BY Matthias Sohr in Features | 28 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 10

Scale to Scale

Regionalism at large: Valentin Carron represents Switzerland at this year’s Venice Biennale

BY Matthias Sohr in Features | 28 MAY 13

They I you he we, 2012 Wrought iron Installation view Art Unlimited Art 43 Basel, 2012 (© the artist. Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 303 Gallery, New York)

The wrought-iron snake at the entrance to the Swiss pavilion has a cheeky look in its eye. Is it supposed to intimidate visitors to this year’s 55th Venice Biennale? To amuse them? Among other things, the snake by Valentin Carron, who is representing Switzerland this year, acts as a physical thread running through the show: its body winds its way around the whole pavilion, accompanying visitors as they walk through the modernist building and its various spaces. On the Swiss postage stamp designed by Carron to mark the biennale, the snake also appears – with a corn stalk hanging from the corner of its mouth. In the artist’s book published to coincide with the biennale, the stalk mutates into a cigarette. Just as the sculpture’s appearance changes, its title also goes through permutations of pronouns – You they they I you (2013). And his individual groups of works develop in a similarly transitional way: be it readymade, prop or sculpture, Carron’s themes and motifs are forever copied, shifted and transposed.

Ciao No 4 (nero), 2012, Restored Piaggio Ciao moped (© the artist. Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 303 Gallery, New York. Photograph: Stefan Altenburger / Photography, Zurich)

This is reflected in Carron’s decision to base his biennale show on a selection from his existing oeuvre to date plus new works that continue four ongoing series – a gesture of calculatedly casual self-assurance. Following the snake, one passes various set pieces from European modernism, such as Rhapsodie, das warme Unwetter aus Acryl und Blut _(Rhapsody, the warm storm of acrylic and blood, 2013) that recalls the kind of sternly modernist 1950s church windows already referred to by Carron in his 2009 exhibition _Fibre fibre, austère austère at La Conservera in Murcia. But artefacts from industrialization and local culture can also be identified through the show, including a lovingly restored Piaggio moped (Ciao n°6, 2013). A similar work, Ciao N° 4 (nero) (2012), was displayed at last year’s show of Switzerland’s young generation La jeunesse est un art (Youth is Art, 2012) at Aargauer Kunsthaus. The models for his eight battered brass and woodwind instruments cast in bronze (Azure, Uranium, Umbrage, 2013) were discovered by the artist at a café in his native Martigny in the Canton of Wallis. Hung on the walls at regular intervals throughout the pavilion, they join the snake in flattening the hierarchic layout of the single-story building, blurring the distinction between the interior, usually reserved for painting, and the outside area that usually hosts sculpture. Over the course of the exhibition, the patina on the instruments that are hung outside will gradually change with the weather, underlining the artist’s concern with material and detail.

Carron is a notorious shifter of scale. He is a manipulator of the status of objects and a precise engineer of material impact. In Pop, larger-than-life consumer goods became a stylistic device (as in Claes Oldenburg’s gigantic household utensils). Carron, too, focuses on objects from his immediate surroundings, but his range of references is broader – taking in religious symbols and items from art history (works by Alberto Giacometti or Fernand Léger) as generic materials for appropriation. Early in his career, he was already drawing on the symbolic and formal vocabulary of the local culture of his home area, to which he has always remained loyal. His crosses are taken from the Catholic culture of the Wallis Canton. Whether freestanding in the exhibition space (Untitled, 2003), outside the entrance to the Art Basel fair (Untitled, 2009), or as a titled wall-hanging (Fosbury Flop, 2006), his monumental crosses – made of polystyrene or polyurethane coated with synthetic resin that imitates the surface of wood – are far lighter than they appear. Carron’s works thus refer to classic sculptural media not via their materials or processing, but by their specific surfaces, sources and exhibition contexts.

Untitled, 2009, Oak, fir wood, zinced steel and paint (Installation view) Messeplatz Art 40 Basel, 2009 (© the artist. Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 303 Gallery, New York. Photograph: Stefan Altenburger / Photography, Zurich)

Martigny, the town of 15,000 inhabitants whose artefacts and peculiarities are always associated with Carron’s sculptural oeuvre, lies far from Switzerland’s urbanized west, at the foot of some of the peaks that have shaped its image as a land of sublime Alpine nature. But Martigny is also a ‘nature reserve’ for public sculpture. Thanks to the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, which operates a museum of art, automobiles and Franco-Roman culture, sculptures by mainly local artists have been installed on all of the town’s roundabouts. A work by Carron occupies one of these central locations: Huit jours pour convaincre (Eight Days To Persuade, 2012) is a large screw that stands out against the mountains, and he has made works derived or copied from some of the other roundabout sculptures and transferred them to major venues of contemporary art. In his 2007 show at Kunsthalle Zurich, he quoted a local artist’s work from the 1980s, that in turn quoted Henry Moore (Untitled (Henry Moore), 2006). He has also replicated sculptures and Franco-Roman artefacts held by the Gianadda Foundation (Captain Legacy, 2006).

Burlesque esquire, 2012, Cast bronze (© the artist. Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 303 Gallery, New York. Photograph: Brian Forrest)

In the past, Carron produced many of his works locally in the craft workshops of Martigny. By contrast, Rhapsodie, das warme Unwetter aus Acryl und Blut was made of foam rubber, fibreglass and synthetic resin in Basel, and this time, the church windows on which the work is based are located not in Switzerland but in Brussels. The classically Italian moped in the Ciao pieces is also barely reconcilable with the predominantly local narrative running through Carron’s previous works. Now, rather than focusing on the architectural and sculptural language of the Canton of Wallis, his attention has shifted to the flows of people and goods that extend across the Alpine passes between northern and southern Europe.

Exhibition view of Valentin Carron’s Switzerland Pavilion 55th Venice Biennale, 2013 (© the artist, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 303 Gallery, New York)

In solo exhibitions at 303 Gallery in New York and David Kordansky in Los Angeles last year, Carron refined the formal vocabulary that he is showing in Venice as a homogeneous installation of four groups of works. The former show featured variations on the snake theme, including He we you they I, You they I you he (both 2012), and the latter featured a long row of battered instruments (including Lychee cheating tingly Lychee and Burlesque esquire, both 2012). In conversation, Carron asks if the concept of the ‘blue banana’ is well known – a term used to describe the band of densely populated zones that stretches from northern Italy across Switzerland to the north west of England. Seen from space, this curved corridor, which also includes the Ruhr Valley and the Benelux states, appears as a bright and coolly radiant whole. Carron sees this zone of elevated productivity as an expanded field of activity: it would be in his interest if Switzerland were to play a slightly more prominent role on the world stage, he states ironically, recalling Nicolas Sarkozy’s infamous Discours de Dakar speech of 2007, during which the French president claimed that ‘the African man’ had not yet sufficiently entered history. Surely the same could also be said of ‘the Swiss man’, Carron muses. Naturally, this would require the frontiers of time and space to become rather more permeable: for Carron’s sculptural oeuvre, this polemical view of history goes hand in hand with a license ‘to appropriate everything that has become history’.

Orologio I, 2006, Styrofoam, gauze, glue, plaster, clock mechanism, aluminium and acrylic paint (© the artist. Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 303 Gallery, New York)

Ultimately, Carron’s refraining from any new work for Venice focuses attention on the pavilion itself – built in the 1950s by Bruno Giacometti (brother of Alberto) – in its international context. For Carron, the building’s architecture and Europe’s urbanized core become homogeneous spaces that derive rhythm from the artefacts found within them. In this spirit, his wrought-iron snake not only invites visitors to stroll through, but also guides them out again, swinging its delicate line over the tall wall and into the Giardini. From outside, the attentive visitor can see a second snake’s head, with a mischievous grin on its face. Time for a cigarette.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Matthias Sohr is an artist and cultural theorist living in Lausanne.