The Art of Swiss Humor

“In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!” —Graham Greene

While there’s no doubt that Greene captures the certain ineffable idiosyncrasy of the Swiss identity, what he fails to account for is how this very character, in all its paradoxes, has been translated with the creative energy of some of our favorite artists of the past century. Ever since Paul Klee made his first whimsical, childlike paintings and Jean Tinguely’s first kinetic sculpture self-destructed, Swiss art has been characterized by its tongue-in-cheek sense of humor—at once oddball and wry, kooky and cutting, and rarely without something darker lurking beneath. To celebrate “Elevation 1049,” the mountaintop biennial celebrating the best of Swiss art today, we highlight the ten Swiss artists with our favorite senses of whimsy and humor.

John Armleder: Armleder’s far-ranging practice incorporates virtually all media and a wide range of found objects, drawing from what he calls the “supermarket of forms.” Variously referencing Fluxus and Neo-Geo, John Cage and Sol LeWitt, Armleder’s installations, sculptures, and paintings fly in the face of typical exhibition practices and have been described as “art [that] never quite looks like itself.”

Olaf Breuning: There is something inevitably humorous about Breuning’s multifarious appropriations, which mix references high and low with bold colors and inventive mediums—like his infamous smoke bomb performances, or his series “The Art Freaks,” for which he painted the nude bodies of live models in the style of masters like Picasso and Pollock (also referenced in a series of prints).

Valentin Carron: Carron’s practice is both visually whimsical and subtly critical of cultural institutions and their presentation of history and its artifacts. Look no further than his work representing Switzerland at the 55th Venice Biennale: a two-headed serpent that wove its way throughout the modernist architecture of the Pavilion, raising questions about the role of sculpture and its relationship to the exhibition space and history itself.

Urs Fischer: Perhaps no artist is more representative of contemporary Swiss art than market-darling Urs Fischer, whose sprawling installations of weird materials—like food, wax, and teddy bears—have taken over galleries and museums around the globe. He cites Duchamp’s “liberation of the real thing” as the impetus behind his free and playful use and re-creation of found objects.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss: When Weiss died in 2012, the art world lost one half of the most beloved artistic duo in recent history. Fischli/Weiss were known for their witty elevation of everyday subject matter to fine art contexts—as in the precariously balanced arrangements of household and studio objects that made up their “Equilibres” series of photographs (1984-87) and the related film, The Way Things Go (1986-87).

Sylvie Fleury: Although she’s serious at heart, Fleury has gone through various periods of quirky obsessions throughout her acclaimed career: shopping bags (with purchased clothing inside), rocketship re-creations, and actual automobiles have all found their way into her installations. “Just recontextualizing something that’s very superficial will give it a new depth,” she says.

Thomas Hirschhorn: Hirschhorn’s immersive, interactive installations carry a dark critique of commercialism and industry, their over-abundance of common materials meant to evoke our media-saturated society. In Laundrette, for example, he transformed a gallery into a laundromat using a signature, slapdash application of cardboard, plastic, fake tiles and wood, mirrors, tape, re-created furniture, and vintage TVs.

Mai-Thu Perret: Working on her project “The Crystal Frontier” since 1999, Perret has imagined a radical, utopian feminist collective (by the same name) and created their diverse artifacts—in the form of textiles, ceramics, collages, paintings, diary entries, and song lyrics. “It’s all about the idea of an autonomous community of women opting out of contemporary capitalist society and re-settling in the New Mexico desert, aiming to create a different world—their own world,” Perret says of the whimsical undertaking, which grapples with very serious themes. “They want this project to foster fairer, healthier and more egalitarian human relationships and production methods.”

Pipilotti Rist: The creator of multimedia, site-specific installations around the world, Rist deals with serious issues (like sexuality and the body) through joyous, lush sensory experiences. Her works, like the immersively audiovisual Pour Your Body Out (2008)in the MoMA’s atrium, have been described as “playfully and provocatively merg[ing] fantasy and reality” and transmitting “a sense of happiness and simplicity.”

Ugo Rondinone: Rondinone’s sculptures and installations merge past and present, playful and dark. His impossibly diverse artistic output includes massive grinning faces rendered in crude stone, sculptures of disturbingly lifelike and depressed clowns, and his rainbow-hued text installations of phrases like “OUR MAGIC HOUR” and “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE.”

Roman Signer: No conversation about Swiss art and humor would be complete without Signer, whose performances, films, experiments, and “action sculptures” involve the transformation of everyday objects (umbrellas, balloons, wheels) through self-seriously regimented procedures—explosions, collisions, or being propelled through space. Despite his absurdist tendencies, Signer asserts a serious aim: “Sometimes, people tell me that my work is funny but actually it’s not for me. We laugh after because it’s not forbidden. But I’m not there to make people laugh. Humour is inside.”

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