Die Schweiz und die Brandstifter

Is there any way to escape national stereotypes?

Peter Fischli / David Weiss, Der Brand von Uster aus der „Wurstserie“, 1979

Peter Fischli / David Weiss, Der Brand von Uster from the ‘Wurstserie’, 1979

When abroad, one is constantly confronted with clichés about one’s homeland. In the case of Switzerland, this means: cleanliness, punctuality, control, security. Artists are well aware that the tables can be turned by using such traditional notions as the basis for a portrayal of the country. Jimmie Durham, for example, recently created a Maquette For a Museum of Switzerland (2011) which offers a unique vision of this small state at the heart of Europe and also reflects Swiss notions about the native peoples of North America. His installation brings together folk masks, notes on the watchmaking industry and banking, a bottle of apricot schnapps and a few hand-crafted masks. Durham’s museum is cranky, but full of affectionate details. Some of the information it spreads is false, and both its handmade style and its lack of scientific ambition recall the type of exhibitions found in local history museums the world over. The museum could be said to show the Swiss as ‘natives’, displaying their ‘fire water’ and explaining their peculiar relationship to time (measuring it in seconds).

Another persistent cliché is the Swiss people’s obsessive love of order. Looking at an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, one is struck first and foremost by the sheer diversity of impressions. Closer inspection, however, reveals a classification of the highest complexity: media images are classed in terms of iconography, titles arranged by the frequency with which they appear, colour codes used to position objects. The explosive mixture of order and the staged loss of order is a key feature of Hirschhorn’s art. The same is true of certain installations by Roman Signer in which objects are lined up like soldiers in rank and file only to be blown sky high, ending up as a scene of devastation. In this context, one must also mention Christoph Büchel, whose early works reconstructed entire apartments of outsiders –a process that involves more components than any Swiss watch and whose end result is a far more complex construct. It is striking that many successful Swiss artists cultivate an aesthetic that is situated far from simple concepts of order. They reject common notions, but they are nonetheless caught up in a discourse about control and loss of control which may even have something to do with the experience of life in Switzerland.

I would like to suggest to Jimmie Durham that he include in his future museum a separate section (or at least a special exhibition) on the theme of fire and arson. Exhibits should include the correspondence between the physicist Wolfgang Pauli and his therapist C. G. Jung concerning a strange occurrence outside Café Odéon in Zurich: as Pauli was sitting there thinking about his emotional life, a red car caught fire. The two men agreed that this could not be mere coincidence, instead offering evidence of synchronicity. A copy of Max Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Fire Raisers, 1953/61) would also have to be included. Biedermann’s feverish fascination with arsonists, whom he accommodates in his own house, which they later burn down, is an important aspect of Swiss identity (Biedermann is German for a staid, conservative, petty bourgeois person). I would also expect to see the LP Swiss Cheese/Fire (1992) by Frank Zappa’s Mothers with a recording of the band’s famous Montreux concert of December 1971. After a fan allegedly fired off a flare gun, the venue burned down. The live conversations of the audience being evacuated are so very much better than Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water (1972). Moreover, this episode also documents an example of arson committed out of sheer joy. Also: the slogan of the Zurich riots of the early 1980s simply stated ‘Züri brännt’ (Zurich’s burning). Every Saturday, barricades were set alight to lend weight to the protesters’ demands for an Autonomous Youth Centre. At the same time, Peter Fischli and David Weiss made their pioneering work Der Brand von Uster (The Fire of Uster) as part of their ‘Wurst-Serie’ (Sausage Series, 1979). The work is an ironic rendering of the fire laid by factory workers in the town of Uster on 22 November 1832 to protest against the rapid advance of industrialization.

The moral of this story? The Swiss know how to use fire in a wide range of ways. As a sign of emotion, approval or even protest, it is an indispensable element of Helvetian loss of control. One is tempted to believe that we actually seek out the company of arsonists: they ignite, we extinguish. And we all share the same fascination with fire.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Gianni Jetzer is Director of the Swiss Institute New York.

Issue 2

First published in Issue 2

Autumn 2011

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