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Sheyi Bankale in Conversation with Dr Tobia Bezzola, Kunsthaus Zurich

Sheyi Bankale in Conversation with Dr Tobia Bezzola, Kunsthaus Zurich

Balthasar Burkhard Mexico City, 1999, Black and white photography on aluminium, 135 x 270 cm Kunsthaus Zürich, Photo Collection © Balthasar Burkhard

Sheyi Bankale (SB): I want to talk with you about the contemporary art scene of Zurich in particular the photographic arts, to understand the role of the Kunsthaus.

Tobia Bezzola (TB): Yes, we do contribute to the medium of photography, especially through the collection, but also through shows, and probably for many people in Zurich it is the first place for photography in an art context. The Kunsthaus only started on this premise to collect artists working with photography in the late Sixties, actually when artists began using cameras and photography. Historically we have been and still are collecting in the field of Dada, surrealism, constructivism, Bauhaus, all the usual suspects from the pre-war artistic uses of photography. But then mainly the conceptual revolution activities really did start in the late Sixties, and photography was used in different ways. I think at the time when classical photo people saw what the Kunsthaus was collecting and showing in photography they were outraged. Because there is quite a strong photographic tradition that you know is big on documentary, going back to the Twenties and Thirties, and in the Fifties was branded Subjektive Photographie in Germany.

SB: Is there a strong dichotomy between displaying the collection and the exhibitions?

TB: Unfortunately the display is rather a bit of a disaster. Actually we are planning a new building. The current building is too small and generally post-war art has to be sacrificed. As for photography, we do much more considerate exhibitions. So we have Thomas Struth, a major retrospective, then next spring will be a show on photography and sculpture. Followed by something very different, a project with Thomas Walther, a major collector of nineteenth century photography, and this we are realising in 2012. In the new building that should be completed by 2015, we will finally have permanent galleries for photography that will bring together displays and exhibitions.

SB: So do you loan out a measure of the collection?

TB: Yes, with photography it happens. Especially, with the more historical work like May Ray. Also contemporary, it can happen, we try to be helpful when a Swiss artist is showing abroad.

SB: So how is the relationship with the emerging local artists and how does the Kunsthaus support their development?

TB: Well, it’s a small place you know, so you usually know who is emerging soon enough. Its not like London, you still can manage it here because it is twenty at the most that emerge, its not two hundred interesting young photo artists. That must be very difficult in London where there are so many people. Here, it is not difficult you know, the artists come and show me things, or send documentation and if I’m interested I help them make contacts which is also recommending them to colleagues, to publishers, etc. And if I find the opportunities necessary I’ll make acquisitions of young artists when the costs are low.

SB: Does the audience have an influence, or does the Kunsthaus drive in its own direction?

TB: In the field we are talking about – photography – certainly not, there is no influence by the audience. Of course with the big exhibitions of paintings, we as a private institution have to make money: we have to do Picasso, Monet, we have to have at least one of these shows a year. We have to make people attend, we depend on the box office tickets, that’s true. For photography, Edward Steichen was very popular, I was surprised, and that was the first historical photo show that really had a huge crowd. Struth may not be very popular, it is a different older audience here than London and New York. In Zurich, the situation which is much appreciated by artists is when they show at the Kunsthaus they can reach another audience. I think that is what we are trying to do. You see, when the artists show at Kunsthalle or the Migros Museum or other galleries it is just the in-crowd, it’s a close circle who follow contemporary arts. Its nice and important but it stops there. Whereas here, the artists really appreciate it when we show, for example, Urs Fischer because different people see this art, people who usually would not go to see their exhibitions. That is what we are trying to do, to keep the element of surprise and to keep that mix.

SB: There is a strong contemporary programme here, how do you fuse the national or local artists with the international exhibitions?

TB: Absolutely. Years ago I curated a major show about large-format photography, where we had all the usual suspects. So you would have Gursky and Jeff Wall who you would expect, but then I mixed in a few local artists like Stefan Banz or Balthasar Burkhard.

SB: So what is the percentage of shows that you actually buy in and the percentage of shows that you produce?

TB: Basically we buy in a very small amount of ready-made, especially not in the contemporary field because we can do it ourselves. It is much more complicated in the historical and modern field. So when we are offered a show that we could not do ourselves we would sometimes depend on partners to gain access to the material. But still then, we want to participate actively, have a text in the catalogue, oversee the presentation – so we do not just give the space to somebody. We always want to have a curatorial voice in everything we do.

SB: Interesting to hear you say that the Kunsthaus has its curatorial voice, would you explain this voice to me?

TB: Well in practical terms it just means that whenever we do collaborations with other institutions the final decisions concerning the presentation of the show is always with the Kunsthaus, if there is a conflict and I think no, this should go here, that will go here. I think this is necessary to make it interesting.

SB: Is it true that one can label Zurich as the wild child of Switzerland? Before Basel’s current stranglehold?

TB: Well, even before it was more Berne in the Fifties and Sixties because Berne is French-speaking and closer to Paris, and so as long as contemporary art came out of Paris it was Berne which was the centre of the Swiss art world, and this kind of shifted to Basel in the Seventies with the galleries cooperating with the art fair. I would say still today, that in Basel the museums are stronger than we are […] but there is no market in Basel. That is why the young scene is here, with the younger galleries and artists, everybody comes here.

SB: So how was it when you first started compared to now?

TB: On the one hand the Kunsthaus was even less structured and it was certainly more free, it was more open and money was not such an issue. So today, planning an exhibition with all the budgets, we did not do this fifteen years ago. All these previous aspects have very much been professionalized: all the marketing, PR and advertising, all the commerciality that this machine has, and we have to follow the technical requirements. So this pressure makes things more complicated. I came to the Kunsthaus with Harald Szeemann – I was his assistant, so that is how I landed here and I kind of stayed. Szeemann represented that free-wheeling spirit here, which is certainly much less since it has become more professional, more solid and adult and mature somehow. On the other hand it is still very open, it’s still very flexible, very small, and I can do mostly anything. Which leaves us free. So it is still lovely to be here because of the freedom you have.

Writer: Dr Tobia Bezzola is Senior Curator and Head of Exhibitions at Kunsthaus Zürich. After studies in philosophy and history of art he went on to work as an assistant professor at the department of philosophy of the University of Zurich until 1993. In 1995 he became Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Kunsthaus Zürich. Here he has organized a great number of exhibitions and has published widely on modern and contemporary art and photography.

Writer: Sheyi Bankale is the Curator of Next Level Projects and Editor of Next Level magazine. He has acted as judge and nominator for The Art Foundation, Google Photography Prize, Photography Festival BMW Prize, The Pix Pictet and Next Level Awards, and as an expert at many international portfolio reviews such as Houston Fotofest, Les Rencontres D’Arles, Finnish Museum of Photography and Scotiabank CONTACT. He has lectured on ‘Photography as Contemporary Art’ at Sotheby’s Institute of Art; University of Westminster; City University, London; University for the Creative Arts and Centre of Contemporary Art, Lagos. Bankale was the 2015 Curator for the prestigious Photo 50 exhibition at the London Art Fair, the curator for the European City of Culture 2011 and renowned for his curatorial work as Guest Curator for Saatchi Art’s Special Guest Curator Programme.