‘Before we had finished, Edwin turned our conversation to Switzerland, perhaps thinking that Dr. Selwyn and I would both have something to say on the subject.‘1
W. G. Sebald
‘Shortcomings, / Never diminutive.‘2
I live here. How does that go? It goes. I came here. How does that go? Like this:
Wait. Where is here? Does it matter? When writing about a place it does. Or perhaps not. Opinions differ on the subject. I will try to keep both in mind as I proceed. Also, since we are getting some questions out of the way – mine, yours – first: Is this fiction or not? Isn’t writing about a place not one’s own always a fiction? So I’ve been told. But we shall see. So, again: How does it go? It goes. I came here. How does that go? Like this:
I arrived in Switzerland a few years ago – numbers don’t mean much in this short story. (Or they mean very much, since issues of measurement are always paramount in such a small country.) It was November. There were already skirts of snow on the Swiss Alps that I saw in my head. In the real world, I saw no skirts, no snow. No mountains. I had arrived in the north of the country, in Basel, a small city on the banks of the Rhine – a river whose colour changes daily: sometimes pewter, sometimes green – and nearly on the shores of the German and French borders (also sometimes pewter, sometimes green). The city was small, the river was small, the borders were seemingly small. I could cross them. The mountains were small; they were hills. They were called Baselland, or rose from a place called Baselland. I liked that. It all felt a bit Old World, diminutive, Mittel-European. This smaller, sweeter scale asserted itself in the lexicon as well. The Swiss-German dialect – in which words are often accorded a _-li_suffix – turned everything into a more petite and affectionate version of itself. To my American eyes and ears, full of Pacific views and sounds downloaded from the more nascent files of the New World’s western expansion, this felt huge. Though things looked small, they felt deep.
Another thing I liked: the name of my new street. Feldbergstrasse. Despite its title, there were no fields or mountains in its vicinity, just small Turkish and Indian markets; shopfronts whose bleached and past-due wares (fax machines, old printers) sat bluely in the pastel, shuttered windows next to dusty potted plants; a beautiful, late-19th century Protestant church in the early Gothic style by Felix Henry of Breslau, which rose from a small park limned by lamps that glowed nightly like a planetary grid; some neighborhood junkies who also frequented the park and a bus route that took said junkies across the river to receive their free methadone once a day at the hospital designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Such was life in my new neighbourhood, Kleinbasel, the smaller, immigrant- and bar-strewn side of the Rhine: a bit trashy and mediocre and beautifully designed.
I never went inside the church, though I walked around its petite perimeter with my small dog almost every day until I moved to Ackerstrasse last year. Such has been my approach to Switzerland. I am here, but perhaps not properly, circling its exits (which it goes without saying are quite close). This also seems to be how many of its nationals and residents live, at least those in the contemporary art environs in which I move. It is so small it is easy to leave, easy to return, easy to leave again. (Easyjet, see? Sorry.) Everyone is always on their way in, out.
At a dinner at Kunsthalle Basel last week, I sat at a table of Swiss artists, as I often do. The two across from me now live in Tel Aviv, though they are moving back to Basel soon. Another’s boyfriend is between here and Albania. I handed back the apartment keys belonging to a Swiss artist to his neighbour; the absent artist was in Dallas, and I lodged some visiting poets in his apartment while he was gone. Some curators were just back from New York for an opening of a Vietnamese-born artist who sometimes lives in Basel; one of them was about to leave for Mexico. The Swiss artist next to me had just returned from Rome that morning, where she is shooting a film. The artists whose show it was came and talked with me. They were returning to Brussels the next day. If Swiss (art) society is small, it is not closed. And it is this dialectical situation of intimacy and constant movement – closeness and constant, compulsive itinerancy and release – that seems to define a certain Swiss sensibility, a sensibility that naturally extends to the net-like work of the work itself, at least in this moment.
Yet if this compulsive mobility and networking is not totally unique to the art scene of Switzerland, nor to other capitals and geographies of the larger art world, it still sometimes strikes me in its absurd ubiquity. In Los Angeles, a trip to San Francisco or to the desert or to the beach is remarked upon, planned, anticipated, documented. In Switzerland one takes a flight or train as one might walk out to their car in LA, checking one’s pockets for keys. One wants to make some analogy to moving armies or mountains – or armies crossing them – but one always wants to make analogies to mountains in Switzerland, even in the north, where they are only hills. But because of where I have lived since arriving here, my feeling for the Alps only really comes when I am leaving the country. Taking the train south, to Italy, one passes through the mountains, beautifully. Taking a plane to Italy or France, one moves over the Alps, cut so white and carefully below, blushing blue or brown depending on the season. Thus my feeling for Switzerland is most articulated when I am leaving it. Perhaps this is also not unique.
I realize I have not said much. Of moving to another country, the novelist Hilary Mantel once wrote, in the spectral voice of her protagonist: ‘I am keeping this diary so that I can write letters home. People expect you to have something exciting to tell them, though the truth is that once you have been in a place for a few weeks it is not exciting, or if it is, then it is not exciting in a way that people at home understand or care for. By and large people at home are not interested in hearing about your experiences. They feel bound to put you in your place, as if by going away at all you were offering some sort of criticism of their own lives’, she notes. ‘It doesn’t matter, though, how uninterested people are, you still have to write them letters.’3
I haven’t written many letters since I arrived in Switzerland, but I have written a lot – nearly every day since I arrived. And most of that writing is about the art that is being made in the country, or about the world that happens around and conditions that art making. It’s a strange sort of archive, one that also might be called ‘letters’, though I am afraid to capitalize the first letter of that word. Nevertheless, the term ‘letters’ connotes distances as much as it does literature; it suggests a landscape over which those letters (art as much as literature) that contemplate that very landscape move or pass. Thus does the work made by the artists of Switzerland, in their constant movement across its land and borders, also constitute a kind of letters; or Letters – perhaps the capital is not to be feared, here. And what do these Letters say? Interestingly, though perhaps not uniquely, the contents of recent Swiss (art) Letters often reflect on the visual language in which they are written, which is to say that the ideas and infrastructure of process, collaboration, participation, networking, and distribution are often the very themes of the artwork being produced.
But letters naturally raise the question of postage. Across my desk today came an image of a postal stamp that the Swiss artist Valentin Carron made on the occasion of his representing Switzerland at the Venice Biennale this year. I recognized the image immediately. It is a snake’s head, a piece of hay hanging rakishly out of its cool, stylized, metal mouth, as though the snake were a particularly louche Swiss farmer or James Dean in Giant (1956). The stamp is a detail of a larger sculpture that Carron exhibited last year in Art Statements at Art Basel. It was one of the most memorable things I saw there – very much a ‘thing’, somehow. Carron lives in the Swiss mountains and mines their cultural heritage and iconography for his own iconographic and deeply affecting works. At the fair, his long, lithe, heavy snake – conjuring both medieval Switzerland and Art Deco in its stylized decorousness – ‘snaked’ over one of the Basel Messe’s high steel beams, bringing a kind of industrial minimalism (its effects and affects) into the piece. Despite the snake’s lack of animism, it did feel animistic in a way that conjured the mountains, that pulled one back through time to older pastures. I thought it might bite. I laughed at myself, but I stood back.
As I noted in a review I wrote of a recent exhibition in Basel: ‘one doesn’t like to reduce attitude to geography’,4 but then I went ahead and did it. Thinking now, I wonder why not. The rhetoric and sentiment is nice, I suppose, but attitude is often informed by geography and place – very much so. And yet if one were to view current Swiss art practices as always in the shadow of the country’s celebrated landscape, one might more accurately see that shadow itself as decidedly and defiantly unpastoral (Carron’s work is the exception, not the rule). Whether the city the work is made in is moneyed Zurich, morose and stolid Bern, or slightly seedy Basel and Geneva, this vague postwar European urbanity provides a specific setting (one whose very unspecificity is key) set against the more magisterial Swiss countryside, for the work being produced. A kind of natural world on steroids, then, and a hyper- and polyurban art culture posited inside and against it. As is often noted by those not Swiss, there seems to be a specifically Swiss sense of humour – equal parts sobriety and absurdity, darkly droll, sweetly winning – which charts this existential traffic between the provincial and the urbane, the mountain and the shadow.
This situation (if not the humour) might be encapsulated by the inescapable Galerie Bruno Bischofberger advertisements that have adorned the expensive back cover of Artforum for three decades.5 The humourless images (you know them) of iconic and nearly cult-like pastoral Swiss scenes – carnival, cows, snow, cheese, old wooden skis – from the country’s individualized cantons effect a kind of Pictures Generation criticality, as they are overlaid with the stiff font of the gallery’s name, its lakeside Zurich address, and a hungover litany of 1980s-era male art luminaries, their shine mostly extinguished: Francesco Clemente, David Salle, Julian Schnabel. Though I don’t remember the last time I heard someone actually mention going into Bischofberger’s gallery, its ads still operate as a nice, if slightly cranky and retrograde analogy to contemporary Swiss art making, which mostly takes place at an ironic (thought not far, naturally) distance from the quaint Helvetia that surrounds it like so many mountains.
What does it mean to make work in a landscape? To write about that work within that landscape? Particularly if it is always an hour or two away, as much a postcard for the resident as for the tourist? But we all work under and away from the icons of the capitals that we represent. Think of Los Angeles, and its darkly sunny confluence of climate, beach, freeways, and Hollywood sign. Many of my LA friends, artists, have not been to the beach in years. Or imagine New York and its symbols, and the quotidian distance its artists keep from them. Or the American midwest, where another Swiss, Robert Frank, wrote the record on iconic imagery. Switzerland also has too many tropes attached to it to write earnestly and intelligently about how they effect its cultural production. The world’s warlords’ and dictators’ stolen cash reserves running underneath the banking boulevards; the high, beautiful mountains studded with chalets holding skiing families and Roman Polanski. Perhaps sometime soon the current artistic currency of collaboration, participation, and networking will be just another trope. But clichés have something to them. In its economy of size, of gesture, both outsized and diminutive, Switzerland often points to what it is not, as much as what it is. This reticence can perhaps be found in its itinerant bands of artists and players, smoothly crossing the borders, and then smoothly crossing back, something dark – the mountain or its shadow – staining their tracks.
1 W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997)
2 Kolt Beringer, ‘Luv, Etc.’ in Seven Poems (Houndstooth Books, 2013)
3 Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Ghazza Street (Picador, 1988)
4 See my recent review of Mandla Reuter’s solo show at Kunsthalle Basel, in frieze issue 154, April 2013
5 Tellingly, a discussion of these ads also opens curator Polly Staple’s 2008 treatise on the country in the sister magazine of this publication; see Switzerland, in frieze issue 116, June–August 2008