BY Justin Hoffmann in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Make Way for the Mediterranean

BY Justin Hoffmann in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

There are various ways of telling whether an exhibition has a strong sense of its own relevance: large numbers of participants and accompanying events; a distinguished venue; the length of time the show is to run; and a thick catalogue. All these signs are present here. The prestigious gestures include a list of all the art venues in the country, with commentary; the exhibition's sub-title contains the expression 'Junge Schweizer Kunst', apparently emulating the notion of Young British Art, and the additional phrase 'with guests' suggests open-mindedness.

This is an ambitious show: it attempts to present 90s Swiss art in a museum context, with appropriate reference points abroad, but it also wants to supply a historical retrospective of the previous generation. This last point arises because there are many quotations from the past in the works shown, just as there are in current fashion-design, and a number of the works in this show confirm the lifestyle-magazine image of the 90s as a youthful, fun-loving decade. Reminiscences of the 70s abound: rounded corners, for example (L/B, Ugo Rondinone) or psychedelic structures (Nik Emch). Stefan Altenburger's confetti rain and Susanne Walder's filmed hullabaloo quite deliberately remind us of party culture. Sylvie Fleury's fleecy rockets and spheres seem to have gone back to the world of Barbarella. Daniele Buetti's small, coloured spheres pulling pages from fashion magazines behind them swerve around happily between the visitors' legs like wind-up toys.

But not everyone in the exhibition subscribes to this cheerful, cheeky, peaceful image of Switzerland. Fabrice Gygi is at war: he has disguised the entrance with black sacks, and the feeling of danger and control is intensified by flashing blue lights. Thomas Hirschhorn's memorial to Ingeborg Bachmann outside the museum looks more like the cheapest kind of flea-market stand than a homage to a famous literary figure - the fragile arrangement fell apart and had to be taken away just a few weeks after the opening. Even eating can turn into criticism: Christian Philipp Müller graphically serves up Swiss culinary habits. Ingredients are combined with statements like 'tofu was a flop' or 'ostrich fillets are trendy': food as a fashion item comes to symbolise a cultural condition. Two video works deliberately act as irritants: Eric Steinbrecher's images move giddying fast across the screen, while Marie-Jose Burki covered up the source of the laughter emanating from a video monitor with a newspaper, apparently quite casually. Impressively, Costa Vece transformed one hall into a gloomy storeroom and simultaneously made it a unique 'Video Lounge', using the simplest of materials (cardboard boxes, pallets, lights etc.).

A particular feature of this exhibition is that it incorporates contemporary work into the permanent collection, some of the works relating directly to regular exhibits. Beat Huber's works take the form of subtly disruptive influences. Co-ordinating his colours carefully, he has used his more or less appetising Food Photos (1998) as a garnish for pictures in the museum. Rémy Markowitsch addresses the incendiary attack on Rubens' portrait of King Philip IV in the 80s by showing the work before and after the incident and superimposing the two images on a high, flat screen with broad edges that gives the impression of a framed oil painting. Sydney Stucki's mural painting made up of geometrical shapes perhaps fits into the Leger and Calder gallery a little too well: it could have always been there. Stefan Hablützel's figures seem completely anachronistic: their monumentality and strangely 'Germanic' appearance are even faintly reminiscent of Arno Breker. In comparison with various 70s remakes, the real works from that decade, assembled in a gallery called 'flashback', seem astonishingly fresh. We are invited to admire work by David Weiss and Peter Fischli, made when they were still appearing as individual artists, and action photographs by Dieter Meier of the early Electropop Band Yello.

A presentation of recent Swiss art in a historical museum is more than just an ordinary exhibition. It sets standards for art production here. The situation is ambivalent. It is pleasing when a museum turns to contemporary art, but here the curator, Bice Curiger, has simply picked out her young favourites, thus negating working links that have developed over a period of time. Switzerland in particular has a large number of independent spaces in which collective structures are taken for granted. Inevitably exhibitions of this kind are a threat to existing networks. The Electro-Party is brought into the museum; a music CD is issued with the catalogue; a bar is open every Thursday evening. But what happens when the Rave and the Slacker become high culture? Everything becomes conventional and devoid of content.

The exhibition's title is based on a slogan that became famous in the Zurich youth movement of the early 80s. The expression an 'Make way for the Mediterranean' was originally preceded by the cry 'down with the Alps!'. The organisers worked on the basis that this wilful demand made by the alternative culture of the time, which was simply a desire for a different society, has now been met: a mistaken assessment that was bound to produce a well-behaved, fanciful, affirmative exhibition.

Translated by Michael Robinson