilege the unforeseen and discovery as essential to the process of certain artistic practices. Some of the better examples of this were the elaborate and visibly performative printing-based installations of the Berlin-based, German artist Nora Schultz and the Seoul-based, Korean artist Jewyo Rhii. Korean-born, New York-based Anicka Yi’s grid-like floor installation of boxes full of decaying, deep-fried flowers gestured toward what Robert Smithson would have called a “dialectical” (i.e., unstable and evolving) form of art.

Interestingly, Canadian artist Nicolas Ceccaldi’s deliberately under-whelming solo exhibition, titled with desolate post-internet phlegm, “<life> all-downhill-from-hear [dot] tumblr [dot] com</life>” at New Jerseyy functions as a fitting, if comedic coda to such a discussion. Featuring a handful of printed images on canvases, this show addresses what the artist calls the “self-harming” (as opposed to self-helping) bleakness of the so-called tumblr community. Something of a tribute to suicide, the images on the canvases are extracted from the web and supposedly imported into the real world of the two-dimensional picture plane. A personal favorite from this show consists of a computer-gray screen monochrome with three razor blades totemically glued to a corner. Like a do-it-yourself Fontana, or a canvas that readily provides its owner with the possibility to definitively affirm his or her own physical materiality.

Alas, it seems and is, of course, wrong to say nothing of this year’s Parcours at Art Basel, whose standouts included an infallibly elegant sculptural installation by Danh Vo of a fragmented body in bronze chain linked to wooded rafters (Gustav’s Wing, 2013), or Lisa Oppenheim’s video installation Smoke (2013), viewable at the top of something like five flights of stairs, which I curmudgeonly climbed (cursing her and curator Florence Derieux the whole way) only to be dazzled by the coruscating beauty of clouds alternating with the smoke of war projected on two screens. Not to mention the striking group show nearby at Ausstellungsraum Klingental, “Within the Horizon of the Object,” which engaged with materiality in a more conceptually clean mode; curated by Samuel Leuenberger, it featured local artists such as Mandla Reuter and Viktor Korol. Or say, the Max Ernst retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler, which for me reaffirmed what I already suspected about the German surrealist: he dates with as little grace as Dubuffet. Oh, there was much to see.

All that said, something about Ceccaldi’s prognostications on the tumblr-bound image made material stick in the (ceramic) craw of this text. It’s as if there was a moral to this transformation, or dichotomy, or perhaps, even better yet paradox, which, like any good paradox, will probably never resolve itself.