Daniel Horn

February 11, 2016
Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zürich
December 18, 2015–February 13, 2016

The group exhibition inaugurating Maria Bernheim’s new gallery represents, according to its introductory text, “simply a choice between the bad, up-to-date old and the genuinely new.” The space’s spotless, Chelsea-esque features—sanded concrete floors and the requisite glass storefront—certainly make for a no-nonsense stage on which to appraise the goods on offer according to these self-imposed, stringent, and subjective criteria.

The gallery’s text deploys lengthy passages from Clement Greenberg’s seminal if awkwardly haute-socialist 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” which, for an enterprise such as Bernheim’s, takes guts. Planted in a prime location right across from the city’s artistic hub, the Löwenbräu Areal—where Zurich’s chief contemporary art institutions reside in frictionless symbiosis with blue chips like Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Eva Presenhuber—Bernheim foregoes the vaunted if too often self-conscious and commercialized coming-of-age narrative of the gritty downtown space which evolves into a market force.

Despite this Swiss-style “umbilical cord of gold,”1 the grouping of artists on view does retain a basis in the local, pairing emerging talents such as Mitchell Anderson and Ramaya Tegegne with more internationally established artists like Jon Rafman. The former are presences on the local scene who also run some of the most interesting off-spaces in Switzerland—Plymouth Rock in Zurich and Forde in Geneva, respectively. The show thus mirrors as much as concretizes the correlation of interests practiced by its bigger neighbors across the street.

While kitsch and avant-garde are no longer meaningful terms with which to discuss contemporary art’s growing allure as popular entertainment for the many and lucrative asset base for the few, the show’s curatorial gambit to circumscribe the impact of conspicuous consumption and current junk culture on contemporary life is timely. To this end, Jon Rafman’s signature apocalyptic tableau of neo-Americana, You are Standing in an Open Field (Shipwreck) (2015), serves to illustrate the titular hint at a thunderous advent of some kind.2 The internet’s promise to promote infinite flows of information and connectivity is here envisioned as merely agglomerating into more detritus and stuff, only bearable with a dose of Tylenol.

Ramaya Tegegne’s equal parts cuddly and disaffected triad of snow-white baby seals neatly placed on the floor (Ideas, 2015) puts a millennially eco-conscious as well as willfully vacuous spin on Mike Kelley’s famously loaded stuffed toys (such as his “Arenas” series from the late 1980s and early 1990s). The disquieting, albeit harmless, look and feel of many works in this show continues into the refurbished basement, where Denis Savary presents freestanding, child-sized silicone sculptures that look both fleshy and cold. Poetically titled Neige de Printemps [Springtime Snow] (2014) these creatures are supposed to evoke Inuit manikins but could also represent in vitro meat grown out of (creative) control.

Mitchell Anderson’s Je suis noir dedans et rose dehors [I am black on the inside and pink on the outside] (2015)—a gessoed board hung on the wall showing orderly rows of playing cards of male sport stars—triggers the title’s associative racial and sexual ambiguities. His Bracelet briefcase piece (2015), an object bought outside a Marrakech mosque, exudes dark vibes. Unscrupulously transplanted to the white cube, the names inscribed on the bracelets in this carry-on coffin—“Shadia,” “Othmane,” “Dalina,” et al—reverberate like young lives sold and consumed.

The opposite type of adaptive and calculating creative “labor” is depicted in Miriam Laura Leonardi’s performative video Car (2015). A flat screen lying directly on the floor facing the outside of the gallery projects the car back onto the street for maximum exposure to the public gaze. Donning a shimmering leotard—part-harlequin, part-shabby-Cirque de Soleil—combined with scary-clown make-up, the young artist placidly details a classic red Ferrari parked right in the middle of a tree-lined Old Money street in the Swiss countryside. Is it still true that “the avant-garde remain[s] attached to bourgeois society precisely because it need[s] its money”?3 Sure. But “jesters do oft prove prophets.”4 The character in Car signals an artistic subjectivity professionalized—or jaded—to the extent that it enjoys juggling the critical expectations of academia and institutions with the whimsies of their patrons.


Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Partisan Review, 1939, pp. 34-49.


The “Tunguska event” was a large explosion in eastern Siberia in 1908 thought to have been caused by a meteor, though no impact crater has been found.


Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Partisan Review, 1939, pp. 34-49.


William Shakespeare, King Lear (1606), Act V Scene iii.


Daniel Horn is a writer based in Zurich and Berlin.

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Galerie Maria Bernheim
February 11, 2016

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