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“Turn The Puppets Loose”

Museum für Gestaltung
Toni-Areal, Pfingstweidstrasse 96
May 5–September 10

View of “Turn The Puppets Loose,” 2017.

The mannequin cannot be surpassed for natural grace. The German writer Heinrich von Kleist established this in his famous essay “On the Marionette Theater” in 1810. Nevertheless, no career was allotted to these sculptures on strings. They remained entertainment in seasonal fairs and a popular pastime into the twentieth century.

During WWI, a small group of Zurich avant-gardists discovered the dolls’ potential—chiefly, the Swiss artist and textile designer Sophie Taeuber-Arp and the illustrator, painter, and designer Otto Morach, who both taught at Zurich University of the Arts. As early as 1918, a marionette stage was installed at the school. From this history arises a breathtakingly beautiful exhibition, from the museum’s collection of more than 350 historic puppets. The show documents the legendary Zurich puppet-theater tradition up to the 1960s.

In the high foyer, five great figurines on wires greet visitors from the ceiling: Die Wache (The Sentry); Der Papagei (The Parrot); Freudanalytikus; Dr. Komplex; and Der Hirsch (The Stag)—these were commissioned by Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi’s 2015–16 fall/winter collection. In the exhibit, visitors encounter the original, much smaller prototypes, made by Taeuber-Arp for Carlo Gozzi’s 1918 avant-garde play König Hirsch (King Stag).

Beside the beguiling marionettes by Pierre Gauchat, Rudolf Urech, and Alexandra Exter—who is known for making film history with her futuristic figurines for the Soviet sci-fi film Aelita in 1924—this show offers an abundance of sketches, posters, production designs, and other material. It is uplifting to see them exquisitely exhibited here. For even if the exhibition remains modestly silent on this point, without them, works by a range of artists—from Louise Bourgeois to Annette Messager and from Pierre Huyghe to Wael Shawky—would hardly be thinkable.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Flannery Silva

Karma International
Hönggerstrasse 40
June 3–July 15

View of “Sugaring Off,” 2017.

Aren’t these twinned baby-doll strollers strange? Each holding an ostrich egg, they stand paired in file on a pedestal, while mobiles featuring red crosses on white hearts dangle above. The title of the series? “Adultery Costume A-C,” 2017. Yes, this is romantic conceptualism, and in just the right place.

Zurich rarely looks uglier than this gallery’s location: In the 1980s, faceless structures of fair-faced concrete (or béton brut) were thrown up in the middle of the city as office and commercial buildings on much-travelled thoroughfares. A few cheap businesses and bars still occupy them, but most are empty. Flannery Silva knows how to make use of this history and has produced a convincing, ironic exhibition. It is presented like the pop-up store of a company that offers custom in-vitro fertilization, with small stages for doll strollers and light boxes on the walls that bathe the whole space in just the right light.

Silva was born in New York in 1991. A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, she now lives with artist Chloé Elizabeth Maratta in Los Angeles, and together they have a band: Odwalla1221 (formerly known as Odwalla88). The exhibition was smartly timed with their spring/summer European tour and a show of their work at SCHLOSS in Oslo. But Silva’s “Sugaring Off” has its own groove, and whoever sees it can’t get the odd strollers nor the pros and cons of procreation in a test tube out of her mind.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Tilo Steireif

Robert Walser-Zentrum
Marktgasse 45
November 19–December 23

Tilo Steireif, untiled, 2012–13, watercolor and ink on paper. From the series “The Robber,” 2012–13.

In 2012, Tilo Steireif, a Swiss artist whose research-based practice has favored photography and installation, began work on a suite of aquarelle and ink cartoons inspired by German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser’s posthumously published novel, The Robber. The labor posed two challenges: It was Steireif’s first foray into watercolor, and The Robber—a digressive novel with a weak plot first published in German in 1972 and in English in 2000—doesn’t easily lend itself to visual exegesis in the way that the Book of Genesis did for Robert Crumb. Walser’s novel begins briskly: “Edith loves him.” Edith being a waitress and estranged paramour of the Robber, an impoverished “good-for-nothing” from the Swiss capital of Bern whose precarious lifestyle—he is more lotus-eater than criminal—chimes with the author’s own traumatic biography. Still, Steireif emerges as a mordant guide to Walser’s elliptical modernist text about a solitary walker with urbane habits.

Installed in three rows across three walls in a small room that has previously shown Walser’s idiosyncratic microscripts, Steireif’s 112 clear line cartoons (all works untitled, 2012–13) are tonally reduced. The worn-out Guston pinks and variations of “sky blue audacity,” to quote the novel, lend his visualization of petit bourgeois anxiety and listlessness an understated pathos. One panel shows the Robber, who bears a striking resemblance to a mustached Walser, examining his bleeding heart while on a walk. The cartoon is faithful to the book, gleefully so, grimly depicting what is understood as metaphorical introspection in the text. But Steireif is ultimately an empathetic interpreter of the writer’s world of homburgs, cigars, carousel rides, strange monuments, and low-key despair.

Sean O’Toole