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.
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.
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.
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.