Posts Tagged ‘Zurich’

QandA with the artists in Fire it Up: Ceramic as Material in Contemporary Sculpture

In Curatorial project on May 30, 2013 at 11:11 am

In conjunction with the exhibition Fire it Up: Ceramic as Material in Contemporary Sculpture, the participating artists were asked a few questions about this specific material and their approach to artistic production.

Fire It Up takes place at Dienstgebäude, Töpferstr. 24, Zurich, May 30-July 6, 2013.  Vernissage, May 30, 7-10pm

QandA with Fabien Clerc

OS: Do you see yourself as a sculptor/artist or ceramicist/potter?  What do you think are the differences between these terms?

FC: For my family, I am a potter, a ceramicist for the elite of the ceramics field, an artist for the cultural institutions, but I think that I would like to define myself as sculptor.  When I was a student at the School for Decorative Arts, it seemed clear that I should lead a career in the realm of craft and design.  This question is generational.  Nowadays, a young artist is obligated to know and to refer to fine art, design, and other contemporary experimentations that are related to materiality.

OS: How do you produce your objects?  What is the process you undertake?

FC: As an initial step, I often work by drawing a sketch or making photos-montage/collage.  Then I try and choose the appropriate manner of shaping, and I experiment.  The process will naturally result from this choice. Even if ceramic remains central to my work, it is no longer exclusive. It freely cohabits with other materials and / or media.

OS: Why do you think that ceramic has had such a bad reputation in modern and contemporary art?

FC: Despite the fact that i am still quite fascinated by the multitude of possibilities in forming the material, and the different applications that are offered by ceramic (in desgin, architecture, sculpture, sound, etc.), ceramic remains an excessively exclusive field, autarkic, almost autistic.  Let me explain: you should read an article from the Review of Ceramic and Glass, from professionals to professionals.  An ironic but not very interesting parallel defines ceramics as the protected studio of contemporary art.  I find this image a bit reductionist but still valid.

OS: How have you come to this material in your practice and what attracts you to it?  Why do you work with it?

FC: By accident…After a very classical and traditional education in ceramics, I took some classes in the history of ceramics and they led me to understand the issues and the seriousness of the subject.  Later my gallery or museum experience, as well as my interest in primitive art and shamanism, complemented my  empathy for said material. The “trend” and the return of ceramics in contemporary art has also strengthened my resolve incontinuing my work in this direction.

OS: Do you feel that your use of the material is essential to understanding your work, or in your case it’s incidental, more of a practical solution?

FC: Good question: the ceramicist is without a doubt conditioned by his own technicality, he expresses himself with the earth. In my work,  I do use the material, but not exclusively.  If the practical solution requires me to turn to other materials, of course I include them.

OS: In general, do the technical demands of ceramic take away from the artist’s focus on a conceptual approach to the work?  Or do you see the technical and the conceptual expressed equally through the form?

FC: First I come up with a concept, an intention, or an approach.  Then, as an artist who is going to appeal to a specific craft for his mode of production, I consciously use this material which requires know-how.  Luckily in my case, I do master it.

OS: Have you encountered challenges in exhibiting your ceramic work in the contemporary art context? If so, why do you think that is?  If not, what has contributed to this inclusion?

FC: I have been exhibiting my work for the past few years in “ceramics” contexts, but also in galleries and institutional spaces that do not distinguish between the two.  I always find it interesting for my work to be confronted by an external perspective.

Translation from the French made by Olga Stefan Consulting

Loredana Sperini, Zurich

In Art Reviews on April 12, 2013 at 8:55 am

This review appears in the March/April issue of Art In America

Loredana Sperini’s recent show “Tra di Noi” (Between Us), at Freymond-Guth’s new space in the Löwenbräu complex, continued the Swiss artist’s fascination with contrasting materials.  Sperini, who was initially trained in fiber arts and has a strong background in craft, pursued an art education only later.  She has been working with a multitude of materials and in very disparate forms, like wax, drawing, fabric, sculpture, found ceramic, and installation, since the beginning of her career in the early 2000s.   Here, as elsewhere, she juxtaposed soft with hard and warm with cold materials, revealing the tensions between the natural and manufactured worlds.

Sperini’s current formal interest is the crystal, which she references in the 10 wall-hung mixed-medium pieces, two floor sculptures and a wall installation on view, all untitled and made specifically for the exhibition. Despite often being ridiculed as a new-age accessory (crystals are historically associated with healing and spirituality, black magic, and sometimes endowing owners with superhuman abilities), the beauty of their structure is undeniable. The crystal’s allure  is in large part due to its geometric regularity and its ability to reflect and refract light. And our admiration for these naturally occurring structures, their strength and brilliance, has inspired us to artificially interpret and try to fashion them for hundreds of years.

And yet Sperini’s focus is on fragility, rather than the sturdiness that we associate with gems.  In her nine small paintings  made of wax on panels of cast cement, the fragility of the  composition itself is emphasized. The artist fills cracks that she herself creates in the cement casts with layer  upon layer of different colored waxes, sculpting and shaping  angles and lines into the malleable wax surface that allude to  the geometric crystal forms. The translucence of the wax layers establishes a visual allusion to the refraction of light in actual crystals, and the effect is mesmerizing.

In her work, Loredana plays with our ambivalence toward the crystal, alluding to both its beauty but also to the dubious connotations it evokes in contemporary culture. For example, an untitled wax and cement sculpture resembles a large chunk of an amethyst geode, the type one might find in a new-age bookstore. One side is grey and rocklike, while the other features purple wax in angles and planes. A violet wax arm, an element that directly links this work to Loredana’s previous wax sculptures of body parts, hangs under one of the vertices, as if it were spurting from it. Contained within the cupped hand is a disembodied pair of human lips. This piece evokes the human body’s fragility and uncertain placement in the world.

In an approximately 7-foot-high floor sculpture, a black polygon frame is attached to a black mirrored glass quadrilateral. Reflections of the gallery in the glass evoke the fractured and multiplied reality implied by the many faces of a crystal.  The conflict between nature and culture, which leads to the battle for control over our environment, is also a subtext exemplified through the juxtaposition of body parts and geometric forms, as well as man-made and natural materials. But most importantly, the work exhibits a love for materiality and form, a tenderness for beauty, and a respect for craft that is often absent in contemporary practice.

Onorato and Krebs at Raebervonsteglin, Zurich

In Art Reviews on December 4, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Published in December 2012 issue of Art in America.

In their current exhibition the young Swiss photography duo, Onorato/Krebs, address the process of creating an image by revealing the actual mechanisms behind the compositions, especially the construction of sculptural elements of which they are particularly fond, and which they build specifically for the large photographs, installation and film on view.

Wozu Zeit, or For What is Time, featuring ten new works made especially for this show, not only reflects on the timelessness of photography, but also alludes to the art history canon itself, and the impact of photography on perception and ultimately on the construction of our worldview.  But although many might still feel that image makes reality, Onorato/Krebs seem to be rejecting this view by showing us in all their work the tools they use for constructing their images, and they are primitive, elementary, makeshift, and signal the early age of mechanics.   Onorato/Krebs seem to allude to Barthes’s description of cameras as “related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision” and in that spirit, recreate those mechanisms as subjects in their image making.

It is not, therefore, a coincidence that they have included a sound-making installation that looks like an antiquated home-made machine from another century, with various household items as drums, on which hammers are programmed to bang every few seconds in a precisely calibrated fashion to supply the score of their 16mm film titled Blockbuster (2012, 5 minutes). Played on an old projector that protrudes through the wall into the adjacent room, the film depicts a man standing on a ladder and through a perfectly composed play with space, seems to be furiously hammering away at the top of various buildings, which actually exist in the back plane, as if adding the finishing touches or trying to single-handedly bring them down. The sound made by the machine creates the audio effects for the banging of the hammer. This wonderfully humorous and absurd little film, with a punning title, brings us back to the early years of film-making, where the appropriate music was played by a piano-player in the theatre hall, or later edited into the movie, to provide the atmosphere and the emotional cues for the audience.  It also alludes to the labor issues connected to industrialization, and the need for more precise forms of documentation and classification, which gave way to the advent of the camera and film, initially intended as scientific instruments.  The hammering sound and the man in action also suggests the act of building and making, of shaping and creating the space around us in a very physical and direct way, and by extension in a metaphorical sense, the way in which we construct our reality and understanding of the world.


This playful approach to revealing the process of construction is also found in Fog and Demolition Continues, both black-and-white photographs made with an analog camera, the former depicting a dilapidated or unfinished building in the back plane, and in the front plane a perfectly juxtaposed wooden frame outlining the contours of the building, while the latter depicts in chronophotography a moving contraption in the gaping hole of the debris of a structure.  These photographs not only disclose the sculptural source material of photography, but also are a throwback to early photographers, starting with Etienne-Jules Marey, who experimented with capturing the mechanics of motion and the passing of time.  The histories of urbanization and photography and their inherent correlation to modernity are always a subtext throughout.



Nude, Descending, Stairs reverses Duchamp’s effort to translate chronophotography to painting, as Onorato/Krebs create a painterly work through photographic means.  What results is an assemblage of two images of a female nude descending a staircase, taken from different angles, which are superimposed manually but in different directions, on the backdrop of a metal-link fence and grass, staple features of the modern city.  Reference and meaning multiply into a loop.

The work of Onorato/Krebs is an homage to the technologies of the past.  However the work does not wallow in nostalgia or sentimentality, instead it is humorous and even ironic toward those who tend to glorify those bygone days.  Onorato/Krebs allow us to reflect on our current modes of production, mostly characterized by outsourcing and industrial fabrication, as well as the impact of time on our perception of the world.  With smart references and quotations, Onorato/Krebs develop their own language that is whimsical, thoughtful, and thoroughly constructed.

Froh Aussicht – Art on the Farm

In Art History, Art Reviews, Other, misc. art on August 23, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Download the Froh Aussicht article from the September/October 2012 issue of Sculpture Magazine: froh Aussicht article

There are many examples of art projects using the natural landscape, of course going back to the Land Art movement of the late 60s and 70s, with artists not only locating their work in nature but utilizing the environment as material, as an existential part of the work.

But there is a new trend taking place in Switzerland with art projects and sculptures being placed and exhibited in the large expanses of the rural areas, thus creating a new way of viewing and appreciating art.  It is helpful to this strategy that people in Switzerland are very physically active, and around any given village or small settlement you will see people with Nordic walking sticks making their way through the green expanse of neighbouring fields for a nice afternoon hike.  This strategy gives a new meaning to the concept of public art and its public…
“Since we began this project, we have had about ten or more local people stopping by daily to check out the artwork on their way to the woods for their regular walks, and this is really new,” says Martin Blum, the founder of Froh Aussicht, a working farm in Canton Zurich which he has also turned into a sculpture garden since 2008.
The project began when Martin met a student at the University of Basel who, knowing about his farm, and about his interest to start an exhibiting venue there, approached him with the idea of using it for a temporary installation.  In the first year two temporary projects were developed and installed: Heavy Cloud by Mia Marfurt, a part of a brick wall inserted into the grazing field of Froh Aussicht’s cows, commenting on the construction development surrounding the farm and its encroachment on the natural landscape, and a study by the collective Airtrain, whose practice is between public art and performance.  Ironically, Heavy Cloud had to be removed in 2010 because it itself was an intervention in the land, and according to Swiss authorities, despite it being private property, it was not safe for the land.  Thus another layer is added to the question of what is private and what is public.
Every year since then, Martin Blum, who is also a practicing artist and farmer, has supported the installation of two projects. The New York-based Swiss artist Christophe Dräger created an electrical maze based on the one in the movie The Shining for the same grazing cows.  The grass underneath the electrical wires grew while the rest was eaten by the cows during the four month duration.  Amazingly, the labyrinth that was formed in true Land Art fashion was visible from space at the end of the four months.  Other artists also integrated the space of the farm and its resources within their projects.  Their interventions were direct responses to the land and the concerns around that very particular space, while others also used the land as a material.
Yet in 2010 a new guest temporarily moved on the farm: the Migros Museum for Contemporary Art based in Zurich and funded by the supermarket chain Migros, hosted an exhibition of sculptures called The Garden of Forking Paths.  The idea came from an existing interest of curator and director of Migros, Heike Munder, in the tradition of “Follies”, architectural constructions popular in 18th century French and English gardens that served no other purpose but to decorate and offer a Romantic element.
The projects in the exhibition, The Garden of Forking Paths, don’t so much utilize the land as material as many of the initial projects do, but rather as an exhibition space and maybe romantic inspiration, exactly as the original follies did two centuries ago.
One of the most humorous sculptures included in the show is a 3m tall snowman made of marble by Swiss artist Peter Regli, part of his Reality Hacking series.  The intervention of a wintry image in the summery landscape of the farm at the time of the exhibition offered a comical juxtaposition, and the material, so full of historical weight and gravitas, poked fun at the seriousness with which many sculptors approach their practice.  But it also alludes to the ambiguous position that the farm occupies in our psyche.  A place of both romantic meditation on nature and our inability to control it, but also the place where we are most in control of nature, where our culture wins over the forces of nature.  Thus a snowman that is made of universally available material during a certain season, snow, is now sculpted out of one of the most precious building stones.
Another interesting project dealing with the duality of nature vs. culture on a farm is Fabian Marti’s Heroic Dose, a small greenhouse decorated with psychedelic swirls in black and white, growing psychoactive plants, including cannabis, opium poppy and others.   The plants that grow in the greenhouse are the ones found in nature, but can be turned into drugs through human intervention, just as agriculture has domesticated plants that grew in the wild.  Therefore the farm is the frontier on which the battle between humans’ power to control their environment and the forces of nature is most bitterly fought.
Then there was the horrible post-modern installation of Liz Craft, the Los Angeles based artist, which really took the idea of the “exclusively decorative architectural element” of the folly to extremes.  Mixing all sorts of materials, bronze, wood, gypsum, and others, as well as styles, Liz Craft creates a mishmash unforgettable for its heavy-handedness.  Ms. Craft went so far as to import a real tree for her installation rather than integrate the existing trees on the farm.  Now that’s real folly…
With the departure of the Migros Musem’s exhibition, Martin Blum is in the process of planning for the upcoming year.  He is currently getting ready to host the production of a music video by Roman Keller & Christina Hemauer, featuring the Rap musician “Big Zis” and in April there will be the opening of a piece by Swiss sculptor Bob Gramsma as well as a performance by Lutz/Guggisberg. In the fall Swiss artist Isabel Krieg will also contribute a sculpture to the ongoing project.
The success of the collaboration with Migros strengthened Martin Blum’s conviction that exhibiting work in this new way is not only good for art but also good for his farm’s business.  Martin estimates that about 3000 people visited the Migros Museum’s exhibition and were thus introduced to contemporary art in an unlikely place, a place of tradition and ritual.  So, not only is the farm a battleground between humans and nature, but it is now, thanks to Martin’s initiative, also a more engaging battleground between the contemporary and the past, where both are set up to learn from each other.

“Manual Labor” by Oscar Tuazon at Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, CH

In Art Reviews on March 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

In March/April Flashart

The Paris-based American Oscar Tuazon’s current exhibition in Zurich continues his exploration of DIY architecture, which has been a constant interest throughout his practice.  Here he also moves beyond that, however, to also highlight the friction in art and society between man-made and industrially-made objects.  Tuazon’s work accentuates the tension between the expected uselessness of art objects and the utility of the industrially manufactured by merging both elements into his pieces, creating a hybrid form that also obfuscates its utilitarian origins.


His conclusion is presented through a series of constructions that create new ways of experiencing space through the juxtaposition of wood and metal beams, in some cases with concrete and marble, forming geometric shapes, which force the viewer to look and sometimes even walk through, around, and into them for a full effect.


One piece that balances the line between functionality and inutility most clearly is White Walls, the passageway in the form of something like a trapezoid depending on the angle from which you look, made of metal beams elevated on a concrete platform about 4 inches off the floor, separating and connecting two of the three exhibition rooms.  Of course the need to connect the two rooms was manufactured by Tuazon himself, almost as a challenge to come up with an interesting solution to the space constraints he himself imposed.


Not only is the way we experience space a topic for Tuazon here, but as the title of the exhibition confirms, the hard work associated with making art, and namely the art that includes the actual mark of the artist’s hand.  Tuazon takes a stand against the usual contemporary art suspects who seem to despise making, and choose to outsource that work to their employees.  Granted with help, but primarily with his own hands, he constructs spaces that offer solutions, not necessarily to existing problems, but to our need for experience.  In his own words, «I don’t have ideas, I just go to work.» And true to this motto, his work brings us back to the times when art was primarily made, not exclusively conceived.


Tatiana Trouve: A Stay Between Enclosure and Space

In Art Reviews on January 13, 2010 at 11:30 am

Article published in Sculpture Magazine, February 2010

Migros Museum, Zurich

Walking into Tatiana Trouve’s new exhibition – featuring wall drawings and installations – is like entering a parallel world: absurd, dream-like, puzzling, and haunting.  The first installation that confronts us, 350 points towards infinity, is composed of hundreds of metallic pendulums hanging from the ceiling to about 3 inches from the floor.  They all shoot out at different angles, as if frozen in time and space, creating an eerie sensation of arrested transition.  This elegant installation encompasses most of Trouve’s preoccupations: magic and illusion, dreams and memory, architectural intervention, psychological investigation, and the interplay of inner and outer spaces.

Trouve started her career in the mid-90s, when just recently out of art school, she embarked on a campaign of getting in touch with galleries to show her work, and employers to hire her.  Out of this mostly unsuccessful effort came her ongoing project, BAI (Bureau d’activites implicites), a modular installation that archives the processes of her development as an artist, and those of the works that she makes.  Trouve arranges correspondence and objects in various configurations and contexts for each new installation of BAI.  As she evolves and time passes, the BAI reflects this through its own physical layout and the objects exhibited within.  And through this continued psychological exploration, the exhibition of inner realms in an uncanny context, and the play with architectural space, Tatiana Trouve has created a unique modus operandi that is evident in her current work.

But the exhibition in Zurich also expands on these themes with several disturbing interventions in the museum architecture itself that bring to mind the dream world of Alice in Wonderland.  Miniature entrances force the viewers to squat to enter mysterious spaces decorated with seemingly arbitrary objects, like in Inchoativity, where a series of cylinders that look like radiators connected to long, thin vertical and horizontal pipes, link to each other with no practical purpose.  A folded mattress made of cement and tied to a pillar by a belt is suspended above ground.  All these objects and spaces seem de-contextualized and sterile, but there is evidence of the human touch in each one: in Inchoativity, the first thing we encounter is a pair of black boots in a corner, and drip buckets under the levers that would normally be used to adjust the heat level of the radiators.  In another installation, The Antechamber, one finds the remnants of a spill that bridges the space of the installation and the hallway: Art spilling into life, dream into reality.  Spill elements are repeated within the installation space on the walls, among the absurd mechanical combinations that hang and hover from above in meaningless perfection.

One of the most engrossing pieces in the show, From Here I Disappear, is composed of a long tunnel cut into the wall, interspersed with small translucent Plexiglas doors opened and closed at different angles, reflecting into and off each other, giving the uneasy feeling of peering into infinity.  To see the details of the structure, one must bend over in an uncomfortable position and peer through a mysteriously locked door that offers no answers, but elicits only questions.  It temps you to enter, and rejects you when you try.

The second part of the exhibition features charcoal drawings on the walls, and copper lines inserted into the wall and cement floor.  In these pieces Trouve plays with the viewer, initially creating the impression of traditional perspective exercises, but on closer inspection they turn out to be only illusions resulting from manipulated space and context.  In one of the four wall pieces called Envelopments, Trouve repeats the radiator motif and inserts it a dream-scape of barren architecture and life elements, including a seemingly deserted apartment complex, a fan, and a tree.  From this space copper lines emanate down the wall, and continue into the floor, again bridging the dream space (art piece) with reality (the space on which the audience walks).  Although 2-dimensional, the drawings become unusually sculptural as these copper lines come down the wall and dig into the cement floor, creating a sculptural drawing and a drawn sculpture.

The entire exhibit by Tatiana Trouve takes you on a trip down the rabbit hole, and brings you into a world where nothing is as it seems.  It is the place in our subconscious where memories, images, and thoughts blend to create those little fragments of truth that we can never decipher.  Trouve’s exhibition is an ambitious and highly poetic journey, extremely well produced yet fragile and subtle.

Mircea Cantor at the Kunsthaus

In Art Reviews on December 21, 2009 at 2:42 pm

To be published in ArtUS in January, 2010

The young Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, currently living and working in Paris, has become internationally recognized after some important museum exhibitions and representation with the prestigious Yvon Lambert Gallery.  So, as I was walking into the Kunsthaus exhibition “Tracking Happiness” expecting to see a considerable amount of work and even some monumental, I was surprised at the small space and almost undetectable installation.  The show features five works commissioned by the museum: two videos, and three object-based pieces.

The eponymous main video is projected on the large back wall of the gallery, engulfing the majority of the space, as viewers move back to be able to experience the entire area of the screening.  The well-produced video features a choreographed dance, set to hauntingly minimalist music composed by the Romanian Adrian Gagiu, performed by a group of eight women. They are all wearing the same white dresses, on a white background of white sand and white walls, holding beige straw brooms, and revealing small areas of pink skin.  They dance in a circle, each one methodically and ritualistically sweeping over the footprints left by the woman ahead of her, rhythmically moving to the echoes of Adrian’s composition.   The futility of our temporary impact in the world is clear– it can be easily erased, and trace of our existence can easily disappear.  But the subtext intended here, according to the curatorial statement, is that we live in a world that records our every move, tracks our lives through cameras, credit card and electronic data collected on the internet, which can all be quickly erased and with it the evidence of our existence.  This very specific meaning though, gets lost in the poetic and atmospheric choreography.  A more philosophical and general meditation on the ephemeral nature of our own marks seems more appropriate.

(For a complete recording of the video, click here )

The second video, Vertical Attempt, is much less complicated. A flash of a scene that lasts one second on the screen of a small TV laid on the floor in a dark corner of the gallery space reveals a child sitting on a kitchen counter trying to cut with a pair of scissors the stream of water coming out of the faucet.  Then darkness for seven seconds. And again the scene. If you catch it, with its nuances and details, then you have experienced it.  If not, you might feel confused about its connection to the rest of the show, like I did.  But persistence won over, and I watched it several times to finally feel its humor, and see the futility of the child’s experiment.  Its placement in the gallery suggests that it might not be considered as important as Tracking Happiness or the other pieces, but with better positioning, this short yet strong piece can leave an impression.

An extremely small painting, Angels and Satellites, is hung on the wall opposite Tracking Happiness. We see the earth in the middle of the canvas, as if from a great distance, surrounded by angels and satellites, both acting as surveyors of our moves and lives.  Although  angels are usually welcomed, yet satellites evoke our fear of loss of privacy, both orbit the earth, watching us from up high.

Like a Bird on a High Voltage Wire, a large-scale sculpture of what looks to be an abacus, stands lit in the middle of the room.  On closer inspection one sees that instead of beads, the abacus has spoons hanging on the wires, creating a pattern of two back-to-back isosceles triangles, one of wooden spoons, and the other of metal.  Cantor explains that this piece deals with the lack of true freedom of movement that we experience in a world that continues to track our every step, as the spoons, much like birds that get electrocuted from a high voltage wire, remain attached.  Leonard Cohen’s melancholy lyric resonates with the piece and with the show as a whole: “Like a bird on a wire…I have tried in my way to be free.”

Cabaret Voltaire: From Dada to Nietniet

In Art History on November 19, 2009 at 10:16 am

Printed in the May 2010 issue of SwissNews

“In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”, “Get off my back”, “Be seeing you sometime”. In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right”….The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.” -From the dada manifesto read by Hugo Ball at the first public Dada event on July 14, 1916

And with that declaration, Hugo Ball launched one of the most influential and important (anti-) art actions of all time, Dada.

Zurich of 1916 was the gathering place for refugees from war-torn Europe, a place where people came to find peace and stability.  It was also a relatively permissive environment that had a history of accepting the revolutionary ideas of Europe’s disillusioned intellectuals, including Lenin who was preparing his own revolution in 1916.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that artists, political activists, intellectuals, and regular citizens weary of the fighting and death in their native lands swarmed to Zurich, getting together at bars and cafes, planning new revolutions (political and otherwise) and discussing till all hours of the night the “future society”.

Among these refugees were Hugo Ball, his soon-to-be wife, Emmy Hemmings, Tristan Tzara, the Janco brothers, (Marcel, George, and Jules), Arthur Segal, Jean Arp, and Richard Huelsenbeck, the future founders of Dada and its home, the Cabaret Voltaire.  Many of the group’s original members were Romanian Jews escaping the ultranationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies rapidly taking shape in Romania, while others were Germans escaping the war.  They were united by their conviction that the horrors around them, the death and destruction, were rooted in outdated bourgeois values that still governed Europe, and that that societal order, with its inequalities and brutality, needed to be destroyed for another, more human, to be created.

And it was with this desire to destroy accepted values and tradition that Hugo Ball went to the owner of a bar in the old town of Zurich, the Hollandische Meierei, to ask its owner, Ephraim Jan, for the back room, to be used for a new project: a cabaret with singing, theatrics, music, visual art exhibitions, and all sorts of other performances that would disturb bourgeois sensibilities.  It was called the Cabaret Voltaire after the French philosopher who once had also challenged the status quo with his enlightened ideals, it opened for the first time on February 5, 1916.

This first event was not much different from the cabarets or soirees that Ball had organized before in Berlin.  Most artists involved came from an expressionist or futurist background, while the music was relatively tame and mainstream in those modern art circles.  But with time, the performances became more and more daring, pushing the limits of respectability to the ultimate climax on July 14, 1916, when the first soiree essentially dada took place.

Most of these artists, specifically Ball, Tzara, the Janco brothers, and Huelsenbeck, were well read in contemporary political theory, and sympathized with anarchic ideals.  Hugo Ball was a great admirer of the Russian anarchy theorist Mikhail Bakunin, who had also spent time in Zurich , but a few decades earlier in the 1870s.

Influenced by Bakunin’s ideas, Ball and his friends started to apply his theories, which Ball considered “to be Dada in political disguise”[1], to their new mode of art creation, whose name they also conceived anarchically, by chance.  The legend goes that the name for what they were doing was adopted by randomly sticking a knife into a dictionary and finding under the blade the noun dada, hobby-horse in French.  Conveniently enough, the name also means “yeah, yeah” in Romanian, or “yeah, right”, an obvious slap in the face to the tradition of “isms” epitomizing theory, order, and reason in the early 20th century. Once dada became an international phenomenon, with adherents in all major world cities, artists started debating the origin of the name, claiming it as their own finding.

In the introduction to the first and only issue of the publication called the Cabaret Voltaire, where the idea of dada first appeared formally at the end of May 1916, Ball wrote a humorous account of the process of launching the cabaret, “When I founded the Cabaret Voltaire, I was of the opinion that there ought to be a few young people in Switzerland who not only laid stress, as I did, on enjoying their independence, but also wished to proclaim it. I went to Mr. Ephraim, the owner of the “Meierei” restaurant and said, ‘Please, Mr. Ephraim, let me have your hall. I want to make a cabaret.’ Mr. Ephraim agreed. So I went to some friends of mine and asked them, ‘Please, let me have a picture, a drawing, an engraving. I want to have an exhibition to go with my cabaret.’ And I went to the friendly press of Zürich and said, ‘Write a few notes. It shall be an international cabaret. We want to do some beautiful things.’ And they gave me pictures, and they wrote the notes. … It is to exemplify the activities and the interests of the cabaret, whose whole endeavour is directed at reminding the world, across the war and various fatherlands, of those few independent spirits that live for other ideals. The next aim of the artists united here is to publish an international periodical. This will appear at Zürich and will be called ‘DADA Dada Dada Dada Dada.’”

Unfortunately, the cabaret soon closed in June 1916, but dada was just beginning.  The Dadaists, despite an internal conflict brewing among them, rented a room for one night at the Waag Hall and there they held the historic July 14 Dada Soiree, which officially launched dada with Ball’s first version of the manifesto (anti-manifesto), Tzara reading his own manifesto, Huelsenbeck reading his phonetic poem, more wild performances, absurdist literary readings, avantgardist works of art, and general chaos.  Every gesture and every move was calculated for the most impact and shock in the audience, thus ensuring the group’s aim of destruction and negation of acceptability, aesthetic, and reason.  If art until then had been based on aesthetic, then dada was anti-art, and these performances were hideous and disturbing, like the war around them.

After the closing of the Cabaret Voltaire when Mr. Jan could no longer take the madness, the artists associated with dada moved on, first hosting regular exhibitions at Galerie Dada in Bahnhofstr 19, which also closed soon thereafter in June 1917, then to other cities bringing dada ideas with them and establishing local dada branches.  Those that didn’t remain Dadaists went on to create great work in other movements, particularly Surrealism.  However, Hugo Ball, who actually separated himself from Dada in early 1920, turned to Christianity and retired to Ticino until his death.  Tzara went on to establishing the Dada school of thought and become its main promoter and leader.

Since its closing in 1916, the building housing the Cabaret Voltaire on Spiegelgasse 1 has gone through many transformations.  In 1989, the space was a Teen ‘n’ Twenty disco, with only a plaque with the word dadaismus on the building, commemorating the cultural revolution’s origins.  But in 2002, while the building’s owner was considering turning it into offices, a group of artists, among whom Mark Divo, a conceptual artist now living in Prague, squatted the building and started a series of dada performances and festivals to raise awareness of its history and importance.

The excitement generated by these events were noticed by Swatch CEO Nick Hayek, and along with the Zurich City Social-Democratic Party and architecture magazine “Hochparterre”, petitioned the city government to open an arts center dedicated to dada at the location.  Swatch promised a few million francs in funding over a five-year period, with the expectation to sell its dada watches in the center’s shop.

And thus, in 2004, Cabaret Voltaire, funded by the city of Zurich and private funders, opened its doors as an institution.  What would have thought the fanatically anti-establishment dadaists about this institution dedicated to what cannot be institutionalized?  In one of his letters to Tristan Tzara after his break with Dada’s  direction under Tzara’s leadership, Hugo Ball, the original co-founder of the movement wrote, “I have another system now. I want to do it differently….I declare hereby that Expressionism, Dadaism and other “isms” are the worst type of bourgeoisie.  All are bourgeoisie, all bourgeoisie.  Evil, evil, evil” (Ball, Briefe, September 15, 1916, p 62-63).


In Art Reviews on January 31, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Zurich is a clean city – for someone like me, a lover of the urban grit, it’s almost insulting – and walking Zurich is a good way to indulge in this hyper clean. Getting used to the fresh and clean mountain air will not be easy, having happily lived most of my life amidst Chicago’s automobile and industrial pollution, almost palpable in its richness. But, walking Zurich offers me other opportunities: to discover the many arts areas and their respective galleries and institutions, to get to know the city, with its unique character and charm – it also works well as an inexpensive weight loss system!

My first pedestrian venture led me to the Lowenbrau Complex, a former beer factory turned art center, which houses several of the most important galleries and art institutions in the city. There, I unknowingly stepped into the Ian Wallace retrospective at the Kunsthalle Zurich, where lo and behold, Ian himself was giving a lecture. The place was packed with students and art world denizens.

The retrospective was a huge undertaking, organized in collaboration with two additional institutions: the Witte de With Center in Rotterdam and the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf.

The Kunsthalle featured Ian Wallace’s 1975 work “Attack on Literature,” the “In the Street” series (1988-89), and the “At Work” series (1983-present). The other two institutions focused on other areas of his 40+ year career. The interesting thing about Ian Wallace for me was his historic importance, having made such an impact on conceptual photography, while maintaining his dedication to teaching and enjoying a rich and productive practice. Ian is viewed as the pioneer of the Vancouver conceptual art school, having taught, and later collaborated with, important Vancouver conceptual artists, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Stan Douglas. Of his Kunsthalle exhibit, I was most drawn to his “At Work” series, photographs taken in his studio or in a storefront. The role of the artist and the studio is explored through philosophical inquiry, but also with a tinge of humor, which I prefer. An artist sitting at his desk, thinking and reading, in exactly the same position picture after picture, becomes the creative act and the work of art, moving further and further away from the object, which is usually the result of the creative process.

Ian Wallace

Ian Wallace At Work (Still), 1983, DVD loop, Courtesy Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver

After his lecture, I approached Ian and discussed his work a little, but let him get mobbed by young girls enthusiastic to talk to an artist that they probably read so much about in art history class.


My next stop in that building was at the Migros Museum, an exhibition space substantially funded by the Migros supermarket chain that has a very well endowed “Percent for Art” program – that sounds like wonderful corporate investment to me. The show at the Migros Museum was a retrospective of the work of Tadeusz Kantor, a Polish avant-garde artist who was not only a painter, but an amazing set designer, and one of the most influential stage directors of the second half of the 20th century. His avant-garde approach to art led him to bring “the happening” to Poland at a time when the country was under a communist regime and western experimental art was viewed very suspiciously. For Tadeusz, this was not the first time he worked in extremely experimental ways under very restrictive conditions. He began his most important work during the occupation of Poland by the Nazis, and continued this work until his death in 1990.

Taking the stage away from the performance and allowing his actors or players to interact with the public brought a level of subversion to theater that not many were prepared for. And Tadeusz himself was not exactly satisfied with the results, so in 1972 he came back to the theater and started work on the production of his most important and influential contribution, the Theater of Death. The plays produced under this rubric combined mannequins with actors, and focused on the themes of death, transcendence, and memory, which were oftentimes explored through the intervention of Tadeusz himself who mostly inserted various instructions and alterations in the play while it was in progress.

In “The Dead Class,” the most important play from this period, and filmed by the famous Polish film director Andreij Wajda, Tadeusz offers a glimpse of his own biography and that of his country’s as the play takes the viewer from WWI to 1975 through the memories of several ghosts represented by mannequins in a classroom. Actors and mannequins change roles: some mannequins play live actors, while actors become inanimate sculptures. It’s all very creepy and executed to perfection.

Children at Their Desk (from the play "The Dead Class")

The exhibition at Migros featured not only recordings of Tadeusz’s plays, but a phenomenal array of his sculptures, many of which were used as set pieces for his plays. The juxtaposition of these creepy, staring mannequin-children with household items – like a bike, or a desk – and arranged in unusual positions, reminded me of the absurdist exercises of the Dadaists.

Tadeusz Kantor

Mannequin of a Child on a Bike (from the play "The Dead Class"), 1975, Iron, Polychlorvinyl, Natural Hair, Glass, Wool, Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka, Kraków

The show was truly impressive and the work was extremely courageous, especially given the circumstances under which Tadeusz worked. I wondered why this man of genius and import was never exhibited in Chicago, a city whose Polish population is second in the world only to Warsaw.

Finally, my feet took me to the train station for a quick ride to Oerlikon, a suburb where Kunst Zurich – an art fair in its 9th year aimed to counter-balance the amount of attention that Basel receives during the June fairs – was being held. There I did some more walking through the large exposition hall that hosted more than 60 local and some international galleries, and offered emerging alternative spaces the opportunity to exhibit projects that had no real commercial value. An interesting aspect to this fair was the individual artist prizes sponsored by Zürcher Kantonalbank, which were awarded to local emerging artists whose projects were also on view at the event.

Now that I’ve “become” a Zurcher, I have started walking everywhere, to my daily German classes and downtown, some museums and galleries, and look forward to discovering even more of the city through longer escapades to yet unexplored art venues. June promises to be extremely exciting, with all the fairs in Basel, where I’ll make sure to wear good walking shoes.

This article appeared in Chicago Artists’ News, February 2009.


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