Founded in 1986, the Swiss Institute in New York is an international art venue that provides a forum for cultural dialogue between Switzerland, Europe, and the US. Examining the history of the space — documented on its website since 2001 — reveals a tradition of adventurous exhibitions and provocative programming. Our sister publication Artkrush caught up with Gianni Jetzer, who became the director of the Institute in 2006, to discuss the Swiss art scene and what’s in store for the innovative organization.
Artkrush: Switzerland has a long history of producing avant-garde art — Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Tinguely, and Olivier Mosset immediately come to mind. What is it about Swiss culture that nurtures such compelling art?
Gianni Jetzer: I guess it’s the density of the Swiss art world, with its numerous institutions, art schools, museums, and collectors. There’s a whole chain of production to prepare great careers. Nevertheless, a lot of Swiss artists have had to leave the country after some time to be successful on an international level — but most of them maintain a strong affinity with Switzerland.
GJ: The Migros Museum was very supportive of Urs Fischer‘s work. Ugo Rondinone, Sylvie Fleury, and Stefan Banz also had big solo shows there. Andro Wekua had his first institutional solo show in St. Gallen, which was very important for his career. The Rubell Family Collection in Miami acquired most of the show.
AK: What are the gallery scenes like in Zurich and Geneva? Who are the established players, and who shows emerging art?
GJ: Zurich is multi-layered. On one hand, there’s Bruno Bischofberger and Gmurzynska, who are big players in the secondary market; then there are the contemporary leaders, including Hauser & Wirth and Eva Presenhuber, followed by a swarm of successful galleries, such as Peter Kilchmann, Bob van Orsouw, Mai 36, and Francesca Pia. In the younger segment, there’s Karma International, a former alternative space that has turned into a gallery, and Kenworthy-Ball, a gallery with a great selection of young Swiss artists. The Geneva scene is somewhat less interesting, but there are a few galleries, such as Guy Bärtschi, Analix Forever, or Evergreene, that have good programs.
AK: Are there any particular schools that are known to train the best artists, such as Columbia University in New York and Goldsmiths College in London?
GJ: The Zurich School of Design has brought up many successful artists, including Thomas Hirschhorn, Urs Fischer, Olaf Breuning, Annelise Coste, and Shirana Shahbazi. Some of them studied photography (Fischer) or graphic design (Hirschhorn). The University of Art and Design (ECAL) in Lausanne has a great reputation for photography and design. The Basel School of Design is the best for video art; the great video pioneer Rene Pulver was Pipilotti Rist‘s professor there.
AK: Are there specific institutions where emerging artists believe it’s important to show?
GJ: There are a lot of such institutions. The Kunsthalles in Zurich, Bern, Basel, St. Gallen, Fribourg, Winterthur, Arbon, and Luzern all have different profiles and are interesting venues for young artists. Nowadays, nearly every Swiss museum is showing contemporary art. There’s an infinite offer of possible platforms.
AK: The Swiss Institute in New York also has a long history of showing international contemporary art. When you look at the archives of previous shows, what do you find most impressive?
GJ: Christoph Büchel did a great solo show. The show curated by John Armleder entitled None of the Above was amazing. Also, the eccentric group shows curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler, such as EXTRA and Five Billion Years, were very impressive.
AK: Which shows of Swiss artists that you’ve organized since taking the helm of the Institute in 2006 do you think have made the most impact?
GJ: The survey Books, Editions, and the Like by Fischli/Weiss was very successful; we offered as a public tour a legendary hike in upstate New York with the two artists. The Whole Shebang by Nico Krebs and Taiyo Onorato got a lot of attention. I curated a group show entitled The Why of Life with an interesting mix of artists, including Gregory and Cyril Chapuisat, Carsten Höller, Sean Landers, Kelly Nipper, Lisa Oppenheim, and Roman Signer.
AK: What role does the Institute play in introducing Swiss artists to a New York audience?
GJ: We try to present new or forgotten positions that haven’t received much attention in the US. Since many Swiss artists are already well known, we focus on a different generation. I like collaborations a lot, like the one between Tom Burr and Walter Pfeiffer. The two artists didn’t know one another beforehand, and the result was amazing.
AK: Who are the Swiss artists, both established and emerging, that you want to exhibit in upcoming shows?
GJ: We will present a large retrospective of Manon‘s work in April. She was a pioneer of body and performance art. She began exhibiting in the ’70s, and developed concurrently with Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, and Hannah Wilke. Later in the year, we’re planning a show with the emerging artist Latifa Echakhch. She was born in Morocco and her parents immigrated to France when she was a child, but she recently settled in Switzerland. She has made a number of works incorporating materials, such as tea glasses, carpets, and couscous, that provide her with a way of reflecting on her Moroccan heritage; although, as she points out, they were never part of her everyday life in Paris. Switzerland is a very open and curious country. Our success is based on our mixed roots in the heart of Europe. I want to reflect that in what the Swiss Institute is doing.
Image: Olaf Breuning, Flag, 2007