“An Unrestricted View of the Mediterranean”

A number of exhibitions this summer in Switzerland gave visitors the sense that the country’s image has become a source of civic obsession. The city of Zurich has sponsored an “action” in which some 800 plastic cows—lifelike, life-size, and bearing madcap designs—have been distributed throughout the city. They were enlisted to create an image of Zurich as “teeming with fantasy, joyful, and many-sided,” to quote the flyer announcing the event. An exhibition at the Swiss National Museum is titled “Inventing Switzerland, 1848–1998.” Its advertisements declare that “The Switzerland of the future must be reinvented!” In the questionnaire bound into the catalogue for the exhibition “An Unrestricted View of the Mediterranean: Young Swiss Art” at the Kunsthaus Zürich, one respondent writes: “Switzerland’s image is currently very bad abroad. (Ownership of a Swiss passport is not a good thing to reveal on a first date).” The question asked whether the present exhibition, when shown abroad, would help correct the dubious image Switzerland acquired in the period 1933–45. It is always risky for a visitor to suppose he or she grasps the political subtexts of a foreign culture, but the effort at self-examination is so heavily avowed just now in Switzerland that it is impossible to overlook. Spin is the national preoccupation.

We must, accordingly, approach the Kunsthaus exhibition with reference not merely to what is being shown but to what is being said through showing it at this moment. Will the exhibition, when it travels to Frankfurt this month, indeed help modulate Switzerland’s image from the war years? For example, it might be regarded as deeply significant if Swiss art did not look at all different from art produced anywhere else these days—if the show looked, say, like a singularly successful Whitney Biennial. That might hopefully imply that Switzerland had joined the rest of the world, at least through its art.

As it happens, Young Swiss Art is pretty much like Young Art elsewhere, dealing with many of the same themes through much the same mixtures of media as artists in New York or Cologne, Rotterdam or Milan, Warsaw or Prague. “Curators,” 1998, a suite of posed photographs on view by Doğan Firuzbay (which seems to draw on the work of Clegg and Guttmann), shows curators, at home wherever art is exhibited, smiling by their Rolodexes. There is nothing obviously Swiss about those pictured, and the photographs themselves belong to the international pool from which real curators draw works for exhibitions everywhere. Here and there a particular Swiss reference may be detected, but nothing as explicit as those images through which Bruno Bischofberger each month projects an Alpine utopia on the back cover of Artforum. The only obvious depiction of the Alps connected with this show—brilliantly curated by Bice Curiger—is the photograph of peaks surrounded by clouds on the catalogue’s cover. This brings us to the title, which may be the show’s main Swiss reference.

Initially a protest against rebuilding the municipal opera house, the Zurich street riots in the early ’80s escalated into an action militant enough to call for plastic bullets and tear gas, yet imaginative enough to produce some crazy ideas, like demolishing the Alps to open a free view of the Mediterranean—Nieder mit den Alpen! Frei Sicht aufs Mittelmeer! Razing the Alps is a metaphor for changing national identity (“Switzerland must be re-invented!”), of course, for the mountain chain per se does not constitute much of a moral problem. But this nonnegotiable demand is also pure Dada, as are so many of the works in the show, and it is important to remember that in addition to some scary banking practices and a questionable posture of neutrality, Switzerland is also the home of Dada, invented in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire, just down the street from the Kunsthaus. The works on view imply that the seemingly absurd demand has been met, so far as art is concerned. The Alps are down, with curators as perhaps the primary agents of their destruction. The art world, for better or worse, is now all of a piece.

So it is consistent with a show of young Swiss art that it include guests of various nationalities, testifying to Swiss art’s cosmopolitanism. Mariko Mori (Japan) poses as a Patty Hearst–like terrorist; Joseph Grigely (USA) displays a slightly Dadaized Christmas tree (the family photographs it might use as decoration have been replaced by descriptions of what the images show); Marie-Ange Guilleminot (France) shows a morbid bridal gown that looks like a funerary garment. There would have been no guests in the previous exhibition of young Swiss art, eleven years ago, when artists were chosen whose works might someday hang beside such Swiss masters as Fuseli, Hodler, Giacometti, Klee, Tinguely, and the like. Curiger regards that format as having been paternalistic, and this time, she preemptively placed some of her selections in those very spaces, to interact with works already there. The implication, somewhat in the spirit of much Young British Art, is that Young Swiss Art is not promissory but actual. It belongs with good art everywhere.

The juxtaposition of contemporary and “traditional” pieces will not be a curatorial option when the show opens this month at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, which has no permanent collection with which the art can interact. Thus, one meaning taken away from the Zurich installation—the fact that the Kunsthaus itself is part of what the show is about—might be lost in other venues. It was an inspiration to have placed two works by Sylvie Fleury in the gallery occupied by the paintings of Fuseli. First Spaceship on Venus, 1998, consists of three “spaceships,” covered in the white fur appropriate to the planet of eros; Gucci Satellite, 1998, is three white furry globes, in one of which a monitor shows a woman’s foot from above, shod in Gucci footwear, interminably pressing a gas pedal (just the kind of images Gucci satellites transmit to NASA). Fleury’s works are witty and, in consequence of their whiteness, spectral, and they spookily harmonize with Fuseli’s paintings, which all at once look ectoplasmic and phosphorescent.

Such juxtapositions did not always release the latent artistic qualities in one another, of course. But sometimes the effect was unpredictable and amazing. Stefan Banz’s glass structure containing gymnastic apparatuses—rings, trapeze, climbing pole, ladder—was placed in a gallery hung with paintings by Georg Baselitz. Through the glass, one saw an array of colorful upside-down figures. One could not help but fuse the upended figures with the gymnasium, and read them as children, as colorful as birds, hanging by their knees from the gym equipment, providing a raucous supplement to the rather chaste and even uninteresting sculpture—and proving that young Swiss art can elicit fresh meanings as much from non-Swiss art as from the Swiss art of an earlier time.

The video monitor is an emblem of generic contemporary art, and the disproportionate ratio of monitors to paintings (here mostly monochrome) was probably reflective of artistic production everywhere. Frequently adjoined to structures made of disheveled cardboard cartons, the monitors often showed blurred, rastered, jumpy images, with no obvious national content. Most such work is fairly forgettable, but there was a marvelous piece by Christian Marclay, Telephones, 1995, that splices footage from B-movies, in which people dial, answer, speak, say good-bye, and hang up. A cognate work of projected slides, Oxford Street, 1997, by Beat Streuli, was memorable, perhaps a masterpiece. One experienced it in a large darkened room. Deeply preoccupied faces, of various ethnicities, emerge from and fade into the pedestrian crowd coursing, one supposes, along London’s well-known street in pursuit of whatever inscrutable ends. Streuli’s work is a monumentalized, non-narrative version of the kind of thing achieved by James Coleman, and it puts one immediately in mind of the great passage in The Wasteland: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/a crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”

Partway through the show, one entered a gallery identified as “Flashback,” in which artist John Armleder had installed work made in Switzerland in the ’70s. The works assembled were, typically, almost entirely in the Dadaist (or Fluxus) spirit, and they made visible the tone of Swiss artistic culture that became politicized in the 1980 riots. There was a huge painting on sheets of newspapers, made in Zurich by Sigmar Polke. Suitably enough given its political message, it showed, in red and black, a kind of crowd very different from that in Oxford Street. Its smearily executed legend read “Gegen die Zwei Super-mächte. Für eine Rote Schweiz” (Against the two superpowers. For a red Switzerland). Though Lenin lived in Zurich at the time of the Cabaret Voltaire, a red Switzerland is about as nutty an idea as an Alpless one. Polke’s painting is close to undiluted Dada, but Dada was present in various concentrations throughout the show, as it is in Young Art everywhere. In this sense, we are all Swiss, if Dada is Swiss. But that means Swiss art is no more Swiss than contemporary art anywhere. The art world is today the Cabaret Voltaire writ large. I take that to be the meaning of the show’s title, and hence of the show itself.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University and a contributing editor of Artforum.