Private Eyes

This report from the 4th artgeneve appeared on

Left: Dealer Massimo Minini and Andrea Bellini, director of the Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneve. Right: One of the spinners in Ahmet Ogut’s Fair Wage. (All photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

CONVENIENTLY LOCATED FOR THE CITY AIRPORT, if not much else, artgenève is a ten-minute walk from the arrival gate. Though styled as a salon d’art, there is nothing salon-like about the vast complex known as Palexpo—short for Palais des Expositions et des Congrès—that has housed the fair since its inception.

Now in its fourth edition, artgenève prides itself on being more intimate and “human-scale” than most fairs. For one thing, the number of exhibiting galleries is capped at seventy. These share the floor with private groups like The Syz Collection, local institutions, and nonprofit spaces, whose aim it is to show work rather than sell it. According to artgenève director Thomas Hug, this mix of commercial and noncommercial spaces has been there right from the start. “There are more things around which are not for sale this year,” one of the performers in Ahmet Ögüt’s Fair Wage for a Made Up Job told me. She and three other performers worked in shifts to spin portable monitors showing Ögüt’s film Sign Spinners for an hourly wage of fifty Swiss francs, exactly what the director of the fair is paid, not counting expenses and various other perks.

There was also an ambitious but underattended public program curated by Joanna Warsza and produced by the artist duo Lou Cantor. Kolja Gläser, one half of Lou Cantor, used to run a gallery in Berlin with Hug called COMA (Center for Opinions in Music and Art). A pianist by training, Hug is passionate about music and “artgenève-musique”—framed as a conversation between art and music—is his pet project. As the second day of curated talks was winding down, a group of us headed to the nearby Villa Sarasin in time for some bubbly served in the Villa’s lobby, speeches, and performances by Anri Sala as well as the Swiss M/2 collective that could be heard from behind walls and closed doors.

Left: Artist Raphael Hefti. Right: Artist Ernie Gehr.

By then it was high time to head to the opening for Raphael Hefti, veteran filmmaker Ernie Gehr, and artist-in-residence Alfredo Aceto at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, a train ride away from the Geneva airport which I’d barely left. There in the dark, curtained space where Gehr’s mirrored images of misty rivers and strolling shadows were being projected on multiple screens in a retrospective of the artist’s digital works, I stumbled upon Bruce Haines, director of London gallery Ancient & Modern, who introduced me to Hefti.

The last time I visited the Centre, John Armleder gave me a circumstantial account of his brief sojourn in prison as a conscientious objector. Now it was Hefti’s turn to relate how pressing the wrong button on a radar-controlled device landed him with a five-year criminal record. The accident, which caused his car to blow up with all his equipment in it, would have been bad enough in and of itself. But it happened to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos and the firemen felt obliged to call in the terror unit. A long story to explain why the artist, who is about to begin a residency in Soho, has not been allowed to travel to the States these past few years.

Snapshots of NYC’s busy squares and streets, in a complex interplay of digital images, one lodged inside another, were displayed all around the space as if to taunt us. These works demand and reward sustained viewing, but it was getting late and dinner at the Cercle des Bains beckoned. Luckily, I was sat next to Gehr. Over wine—selected for us by “Président” Pierre Keller who presides over the Office des Vins Vaudois as well as the Fondation du Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève—we talked about New York, the city where Gehr has lived since 1965, and Harry Houdini, whose feats he strives to emulate with his own insubstantial acts of magic. “I don’t make things that are commodities,” he confided.

Left: Kolja Gläser of Lou Cantor and composer/conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers. Right: Curator Joanna Warsza, artist Alexandra Pirici, and Jozefina Chetko.

Commodities and valuables, things one can put a price tag on, were the order of the following day. The afternoon kicked off with a visit to Pictet & Cie, one of the oldest Swiss private banks, which houses a fine, if necessarily subdued, collection of modern and contemporary art firmly focused on Swiss artists. More daring stuff by the likes of Pipilotti Rist was to be seen, hung salon-style on every available wall surface, in the home of the mother and son collectors Jocelyne and Fabrice Petignat.

A brisk tour of The Neon Parallax project (drifting snow is hardly an ideal condition for viewing neon signs placed on top of buildings) and several visits to anonymous contemporary art/design collections later, dealer Jose Castafial told me, over a martini, that the fair’s branding itself as a salon fits in perfectly with Geneva’s image as a “private city.” It’s the city of private banks, private dealers, private collectors. “People like to keep things secret,” he said. “Look at the VIP program. They give you an address but never the collector’s name.”

We were at Le Verre à Monique—a self-styled saloon serving cocktails in teapots and cups—where Esther Schipper (whose spare booth won my vote for the best gallery presentation at the fair) hosted its party that evening. Schipper herself was not in Geneva. Armleder, that Genevan institution, may not have been physically present either but he was with us in spirit, via limited-edition watches gracing the wrists of collectors like Manuel Emch and certainly at the Temple de la Fusterie, where everyone headed after for the artgenève bash. His son, Stephan Armleder (aka the Genevan Heathen) of Villa Magica Records, was DJing that night.

Left: Dealers Julia Dziumla and Bruce Haines of Ancient & Modern, London. Right: Watchmaker Manuel Emch and curator Nicolas Trembley.

An eagerly anticipated excursion to CERN the next morning, organized as part of Warsza’s program, turned out to be something of a letdown. After sitting through a particle-physics-for-dummies lecture delivered in scientific English, the artgenève group was whisked off to the Atlas Experiment site only to be told that we would not be able to access the tunnel, which was about to be closed off to the public as scientists gear up for the second three-year run of the Large Hadron Collider. We had to content ourselves with a virtual 3D tour and yet more lecturing.

By the time we left, my head was abuzz with talk of protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks. Back at Palexpo, the founder of arts@CERN, Ariane Koek, talked to us about artists, filmmakers, choreographers, and fashion designers moved by particle theory, who got to hang out at CERN with no expectations thanks to her residencies program. The end results, which ranged from kidnapping scientists to creating a fashion collection inspired by magnetic fields to turning the Collider into a musical instrument, struck me as lacking the simplicity of artist Gianni Motti’s own gambit.

In 2005, long before arts@CERN was set up, Motti walked the length of the seventeen-mile LHC tunnel where protons are accelerated. Documented on film in a single tracking shot, the five-and-a-half-hour long action was continually projected on four monitors dotted round the artgenève salon. The artist’s quest to transform himself into a particle continues with the planned sequel to Higgs: In Search of the Anti-Motti, something only Motti could dream up. But in this matter I have been sworn to secrecy.

Left: Artist Gianni Motti. Right: Inside the Atlas Experiment at CERN.


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