A colourful tapestry of images will hang in the streets above Basel for more than three months this summer, creating new spaces and atmospheres.
The translucent display entitled Citysky (Stadthimmel) opens on Friday and will be suspended in Basel's sky until September 14.
Nine different artists – local and international – have been invited to design huge awnings of mesh vinyl that seem to float between the city's building facades. The public exhibition stretches for three kilometres, snaking its way through the roads from the main train station to the exhibition halls square (Messeplatz) in Klein-Basel.
Basel has always had a reputation for being at the forefront when it comes to culture. Many of the more innovative projects were dreamt up by Klaus Littmann – whose role could be compared to that of a film producer as he finds the monies to fund projects, brings together local and international artists, and then produces their work in the public arena.
"It's a huge project," Littmann told swissinfo. "It's great when you have the idea but it all remains theory until you make it reality. I never thought I'd learn all about building facades, false fronts and climatic forces."
To realise the ambitious exhibition, Littmann had to mobilise various industry professionals. He needed printers to copy the artwork onto mesh vinyl; engineers to install fixtures that can bear one ton in weight; and then other construction experts to hang up the awnings.
On top of that he had to win the approval of shop keepers, house owners and restaurant managers along the stretch of buildings where the celestial art appears. In some areas of the city – where trams pass for example – it was only possible to install the artwork at night. This meant special permission from the police, the electricity board and health authorities.
For the artists themselves it has also been an interesting challenge, as Renate Buser explained. "My photographic work is usually hung vertically. It was very different working on the horizontal plane because you have to deal with backlight and the image changes constantly."
For her installation, Buser chose to take photos of the Eisengasse from the top of the buildings. She then constructed a cardboard model of the street, realising that every facade has a different surface, height and width and that this had to be taken into account for the fabric to hang properly.
Well-known for using photographs of architecture to create a new reality, Buser's mesh vinyl designs play on perspectives. "When you look up, you are actually looking down," she said, describing her contribution to Citysky.
Each one of the nine artists chose a different approach to the project - from creating collages to using computers. Austrian artist Peter Kogler, whose composition can be admired on the popular Freiestrasse shopping street, prepared his piece electronically, scanning every detail precisely.
Another unique installation and a world premiere - as it is the first time an Inuit and non-Inuit artist have collaborated on a public art project - can be seen on the Streitgasse. Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden created a kind of mosaic, incorporating silver crystals, to represent the unending Arctic landscape and the infinite cosmos of stars and meteors in a night sky.
All the artists are given the same wage whether they are international stars or local talent. And all of them worked closely together with Littmann to realise their visions.
"I've done various public exhibitions in Basel but never played with the sky before," added the arts entrepreneur who has realised over 80 art projects and was awarded the Basel Culture Prize in 2002.
Creating art in the public space always provokes plenty of reactions but the voices have been generally positive about these street images that so clearly change the spatial dimensions of Basel's inner city.
This outdoor art is never the same, just like the sky is never the same, as Littmann explained: "The images are not static like posters are, they change with the weather and play along with the light. A cloud can become part of the artwork, creating a whole new effect."
The printed fabrics in the skies recall the tradition of painted ceilings in cathedrals and are receiving much attention from the world's media.
Littmann has cleverly timed the project to coincide with Art Basel and Euro 2008, to make sure plenty of people get to see it. He is keen to point out that the project cannot be commercialised because when the exhibition has run its course, the awnings will be taken down and the building facades returned to the way they were.
A book on the project is planned. But for those who want to experience the exhibition for themselves, the best bet is to wander through the streets of Basel and let the sky open new dimensions and play with perceptions.
swissinfo, Claudia Spahr in Basel
The works of nine artists from eight countries are displayed in prominent locations throughout Basel.
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