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SWISS INSTITUTE WANTS TO PLAY

“The Swiss Institute is in no way a showcase of Swiss culture,” says Marc-Olivier Wahler, when I ask him what’s Swiss about the New York exhibition space and arts organization. In response, the affable young curator hired last October to reinvigorate the institute’s program gives me a quizzical look, as if my question were incomprehensible. “If it were so, it would be boring, and I wouldn’t be here.”

For Wahler, Switzerland is as much a metaphor as an actual country. “Switzerland is not a nation. It’s an attitude of self-effacement, of stealth,” he insists. “It’s invisible, but once you see it, it becomes spectacular.” Ironically, that may also be an apt description of his curatorial style. The cofounder of the Center for Contemporary Art in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Wahler has emerged recently with a reputation for playful curatorial concepts. “Under Pressure,” one of Wahler’s first efforts for the institute in January 2001, dealt with, according to Wahler, “the tenuous moment before any given situation explodes into chaos.” It featured such artists as Takashi Murakami and Martin Creed, one of this year’s Turner Prize nominees, exploring the elusive idea.

At times, Wahler’s ideas are too playful for certain institutions. Recently, he proposed that the Swiss Army Brass Band play renditions of techno music while marching down the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s spiraling ramp. The museum turned down the offer. The organizers of this year’s Downtown Arts Festival, however, accepted a proposal to have Hell’s Angels–style bikers rev their engines and spin their wheels on the asphalt to create a drawing in skid marks on a popular gallery street. The performance was held at this year’s Chelsea Art Walk Day on September 8 and will be replayed in Miami during the Art Basel Fair in December and in January 2002 with Swiss artist Lori Hersberger.

Because the Swiss Institute is not especially dependent on government funds for its survival, there is no mandate to include Swiss artists in its exhibitions. “We have a small budget, so coproductions with other art centers, galleries, or museums are a modus vivendi,” says Wahler, adding that only a quarter of the institute’s funding comes directly from the Swiss government. The remainder of the budget comes from fund-raising dinners and other such events, membership, and a small private endowment established when the institute was first opened in 1986. The most recent exhibition, “Untitled,” was set to open September 11 but because of the World Trade Center bombing was delayed until the following Tuesday, September 18. Originally called “Mayday,” Wahler and the Swiss Institute staff decided that it could be too easily misconstrued as a reference to the September 11 events and changed the name. The show includes work by artists Sontext, On Kawara, Abigail Lane, Peter Land, and others.

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