As is often the case in public institutions, the provision for small children at this show is minimal. An activity table in the middle of the spartan gallery draws attention to the bare floor surrounding it. In Camille Blatrix’s latest test of how spare an exhibition can be, the large, sky-lit space at the Kunsthalle Basel houses four small wooden marquetry pictures and a number of low (and low-key) sculptures. And in the same main gallery there’s a poster—like the activity table, it’s not listed as an artwork—that signposts the nearest Starbucks. Might we find more comfort there? Presenting quasi-artworks that don’t quite fulfil their purposes and signs that direct us back out again, Blatrix interrogates our reasons for coming to the kunsthalle. Are we here for entertainment or aesthetic stimulation, to find something familiar or novel, personal or institutional?

In two small, dimly lit galleries beyond the main space, Hugo Benayoun Bost’s remix of the eight-bar intro to Stand by Me, the 1961 Ben E. King song behind the title of Rob Reiner’s 1986 film, loops, continually heightening and—almost—releasing tension. The artist’s alter ego, another non-artwork, sits crumpled in one corner: a crying face drawn on an old tennis ball, plonked on top of a Starbucks apron. The music comes from behind a wall blocking the final space, which is physically and stylistically misplaced with skirting boards higher than those in the rest of the kunsthalle. Back there behind the wall, a light, out of synch with the sound, occasionally intensifies, throwing out a bright glow. On the wall hangs Two Candles (2018; all other works 2020), a mirror with tall, narrow marquetry candles carved into its frame, in which reflects the flickering light from Stork, a fine column with a ski-shaped tip in cold materials including plastic and plexiglass.

Blatrix’s objects are tooled to perfection, whether in marquetry or out of mass-produced resins, plastics, electronic elements, and metals. The modern materials evoke hygiene and utility. Outside the gallery entrance are two knickknacks placed on a pair of newel posts, both titled Winter Guard. One might be a double-barrelled firing or feeding device, the other a diminutive single-wheeled vehicle for a phone, its screen covered by opaque plexiglass. Standby Mice Station (Autumn Box) and Standby Mice Station (Winter), two shin-high structures in aluminum and other materials resembling understated instruments of crowd control, funnel viewers into and out of the doorways at either end of the large gallery. Attachments resembling docks and ports for electronic devices recall how the language of space exploration is now employed in our homes. Looking functional, they appear to belong to the operational furniture of the space—yet either they cannot be operated or we are denied access. Blatrix plays with willful inadequacy: the token gesture for visiting toddlers (which they probably shouldn’t touch) or games we cannot play (see Weather Stork Point, a static work with balls that look like they should ricochet about). Several of the sculptures, including Stork, host flickering lights. They are like pilot lights, but we are in the realm of the electronic, not gas heating. Votive lights perhaps: small-scale manifestations of divine power. As minor pieces in this capacious setting, they chime with the fire exit signage; it’s up to us to decide which of these tokens offer security.

These objects, which are so immaculately fabricated they almost merge with the museum’s mass-produced signage, clash with the cycle of four marquetry pieces, each of which refers to a season. James Van Der Beek is Dawson Crying (Winter), alongside Grumpy Cat (Summer) and mother and child Maxinmarine (Autumn). Elevating internet memes to high craft provides a slight, if tired, frisson, but the Roche Tower (Spring) carries a different charge. The triangular wedge of the healthcare giant’s Herzog & De Meuron-designed skyscraper, the tallest building in Switzerland, ranges skywards like a temple. It is no ivory tower: Basel is a pharmaceutical and chemical city, and while much of the production is now moving elsewhere, the region wears the scars of the industry.11
Just over the German border and across the Rhine, Roche is currently cleaning up the infamous Kesslergrube waste disposal site. This itself faces the site of the 1986 Schweizerhalle environmental disaster, in which a leak of agricultural products from a Sandoz production site poisoned the river and turned it red.

Blatrix’s deliberately ambiguous exhibition, which repels and attracts in equal measure, prompts me to wonder about the stuff that populates our spaces and about our modes of viewing and playing, within and beyond the gallery. But what are our guiding lights? I longed for less ambivalence, yet this constellation of elements is stretched too thin, formally and conceptually, to achieve any significant effect beyond successfully undermining my trust in the aesthetics of control, cleanliness, and efficiency. The result leaves me somewhat cold—I see how insubstantial this offer of security is.