For his final show as the director of the Swiss Institute, curator Gianni Jetzer did something totally inappropriate for a 21st-century curator. “It's a Swiss national show,” Jetzer told BLOUIN ARTINFO at the opening last night, sheepishly. He was standing at the back of the cavernous main gallery looking out over the vista of Olivier Mosset’s installation “Toblerones” — a set of six identical car-sized cardboard structures modeled after the cement anti-tank obstacles used by the Swiss army during wartime. “It’s about national identity, which you should never do.”
This seems like an odd statement for the director of an institution with such a strong national identity. But then again, Jetzer's programming always aimed at exceeding the boundaries of Swissness. Now, he won't have to worry about those boundaries anymore. The curator, who moved to New York to helm the SI in 2006, succeeding director Marc-Olivier Wahler, is leaving SI in August.
“Gianni has always aimed at going beyond the national stereotypes,” SI gallery manager Clément Delépine told ARTINFO during a phone call. “The space we had before on Broadway had a strong national identity. I think Gianni has been very talented at erasing the national misconceptions. He was successful in this aim.”
Elsewhere around the rooms of the Institute were paradigms of Swiss art — playing at the entrance of the institute was a 1962 video of Jean Tinguely’s “Study for the End of the World no. 2” in which the artist successfully detonated a sculpture in front of an audience in a desert outside Las Vegas. There was a photograph of a Fischli/Weiss work that was part of their first collaborative effort, the “Sausage Series” (1979). And Valentin Carron’s “Death Race 2000,” a menacing blue tricycle affixed with blades that looked like a child’s version of a tricked-out vehicle in a James Bond film. “All these artists are fire-starters who operate through the counterculture,” said Jetzer during a talk with Mosset, which capped the evening opening. Later, after the talk turned momentarily to the essence of Swissness and the difficulty of retaining Swissness while also trying to have an international career, Jetzer said, “One thing that people used to say about Swiss artists was, ‘you have to leave the country to be successful.’”
Over the course of his tenure, Jetzer has continually striven to put on shows that deflated the collective myth of Swiss identity and explored the idea of place with a kind of Swiss-plus attitude, finding ways to bring in American artists. For “Painting and Misappropriation” (2010), Jetzer paired works by Pop-inspired artist Richard Phillips with those of the late Swiss wildlife and landscape painter Adolph Dietrich, whose work Phillips had been borrowing from for his own paintings — like an outsize painting of two squirrels.
Jetzer also kept the door to SI open, collaborating with other curators and institutions around town. In 2011, Performa commissioned a work by Swiss visual artist Mai-Thu Perret and performance artist Laurence Yadi’s for its biennial. In 2012, American artist Liz Magic Laser transformed the space with a performance of “Weekly,” from her series “The Living Newspaper.” In the spring of 2008, at the height of the art fair hubbub that descends around The Armory Show, Jetzer invited a group of artists to stage “The Dark Show,” a mini art fair in the dark. “For anyone that went or participated,” said White Columns director Matthew Higgs, “it was one the greatest things that ever happened in this city.”
“I think he has a very European sensibility, a kind of Kunstalle sensibility,” said Higgs. “The shows were important and vital.” But as one who also runs a small non-profit organization, Higgs could understand the difficulty of its “complicated economy.” “Dealing with banalities is potentially 51 percent of his job. He’s got to be relieved.”
“It is a small guerilla-like entity,” Jetzer said about the benefits of working with SI. “I have a lot of freedom in doing whatever I think is relevant on the transatlantic axis of New York-Switzerland.” Jetzer ran with this liberty bringing in many American artists like Lawrence Weiner, Jordan Wolfson, Rita Ackermann, Harmony Korine, and Phillips, but always stuck to a very specific focus on projects that would fit into the framework of the institution.
Jetzer has also been keeping busy curating shows outside of SI, like “Dogma” (2012) at Metro Pictures (which explored the relationship between man and mutt) and this year’s Unlimited exhibition at Art Basel.
Though the Swiss Institute has yet to fill Jetzer’s shoes with a new director, the position is open as of September 1. “Two years ago we were able to realize our dream of moving into a storefront space,” said Jetzer about SI’s move from a third-floor gallery in SoHo to its current Wooster Street space in the former home of Deitch Projects. “I wanted to bring in my experience in order to successfully relaunch the Institute. The next generation should take over now.”
What's in Jetzer's immediate future? “I’m going freelance,” he said. But his move into the realm of independent curating isn’t as precarious as it may sound. He already has a few things in the pipeline such as next year’s return to curate Art Basel Unlimited. He will also co-curate “Performing the City,” a biennale in Switzerland, with Chris Sharp. He will celebrate his tenure with the publication of a book in September, which will collect documentation of the shows that he oversaw while at SI.
“I always had a space. I don't know what it’s going to be like without a space,” he said. “Maybe I will like it more. Maybe I'll like it less.”