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Issue 132

Basel & Zurich

Despite the country’s insularity, Switzerland’s art scene is thriving

BY Quinn Latimer AND Daniel Binswanger in Critic's Guides | 01 JUN 10

A poet and critic based in Basel, Switzerland.

On a wet Monday night in late March, in a decrepit Zurich garage made romantic by long tables bedecked with vases of roses, half-eaten plates of food and a cacophony of wine glasses, a male operatic voice – as sharp and sweet and high as a kite let off its string – rose to the concrete rafters. The voice wound its way expertly around the room, stilling the cheerful crash of its occupants – a mix of young Swiss artists and writers, prominent gallerists and curators, and various collectors and friends in from New York and London, Basel and Berlin. Electronic beats and blips slowly began to chime in behind the vocal trills. The room went decisively quiet. A spell – at once familiar and strange – had been cast.

The classically trained Norwegian singer Nils Bech (frequent consort of artist Ida Ekblad) and the young American composer Sergei Tcherepnin (scion of the famed musical family and frequent collaborator with artist Ei Arakawa) were performing on the occasion of a dinner hosted by the nascent Zurich Arts Club. The temporary, oil-stained digs – hung with improvized chandeliers and the octopus-emblazoned flag of the club – were in an area of the city more given to strip clubs and young galleries than recitals. The club itself, presently itinerant, was the dream child of Zurich-based artist Fabian Marti. He had been inspired by the histories of venerable 19th-century art guilds like The Arts Club (whose members numbered Degas, Dickens, Millais, Monet, Rodin, et al.) and the Chelsea Arts Club in London and the New England Arts Club. Unlike most of these associations, however, which were founded as progressive alternatives to the more conservative art societies of their day (as with James McNeill Whistler’s founding of the incendiary Chelsea Arts Club in 1891), the Zurich Arts Club’s recent birth was occasioned not by opposition but by its opposite.

The club’s fledgling existence appeared to be a celebration and recognition (and perhaps attempt to make sense of) a renewed and very palpable sense of activity on the young Swiss contemporary art scene, particularly in the northern sister cities of Zurich and Basel. As I looked around the dimly lit garage, it seemed only right that its cosy and sundry occupants should be gathered together – with Bech’s droll, ambiguously accented voice linking us like a bow. In the past few years, the Swiss art scene in the two cities (only an hour train ride apart, they often appear to operate in tandem, with some artists keeping rooms in both towns, or a job in one and an apartment in another) has been growing and improvising and maturing until, almost imperceptibly, it has coalesced into something nearly coherent.

La crise vient, 2009. 46 x 55 cm. Courtesy: Eva Vautier.

Despite the region’s notoriety for bluer-than-blue-chip art offerings, however – Basel boasting the world’s biggest art fair, Zurich a fabled selection of moneyed galleries – its current scene is largely the product of something skating just below that well-heeled elegance (even as it courts it). In fact, the young Swiss scene has in many respects, been born from a series of defiantly youthful and energetic artist-run spaces (New Jerseyy, Showroom, Paloma Presents, the now-defunct Vrits and Amberg & Marti); like-minded, dematerialized art projects (the art radio station Radio Arthur, the artist bookshop Perla Mode, the magazine Provence); a few young galleries (Karma International and BolteLang in Zurich, for example); a number of astute and timely curators at the various kunsthallen and institutions (Daniel Baumann, Nikola Dietrich, Heike Munder, Beatrix Ruf, Adam Szymczyk) and an astonishingly interconnected network of artists who either studied at one of the local art schools in Zurich, Basel, Bern or Lausanne, or in countries and programmes elsewhere but make their home here now.

The youthfulness that marks the current Swiss scene – which might explain, in part, the hype that surrounds it – should not be such a surprise. Aside from the ever-present and lovely pair of Peter Fischli and David Weiss in Zurich, most established contemporary Swiss artists from this area left early in their careers for the shores of New York, including Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone and Olaf Breuning (Pipilotti Rist is back in Switzerland but remains distinctly remote from its scene, perhaps heeding the call of Alpine meadows). This bleeding of artistic talent, along with the nation’s rumoured neutrality and lack of nationalism, has encouraged the idea that there is no definitively ‘Swiss artist’ in the mould of the ‘New York artist’ or, God forbid, the ‘Big German Painter’. (To wit: a recent profile of Urs Fischer in The New Yorker, on the occasion of his survey at the New Museum in New York, never broached the subject of his or his art’s ‘Swiss-ness’ – an omission that can’t be imagined in most American reviews of non-American artists, where this idea of ‘difference’ is jumped on immediately.)

In any case, one of the results of this situation has been that Zurich and Basel’s young artists have not had a cohesive local artistic establishment to which to aspire; in some respects, they are it. This personal responsibility, coupled with an enviably sizable and steady support system of grants, prizes, state-funded residencies and artists’ studios (a new studio building called Bollag in Basel is remarkable), has in the past few years, engendered an inclination to create spaces where artists can both mount shows of their peers as well as recognized artists from elsewhere, while developing their own artistic and curatorial practices and forging connections to international movements of artists. Though intrinsically local, these Swiss spaces are in step with art centres and congruent art spaces in New York, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere.

If the lauded exhibition programmes of the Zurich and Basel Kunsthallen are indefatigably international, and the Swiss Institute is a savvy and instrumental local art exporter with outposts in New York (where it has been run by Gianni Jetzer for the past four years, a post previously held by Marc-Olivier Wahler, current director of Palais de Tokyo, Paris) and Milan, Rome and Venice (directed by curator Salvatore Lacagnina), the artist-run spaces, organized by those still in or just out of college, function in much the same manner, boasting an often impressive list of international artists exhibiting and performing. I first met the singer Bech, for example, during last year’s Art Basel, when he performed at the opening of Ekblad’s installation at New Jerseyy, the Basel gallery run by Daniel Baumann and a trio of young local artists and designers.

If New Jerseyy’s programme, and the work of the artists who run it – which is predicated on embracing contemporary image culture, the processes that produce and reproduce it, an inclination to design-influenced formal abstraction and an urbane DIY ethos – is just one facet of the larger constellation of artistic directions in Zurich and Basel, and does not nearly encompass the breadth of the work being made here, it does reflect the ways in which the young Swiss scene has skilfully bridged the local/international divide in ways that older Swiss artists were unable to conceive. Riding this tide of press coverage, recognition and energy, Baumann and young Basel curator Maya Wismer have just opened a show at the Kunsthaus Glarus that will explore Switzerland’s new generation of artists from Zurich and Basel, as well as the French regions to the south. Titled ‘Of Objects, Fields and Mirrors’, the show aims to take no over-arching stance on the work being made at the moment. Instead, it promises to revel in the multiplicity of stylistic idioms and conceptual frameworks that are presently being employed. In doing so, it might even shed some light on what being a ‘Swiss artist’ does, or could, mean.

Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2010. 

A Paris-based writer, and an editor at Das Magazin, Zurich.

Switzerland suffers from a contradictory kind of identity crisis. The Helvetian complaint owes its seriousness to the fact that it is both topical and long-standing. Not only did the financial crisis cause banking confidentiality to be thrown to the wolves, waking Switzerland’s business elite from its long sleep of presumed unassailability, and casting a dark cloud over the country’s relations with its European and American partners, but even the rogue leader of Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, has used a diplomatic trifle as a pretext to declare a holy war on the ordinarily accommodating Swiss.

As if all of this were not enough, the hostile pressure from outside has also knocked domestic political reason way off kilter. While an establishment permanently at odds with reality behaves as if it has sworn undying loyalty to banking confidentiality and now wishes to go down with it, the command of right-wing populism over public opinion is gaining ground so dramatically that an absurd law such as the ban on minarets (which even populist, right-wing leader Christoph Blocher initially thought was nonsense) is approved of by an overwhelming majority of the Swiss people. The Swiss political situation of the last few months has resembled a crazed collective rampage.

In spite of this, however, a leaden sense of déjà vu lies over the country – and especially over the artists and intellectuals who, for decades, have maintained a critical stance towards their homeland. Many unsettling developments have intensified in recent times – but they are merely the umpteenth restaging of familiar dramas.

One grotesque illustration of this was provided by the reception of a work by French Fluxus artist Ben Vautier (or Ben as he is known). Intended as a critical provocation, his aphorism ‘La Suisse n’existe pas!’ (Switzerland Doesn’t Exist) adorned the Swiss pavilion at the 1992 World’s Fair in Seville. Today, Ben’s invective of neo-Dadaist humour has become bitter real-life satire. On the one hand, in a recent address to the United Nations, Gaddafi – in the wake of an ongoing diplomatic crisis sparked by his son Hannibal having been jailed for two days by Swiss authorities in 2008 on charges, later dropped, of mistreating two domestic employees – proposed that Switzerland should indeed not exist, and should be broken up and integrated into its various European neighbours. Meanwhile, in October 2008 the weekly magazine Die Weltwoche (the principle mouthpiece of the national conservative Swiss People’s Party) on the very day it became known that the investment bank UBS was to be saved by a huge loan from the Swiss state, paraphrased the original slogan on its cover: ‘La crise n’existe pas’ (the crisis doesn’t exist). Initially intended as an arch repudiation of ‘left-wing artists’ such as Ben, and their supposedly unwarranted criticism of the Swiss state of things, this ‘Crisis? What crisis?’-type slogan backfired and took the phenomenon of neo-Helvetian divorce from reality to new heights.

In economic terms, Switzerland has undergone major modernization in the last 20 years, and is now more open and international. Basel is not only home to two world-leading chemical-industry giants, but also hosts Art Basel every year. Switzerland’s financial centre, Zurich, has experienced an explosion in the cost of real estate that even the financial crisis did not slow down significantly, as each year tens of thousands of well-paid foreign workers settle there. Nevertheless, the country’s political discourse is still plagued by the same provincialism that plagues Swiss intellectual life. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 – and even as far back as the 1960s – Switzerland has essentially been conducting the same debates without managing to raze the mental fortress of neutrality, isolationism and hostility to the EU. One is reminded of Luis Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962), in which the guests at a grand bourgeois dinner party are suddenly and inexplicably unable to leave, and are caught in a claustrophobic trap.

Annette Spillmann and Harald Echsle, FREITAG Shop, Zurich, 2006. Courtesy: FREITAG, Zurich.

By the 1970s, the ‘discontent in a small state’, discussed by Swiss scholar Karl Schmid in his eponymous 1963 book, had developed among leading intellectuals into an open rebellion against the country’s bunker mentality. Renowned writers Peter Bichsel, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Adolf Muschg and Paul Nizon all fought against the superior, self-righteous and conformist attitude of most Swiss nationals, attacking their rose-tinted self-image, while 1981 saw the release of Markus Imhoof’s film Das Boot ist voll (The Boat Is Full) denouncing Switzerland’s refugee policy during World War II.

In spite of this, the Swiss public stumbled utterly unprepared into the debate launched in the 1990s by American pressure groups over the dormant assets of Jewish refugees. The whole discussion of Swiss collaboration with Nazi Germany was perceived as a perfidious attack from abroad, as though there had never been attempts within the country itself to come to terms with its past. With typical Swiss circumspection, a panel of historians was appointed to meticulously reappraise every detail of Switzerland’s involvement with Germany – the resulting 26-volume report, though, was largely ignored. In the 1990s, too, debate over Switzerland’s identity made little impact on the broader public. So it should perhaps come as no surprise that the Swiss establishment has responded to the current banking crisis with the same nationalist withdrawal reflex. The old self-image survives: in the Alps live the innocent, defiant Helvetians; all around them is a world of enviers, traitors and EU cronies.

In spite of this – or perhaps because of it – there are, of course, a number of important, highly political Swiss artists, including Christoph Büchel, Thomas Hirschhorn and Gianni Motti. After Blocher’s election to the Swiss government in 2003, Hirschhorn reacted with an exhibition at the Swiss Cultural Centre in Paris in 2004 that caused a scandal, since it contained a photo-montage in which the emblems of the Swiss governmental districts, the Kantons, had been combined with images of Abu Ghraib. Recently, however, the frame of reference for these artists has become too international for them to perpetually bang their heads against the fortress walls of the Swiss province. Instead, it has fallen to younger intellectuals and artists to react to the current situation: shortly after the minaret ban came into force, a minaret appeared on the roof of Zurich’s Rote Fabrik cultural centre; while writer Lukas Bärfuss and slam-poet Kutti MC spoke out against xenophobia. Nevertheless, a certain political fatigue has become evident amongst the culturati. The disconnect between being and consciousness will hopefully be overcome in the Alpine valleys eventually, but we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).

Daniel Binswanger is an editor and columnist at DAS MAGAZIN. He lives in Zurich and Paris.