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Lucy Skaer, ‘Solid Ground—Tarsal’, 2006, pencil and gold leaf on Fabriano paper

Art Basel proved once again to be the most reliable one-stop glimpse of the state of the global art world: an unprecedentedly frenzied buying bonanza. The number of private jets arriving in town reportedly increased from 75 last year to 100. The gold rush atmosphere was seemingly parodied in the Art Statements section: Peres Projects displayed Terence Koh’s brilliant ‘golden shower’: 222 piss-yellow neon tubes hanging in front of 88 gold cases containing gold-plated turds along with four busts of the artist, one covered in golden bees, and a decaying baboon’s head covered in gold.

At Edinburgh’s doggerfisher, Lucy Skaer’s richly detailed drawings, employing inks of precious metals, portrayed delicate, abstracted grids suggesting materialism versus eternity, some incorporating literal depictions of Federal Reserve gold bars. They were exhibited on two walls in rotation, with others in piles on the floor, next to elegant clay sculptures resembling archaeological relics of scored, turned vases and seashells in cross-section.

Many of the installations in the Art Unlimited exhibition evoked the exaggerated sense of our overblown egos and auto-complicated contemporary lives. Having endured a 24-hour nightmare of cancelled flights and lost luggage the day before, I was strangely comforted by Subodh Gupta’s ‘Across the Seas’, 2006, a baggage reclaim carousel rotating with castaluminum luggage.

Other works conjured the disorientation of our constantly changing environment: an oversized man in nightcap and pyjamas had outgrown his bed in Peter Land’s ‘Untitled’, 2006. Next door a bare room with carpenter’s markings buzzed with the disembodied sounds of sawing and drilling in ‘Construction’ (2006), by Ceal Floyer.

Douglas Gordon’s ‘Black Star’, 2002, was a velvety star-shaped black room, lit only by blue neon rods—altogether cosy, unnerving and potentially bruising—with a male voice intoning a monologue that I did not altogether hear in my haste to find the exit while bumping my head. Claustrophobic in a more psychological way was Ugo Rondinone’s ‘Zero Built a Nest in my Navel’, 2006, a room covered in dark carpet, filled with a looped dialogue between a couple speaking in disconnected clichés implying disagreement, a pair of hanging oversize clown boots reminding us of the tragi-comedy.

The highlight of the show was Junya Ishigami’s captivating, zen-like ‘Floating Table’, 2005, which was perfectly balanced with quotidian objects—vases, dishes, and plants—suspended on an implausibly thin surface that moved dreamily up and down with the slightest nudge.

In spite of its predictably overwhelming bluechip, white-box atmosphere, there was interesting new work in the main fair hall at Messe. Glasgow artist Cathy Wilkes installed ‘My Fingers Touch Metal’, 2006, on-site at Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch: its still life of delicately balanced objects and small abstract paintings formed a precisely ordered vision of the impossibility of order. Some work from the past seemed contemporary in context: Alice Neel’s stunning portrait of Thomas Baer 1971, at Cheim & Read could have been painted today.

By far the most pleasurable experience started with the refreshing boat shuttle down the river to the Volta fair, situated on an operating industrial canal with trains passing and large yellow cranes lifting containers in a mesmerising slow-motion performance. The two-storey venue was easy to navigate, with a distinctive selection of 48 galleries focusing on emerging artists: Pierogi exhibited Mark Lombardi’s fascinatingly obsessive Global Networks conspiracy charts; Rina Banerjee’s wildly fantastical mixed-media works on paper, and sculptures incorporating feathers, sold out quickly at Newman Popiashvili; and composer Conor Kelly’s videos at Dublin’s Green on Red Gallery were evocatively rhythmic visualisations of sound.

The alternative Liste fair, in the former Wartek brewery, was the bohemian antidote to the shopping-mall atmosphere of Messe. Wandering the three maze-like floors, through rooms that lacked either clear signage or division between galleries, one still found rewards: Cosmic Galerie displayed installations of commonplace objects by British artist James Hopkins that at first appeared merely whimsical but were finally perceived as the memento mori that they were. Nearby, at London’s Fortescue Avenue, were Glasgow-based Mick Peter’s ‘Two Clerks’, 2006—giant grey ghosts of playing cards tied together in placard postures with pink rubber belts. (He is to exhibit this autumn at Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery.) At Zurich’s Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, videos by Elodie Pong included ‘A Certain General’, 2000, a touching exploration of intimacy and personal identity, for which she asked her friends to express themselves on a red carpet: a young man flails his arms comically while dancing alone in his apartment; a woman poses nude as Venus on a giant half-shell.

On the last day, at the Swiss Awards, I watched Pong’s video ‘Je Suis une Bombe’, 2006, in which a panda performs an erotic pole dance and then takes off its head to reveal a beautiful young woman who speaks to the camera about being the object of mystery and desire: ‘I am a sex bomb. I am sublime.’

Then I saw my escape: queues were forming at the Knie family circus down the street, so I rushed over and bought a ticket in the front row. The dancing horses passing by blew a stinky wind and sprayed me with sawdust and dung. A couple dressed in costumes reminiscent of a Pina Bausch production danced a vertical pole tango – a joyful counterpoint to Pong’s wistful performance. But the worlds of art and the circus really seemed to commingle when the clown came out dressed like a Cindy Sherman film still in a blonde wig, badly applied lipstick, and shiny red raincoat and pumps.

Cathryn Drake is a writer based in Rome who writes for Artforum