‘Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness’, wrote Thomas Mann in the first chapter of The Magic Mountain (1924), as young Hans Castorp, leaving the German lowlands behind him, travelled higher and higher into the Swiss Alps, to the International Sanatorium Berghof. ‘But it does so,’ Mann continued, ‘by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached state.’
The regenerative potential of the remote Alpine heights may not be the first thing on the minds of visitors to Switzerland in early June whose destination is most likely the Basel art week. With the main fair Art Basel trailing a tail of junior fairs comet-like in its wake, a roster of not-to-miss museum shows, as well as attendant events in nearby Zurich, it is more marathon than convalescence. But the search for a ‘primitive, unattached state’ seems nevertheless to be very much in the air.
The most talked-about works in many recent exhibitions have been made by so-called ‘outsider’ artists brought into the fold (think of Korbinian Aigner’s extraordinary drawings of apples showcased in last year’s dOCUMENTA (13) or the inclusion of several self-taught artists in Rosemary Trockel’s recent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, A Cosmos). The untrained artist is explicitly embraced by curator Massimiliano Gioni in his exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) at this year’s Venice Biennale, which borrows its title from a fantastical project by self-taught artist Marino Auriti, who spent years working in obscurity on this imaginary museum. Included in Gioni’s exhibition are bodies of work by scientists, pedagogues, philosophers or autodidacts not usually classified as artists, whose diverse practices operate beyond the reaches of the usual discourses of art.
The institutionalization of work made by such ‘outsider’ artists (as opposed to the institutionalization of some of the individuals themselves) has its roots in mid-20th-century Switzerland, when Jean Dubuffet began collecting what he termed ‘Art Brut’, eventually donating his collection of some 5,000 pieces to the City of Lausanne in 1971. A museum was established to house the collection in 1976, which by now holds 63,000 works made by over 400 creators. Perhaps the most astonishing artist in the collection is Adolf Wölfli, born in Switzerland in 1864, who spent most of his life in an asylum in Waldau where he produced an incredible fictional autobiography consisting of 25,000 densely-filled pages of texts, drawings, and collages. The Wölfli Foundation in Bern was founded in 1975 with the express intention of bringing this body of work to a larger audience, to prevent it from remaining marginalized or being forgotten. (A selection of works by Wölfli had already been shown by pioneering Swiss curator Harald Szeemann in his 1972 documenta 5.)
In 1929, a year before Wölfli’s death, Swiss writer Robert Walser also ended up at Waldau following a mental breakdown. For several years he continued to write, producing the ‘microscripts’ that were for many years considered to be an undecipherable code, until it was realized that it was in fact German text written in pencil letters not more than two millimetres high. Walser remained in a sanatorium, refusing to leave despite apparent improvements in his health, until his death in 1956.
It has been suggested that the lack of recognition Walser received during his lifetime contributed to his infirmity. Would this still be the case now? Would a Wölfli or a Walser be allowed to languish in an institution without their work being discovered and broadcast through the web, quickly assimilated and fed to a public in search of something beyond the mainstream?
Global mobility and instant internet access have generated a lateral expansion, not only in terms of information, but across the whole cultural spectrum. Not least in the horizontal spread of large-scale international art exhibitions or the infinity chamber of art fairs – with satellites spawning satellites spawning satellites. The mainstream widens into a reservoir whose banks are no longer visible, and the nominal divisions between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ begin to dissolve. According to the ‘long tail’ theory of economics, coined in a book of the same name by Wired editor Chris Anderson in 2006, the term ‘mainstream’ is, anyway, near obsolescence. The market is no longer defined by the mainstream – by top twenty hit parades or bestseller lists – but instead by a proliferation of niche markets: a long tapering tail where the demand may be low but the products are so many that commercial viability is nevertheless sustained. Do the proliferating satellites of satellites to be found in Basel (and around other fairs across the globe) operate according to a similar principle, allowing for a lateralized distribution of artworks, displayed on touch screen devices, that are themselves niche products for ever more specialized niche markets?
According to artist Mark Leckey, whose 2009 lecture performance Mark Leckey in the Long Tail addressed these theories head on, ‘the “long tail” for me is the means of production to broadcast yourself, and what happens when everyone’s a potential broadcaster, transmitting their innermost thoughts around the world’ as he said in an interview published on rhizome.org. What will become of the outsider in this long-tail era of self-publication? Is Alpine retreat still possible? Can we still forget and return to our ‘primitive, unattached state’? As Gioni asks in the press material for his Venice show, ‘What room is left for internal images – for dreams, hallucinations and visions – in an era besieged by external ones?’