Felicity Lunn surveys the current Swiss art
Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle Zurich, commented in 1998 that Switzerland ‘has as developed a transport system as a city; is a large country in terms of its variety of dialects, customs and ways of life; and is a small country when you understand the intellectual and real stupidities’. The ambiguity surrounding the country’s character makes anything possible – in theory, if not always in practice. Drawing on the cultures of its neighbours (France, Germany, Italy, and Austria), as densely populated with spaces for art as any major metropolis, and home to artists speaking at least one of the four national languages as well as many others who take up residencies and exhibit there, Switzerland is a microcosm of internationalism. On the other hand, there are unspoken rules. You are still more likely to see a show by an American or German than by an artist from Croatia, Slovenia or the other Eastern European countries that are well represented in Switzerland, while the exchange of artists between language areas is underdeveloped in comparison with international collaborations; the recent exhibition Not Vital at the Museo Cantonale d’Arte in Lugano being just one example.
exhibition Free View onto the Mediterranean at the Kunsthaus Zurich in 1998,
which was to Switzerland what Sensation was to the UK, Swiss venues have
largely shied away from national survey shows. However, the last few months
have seen a comeback for small groupings of the country’s artists – at
Biel’s Centre PasquArt, Fri-Art in Fribourg and the Kunstmuseum Luzern –
while one of the most exciting exhibitions in Zurich is the presentation of
recipients of this year’s grants made by the city; just one source of
subsidies among many on offer to artists under 40 in Switzerland. Shown at
the Helmhaus, a smaller public space focusing on emerging figures, the lucky
artists range from Zilla Leutenegger, who makes poignant video drawings of
people engaged in simple actions, to the ‘bad’ drawings of Andro Wekua and
Peter Regli’s documentation of social interventions into the Swiss
landscape. We’ve also seen several airings of rarely seen institutional
collections – at Kunstmuseum Thun, Kunsthaus Glarus and Kunsthalle Palazzo
In a country where the familiar and the safe are treasured, one of the most exciting aspects of the Swiss art scene is its unpredictability. Contemporary art is now an established part of cultural life in Zurich, but there was almost nothing until the Kunsthalle opened in 1985 and the art market took root with the Löwenbräu complex of galleries in 1996. Art isn’t just a phenomenon of the cities though – you’re as likely to stumble across the work of cool young creators in the middle of the countryside as you are in Zurich, Basel, Geneva or Lugano. The Kunstmuseum of the canton of Thurgau, for example, is housed in a former monastery in the idyllic village of Ittingen. It balances long-term exhibitions by the lynch-pins of twentieth-century art (currently Joseph Kosuth with his site-specific installation drawing on the monastery’s library) with up-and-coming names. Five Swiss artists, including the performance artist Chantal Michel and the film duo com&com, are making interventions into the museum’s permanent collection. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the country, in the rural surroundings of the canton of Basel, the Kloster Schöntal has recently been showing work by Andrea Wolfensburger, a local artist who has exhibited widely in both Switzerland and Germany. The video projection Children’s Song captures the concentration of a young violin player, slowed down to one-twentieth of real time, the calm strokes of the bow at odds with the almost violent waves of sound.
Inevitably, one of the more unpredictable environments for art is the alternative scene. Despite shoe-string budgets and organisers who are nearly always making art or working in other fields at the same time, the Swiss scene remains fairly static at the moment. Message Salon and the vibrant new space K3 are more or less the only alternative platforms in Zurich – a change from the heyday of the mid-nineties – though Geneva has a greater number, perhaps in response to its more limited mainstream opportunities. Attitudes, founded in 1994 and which metamorphosed gradually into a more official space, acts as a platform for an impressive breadth of work. There are, however, only two alternative venues in the Italian part of the country, reflecting the much smaller numbers of artists and audiences for contemporary art. The main one, Veragouth Arte Contemporanea in Lugano, aims to act as a bridge between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.
Probably the richest city for contemporary art (both in terms of what it offers a discerning local audience and with regard to the financial support, unique in Europe, that it receives from its three or four ‘ruling’ families), Basel was recently the platform for a stimulating mix of German Expressionism (at the Kunstmuseum and the Fondation Beyeler), a beautifully hung survey of Michael Raedecker’s paintings at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst and a re-reading of Heimo Zobernig’s multi-media practice at the Kunsthalle. The Austrian artist’s site-specific installation incorporated the abstract geometric paintings, work based on logos and text and minimalist sculptures that for many years have been his method of investigating the conditions under which art functions as a form of communication. The Kunsthalle often pairs international figures with the stars of the local scene. Counteracting Zobernig’s hyperactivity were the paintings of Markus Gadient, partially made for the space and moving dreamlike between figurative and abstract impressions of plant growth and fairy-tale landscapes.
Although situated within Basel, Kunsthaus Baselland remains slightly on a limb, managed by the canton rather than the city. However, under Sabine Schaschl, who came 18 months ago from Austria to run the venue, the Kunsthaus is an increasingly important part of the scene, focusing on artists who are too experimental or socially orientated for the more established museums. Recently on offer were the drawings, neon signs and consumer objects of Franck Scurti, one of France’s most prominent artists, and Pietro Sanguinetti’s film installations that, floating between the real and the virtual, investigate the semantic character of visual images.
Sabine Schaschl was part of a wave of new directors who took up posts around the end of 2001, all of them young, most of them women (practically unheard of in Switzerland) and very much on the ball. At the Kunsthaus in Glarus, a provincial town hemmed in by mountains, Nadia Schneider is building on the programme started by Annette Schindler and Beatrix Ruf of regional artists and the first presentations in Switzerland of up-and-coming figures. Peter Doig, Gillian Wearing and Angela Bulloch have recently been followed by the conceptual investigations of Glasgow-based pair Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan into the political and social role of art. The installation they made for Glarus, Think Thingamajig and other Things, condensed the artists’ practice of drawing out the uncanny in apparently recognisable objects, in this case a group of shapes – including a pyramid and a cube – embellished with mystic inscriptions.
In a similar position, though operating in a major city, is Katya Garcia Anton, previously a curator at Madrid’s Reina Sofia, London’s ICA and Birmingham’s Ikon gallery, and now running the Centre d’Art Contemporain, which when it opened in 1974 was Geneva’s first public space for contemporary art. Having launched her programme with Hayley Newman and the Swiss artist Berclaz de Sierre, Garcia Anton will be bringing On Kawara, Jean Luc Moulène, Thomas Scheibitz, and Shirana Shahbazi to the space.
The funkiest new director must be Gianni Jetzer who intends introducing to the Kunsthalle St. Gallen artists who uncompromisingly place their identity at the centre of their work and, in transcending genres, establish new goalposts. Together with the collection of Zurich gallery Hauser & Wirth and the Kunstmuseum, Jetzer is shaking up sleepy St. Gallen. His current exhibition of Aleksandra Mir includes First Woman on the Moon, her totally compelling film from 1999 of a fictive landing on a constructed moonscape formed from a Dutch beach. This work, combining a huge walk-in piece of Land Art with playful commentary on the accuracy of fact, contrasts well with Mir’s latest project – a hot-air balloon in the shape of an aeroplane that will float above the Swiss mountain region of Säntis in September, the ultimate peaceful artwork.
Felicity Lunn is an independent curator, lecturer and writer currently living in Zurich