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Sheyi Bankale in Conversation with Esther Eppstein: Of Heart and Mind

Sheyi Bankale in Conversation with Esther Eppstein: Of Heart and Mind

Esther Eppstein Perla-Mode, message salon downtown, Petr Motycka (CZ/USA), 2008

Sheyi Bankale (SB): So is this an independent project space?

Esther Eppstein (EE): Yes, Perla-Mode is an independent project but we do receive support from different sources, like foundations. Perla-Mode is not commercial and more than just something that is a closed circle of people. It is known in the city and all kinds of people come here. So it’s a platform for several creative forces but is not just an open platform or an open stage for everyone – our projects have a certain angle.

SB: When was the moment of critical mass for the independent project spaces in Zurich?

EE: Before the middle of the Eighties there were no clubs, there was nothing for alternative culture, and so the youth of that generation went on the streets and fought for space for culture, for concerts places, independent art spaces and party locations. The youth of the Eighties wanted to have their own youth centre, there where riots in the street, police and politicians reacted. This youth movement was a very important movement for the history of the alternative culture in Zurich. At this time I was just thirteen years old, but it already influenced me in a way. I think this, which we have now, is a very lively culture in what is a small town, that finally accepts alternative culture and the consciousness. Culture is important to a city and the politicians understand this culture needs financial support.

SB: So how would you describe the current scene?

EE: Zurich today is one of the main players in the global art market. It is a very lively art scene. For example, when I host an opening here, sometimes curators from Migros Museum or Kunsthaus come along, and when they have an opening, people who come to Perla-Mode also go to openings at Löwenbräu or Kunsthaus. We know each other but it’s not that we always hang together. There is of course a difference of influence and money. The established art institutions and galleries realize that places like Perla-Mode are interesting to get an idea who are the interesting young artists and what is the new thing going on. Of course these things happen in places like Perla-Mode and not in the Migros Museum and not at Kunsthaus.

The last five or six years the scene for young artists in Zurich changed because of the developing of the art school [Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK)] that wasn’t so strong before, we didn’t have so much of an art academy in Zurich before. We used to have in Zurich the Kunstgewerbeschule, which is more orientated on the Bauhaus idea of learning a craft and going from this to the arts. My generation of artists who are forty or over now – almost none of them has an art academic education. Most of them are coming from graphic design or textile design and started to define themselves as artists. I think this is special because it gave rise to art spaces like Message Salon.

SB: Where do you see your role within this contemporary art scene?

EE: When I started the salon it was much more a thing of just doing it, I was not coming from this curator idea. I was inspired by Gertrude Stein – I see myself somehow in this tradition, but of course in a new way. I see myself as an artist in a way I bring people together in the context of art, creating a scene, documenting the space, the visitors, the artists, the happenings. I take photos all the time and create historical documentation for visitors to the salon.

At Message Salon I show almost only solo shows because I’m not so interested in the curating idea of creating a theme, writing a catalogue text and bringing as many art pieces together as possible. I am much more interested in having a place where I invite artists, where they can show whole works, bringing something to a point, taking a risk, having the possibilities to experiment and finally present new work to an audience. Message Salon became something much more than a gallery – it became an artists’ meeting place because they are all locally active, others come to see what’s going on, I want to create a place where things can develop, where art can happen.

SB: Had the idea of becoming a gallery ever appealed to you?

For me, it was a very conscious decision not to become a gallery. The end of the Nineties witnessed this gallery boom, and I was actually one of the hot spots, and the institutions came to pick the artists at my place, and people said, ‘But you should become a gallery and make money out of this,’ but I felt that is not what I want to do. I don’t want to hang out in art fairs, hang out with art collectors, be part of that circus. It’s not that I have something against it but what I want is actually to hang out with the artists and to develop together. If I were a gallery then I’d have to do business and control everything because this is so important to gain the identity in the art circus. I prefer to stay independent.

SB: The name Message Salon has erotic overtones, am I to read into this?

My space is called Message Salon, because the first place I had on Ankerstrasse had previously been known as the red-light district. There were many massage salons and so the saying goes. So, the name is a joke with words and meanings. I’ve had several spaces, from 1998 to 2000 I even had a caravan. I was invited by Bice Curiger the curator at the Kunsthaus and the founder of Parkett for a show in the countryside. I invited artists and they make a holiday in this caravan. I finally decided to offer this caravan as a piece of art to the Migros Museum and they bought it, for their collection. From 2000 to 2006 I had another space, an old shop, where I continued doing art shows with local artists or artists related to the Zurich art scene. Then, in 2006, Adi Ehrat was offered this whole house on Langstrasse, a former Jewish textile store named Perla-Mode, in the hottest spot of Zurich. So the idea was as a group to produce autonomous projects in the house. In the beginning there was Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth with his start-up gallery, Benjamin Sommerhalder with Nieves books, Manuela Schlumpf and Adi Ehrat producing a new art project called Wartesaal, and Ajana Calugar with her Zebrakabinett. Over the four years it has existed, Perla-Mode has had some changes. I’m still here but Wartesaal stopped their events, Nieves moved to a new store, Freymond-Guth opened its new gallery space and Zebrakabinett simply moved out. In Perla-Mode now is a new project called Corner College and the bookstore Motto. Still, I think it works well, because we are very active and very diverse. I hear people say this is one of the best places.

Writer: Esther Eppstein lives and works in Zurich where she is the founder of the Message Salon. This art-project space is an experimental platform and shows short solo exhibitions. In 2003 and 2006 Esther Eppstein received awards for art mediation from the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (BAK).

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.