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The Opposite of an Island: The Zurich Art Scene

The Opposite of an Island: The Zurich Art Scene

EWZ Selection Images of competition judging and portfolio day 2010

From afar, the Zurich art milieu looks idyllic, and in truth the view up close is still sunny. What sets the city apart for artists is not only the wealth of museums and institutions and an enviable education system, but also an esprit de corps that accompanies them far beyond Swiss borders.

A scene that is vibrant all year round, unlike the Basel fireworks each June, impresses any visitor to Zurich. The city’s institutions, from the solid Kunsthaus, celebrating its hundredth anniversary, to the Kunsthalle, where director Beatrix Ruf is the arbiter of avant-garde, are built on a long tradition of generous sponsorship from both the state and individuals. Artistic activity is concentrated along a few axes, and creative industries have been instrumental in changing the dynamics of the city in recent years. Several buildings of Zurich University of the Arts (Die Zürcher Hochschule der Künste or ZHdK) are clustered around the Museum for Design (Museum für Gestaltung) off Limmatstrasse, which leads out of the city centre; further along the same street is the large brick Löwenbräuareal, the former brewery that was until recently home to the Kunsthalle and the focus of major galleries in Zurich for more than ten years. To revivify a largely abandoned industrial district the city authorities lured in Hauser & Wirth, Eva Presenhuber and other international dealers, and today the city is determined to retain a hub of galleries nearby while the Löwenbräuareal building is redeveloped.

The other key thoroughfare is Langstrasse, the least salubrious area of the city but also the neighbourhood of many alternative art spaces and emerging galleries. Having managed largely to overcome the city’s serious problems with drug abuse in the 1990s, the authorities are now trying to address prostitution, which is rife in the Langstrasse area. For the moment, however, cultural and illegal industries cohabit more or less harmoniously, and few welcome the higher costs gentrification brings.

The same calibre of art spaces and tradition of supporting the arts can be observed in any number of small towns and cities within a ninety-minute radius, such as Bern, Lucerne, St Gallen, Rapperswil, Aarau or Zug. For photography, however, the modest city of Winterthur shines like a beacon, home to the Fotomuseum Winterthur as well as its own Kunsthalle and Kunstmuseum. Led by Urs Stahel, the Fotomuseum was established in 1993 and has become one of the leading photography museums of the world, developing independent exhibitions and working in collaboration with, amongst others, the Pompidou Centre, the Jeu de Paume and the Whitechapel Gallery in recent years. Their exhibitions are in-depth, luxurious and impressive, with equal emphasis on historic and contemporary images, and consideration given to supporting local talent. The museum’s own collection, ninety per cent of which can be viewed online, focuses for pragmatic reasons on works from the 1960s onwards, a body of both documentary and conceptual images. Part of a 2003 extension programme brought a new building that also accommodates the Swiss Foundation for Photography, whose activities complement that of the museum by concentrating on the preservation of Swiss photographic heritage.

Would-be photographers are taught well at Zurich University of the Arts, which counts Fabian Marti, Shirana Shahbazi and Stefan Burger among the graduates from a department that André Gelpke was instrumental in establishing, including a masters course led today by Ulrich Görlich. Nationally it rivals the photography courses at ECAL in Lausanne and the traditional schooling at the CEPV in Vevey (both in the French-speaking canton of Vaud), while the private F+F School for Art and Media Design in Zurich (which counts Walter Pfeiffer amongst its teachers) and art colleges in Lucerne, Basel and Bern also offer valuable courses. On emerging from these schools young artists can start applying for city and cantonal funding that is generally conditional on a relatively short residence period.

Yet despite these parameters for artists – which make many European neighbours green with envy – Switzerland remains a deeply conservative nation with two liberal islands in Zurich and Geneva. This means, amongst other things, that Zurich’s liberal politicians continually have to defend their cultural policies against the far right, and that photographers compete in a crowded market with artists in other media that are traditionally viewed as more prestigious or collectable. One consequence of this is that the Swiss behind the camera are compelled to show their flexibility by applying their talents to fields other than fine-art photography. Lukas Wassmann’s images grace the glossiest supplements of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zurich’s broadsheet; equally Georg Gatsas’ portraits appear as often in the press as in exhibitions. Without a well-worn path to tread, photographers in Switzerland since Arnold Odermatt, whose accident-scene photographs were made while in the service of the police, or the master of large-scale prints Balthasar Burkhard, used their skills to forge highly personalized practices. Today young artists are carrying on the tradition of confidence and willingness to experiment.

The market conditions have helped bring about a dynamic network, both formal and informal, which has proved fruitful for many artists. Rather than each clambering for visibility to the detriment of others (a dangerous strategy in a relatively small city), collaboration and cooperation are commonplace, be it organized or informal. For instance, the Fotomuseum Winterthur hosts an annual weekend named Plat(t)form, where forty-two young European artists meet curators and collectors, and in Zurich the ewz selection event offers visibility, portfolio days and prize money. The quality photographic printers Tricolor help make ewz.selection possible, and in turn celebrated their recent twentieth anniversary by inviting photographers to take part in a lottery exhibition. The numerous fine art publishers in Switzerland communicate Swiss art to the world, while any artist on the ball will tap into a global Swiss network of contacts that is strikingly influential. Starting at the obvious outposts of the Swiss Cultural Centres in New York, Paris, Venice and Rome, furthered by residencies in several continents funded nationally and from cities including Zurich, Swiss artists and curators become a force to be reckoned with. Despite the landlocked position in the middle of Europe, artists emerging from Switzerland are aware of the country’s advantages and its limitations, building on generations of photographers who looked beyond their own borders but were proud to be Swiss.

Writer: Aoife Rosenmeyer is an independent critic and curator based in Zurich. She studied fine art and cultural studies in Manchester, Sheffield and London before working as a curator with Artwise for four years. She moved to Switzerland in 2008 where she works in collaboration with local and international artists and publications, and conducts debates under the banner of Art + Argument.