During the VIP opening of Art Basel yesterday afternoon, the booth of Zurich gallery RaebervonStenglin had a pretty solid crowd in it that was standing still—a fairly strange sight at an art fair, where one more typically sees people running from booth to booth, shaking hands and kissing along the way. Inside the hulking instrument, robotic knives were quickly and precisely dicing a cylinder of aluminum into various shapes, cutting it down and sending off sparks of metal. Little GoPro-style cameras inside transmitted the action to two television screens alongside the work.
“This is a CNC lathe machine and a milling machine also,” Xavier Mohni, of the Schaublin firm that supplied it, told me as we watched it work. He picked up a hefty metal cylinder from a big box of them, which the machine would be cutting through over the next few hours. “We have an aluminum block like this, and we finish with nothing,” he said. The machine kept slicing efficiently, almost supernaturally, humming comfortably as it went. It was utterly enchanting to watch.
This was all the doing of the Swiss artist Raphael Hefti, who asked Schaublin, which is based in Delémont, Switzerland, about 25 miles away by car, to show the machine. “This is not convention,” Mohni said, laughing. “It’s the first time that we make for an artist.” A statement from the gallery mentioned Duchamp’s famous quip to Brancusi while examining an airplane engine at a 1912 aviation fair: “Who can do better than this propeller?”
It took about 12 minutes from the machine to dice away most of the block, and all that was left in the end was a tiny slab where the machine’s clamp had been holding the cylinder. Yes, the machine is for sale. The price? “It depends which option you take,” Mohni said. “It can be up to half a million Swiss francs,” which is about $540,000, or just a bit more than the price of a new John Baldessari painting that Marian Goodman sold at its Basel booth.