Swiss Institute is a non-profit contemporary art organization founded in 1986 with the initial goal of highlighting Swiss art and culture in New York. It has since expanded to include works from around the world, becoming an important platform for emerging artists and new contexts for already-celebrated work. On Saturday, the institute will open it's first permanent location since it was founded by Swiss expats over 30 years ago and will feature the work of over 50 artists, architects, and collectives from 17 countries.
The building is located at 38 St. Marks Place in New York City's East Village, a neighborhood considered as the birthplace of the greatest artistic and musical movements of the 1960s. The 7,500 square foot location was redesigned by Selldorf Architects, the firm behind The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Its inaugural exhibition is entitled Readymades Belong to Everyone, and will be marking the 3rd edition of the institute's annual Architecture & Design Series. Curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, the exhibition will track a history of exchange between artists and architects employing found objects.
Simon Castets, the Swiss Institute's Director since 2013, spoke to us about the new location, what to expect on the inside (hint: lots of newly commissioned works and an elevator painted the color of a human tongue) and why they've decided to keep entry free.
Why the East Village?
"The East Village has historically always been an artistic neighborhood. And it still is, and there’s a very robust network of institutions throughout the East Village that do fantastic and very important work promoting experimental art from different disciplines, ranging from cinema to performance and poetry. And so we’re very happy and proud to be part of that group of institutions and to be able to contribute to that effervescence."
Walk us through the four floors of the new building:
"When you enter it's on 2nd Avenue, there's a large glass door that's open to the public so they feel welcome to stay. On the left, you have a bookstore that is run by Printed Matter, which is the key organization promoting artists book in New York and the U.S. and possibly the world. We’re happy to work with a non-profit, in a way we have connected missions so its great to have that.
The front desk is positioned right in front of a commissioned work by Swiss artist John Armleder, it’s a floor to ceiling tile artwork. Between the two there'ss the main gallery space with very high ceilings and a smaller gallery in the back for more intimate work. We have an elevator, and the inside color was chosen by artist Pamela Rosenkranz to match the color of a human tongue.
We wanted to have several artworks throughout the building in places where you wouldn’t normally have artwork so that every single nook and cranny of the building can possibly be reclaimed by artists or used by artists as background. If you take the back staircase to either the basement or the second-floor you'll be in front of a huge mural by the Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch, the basement is a smaller gallery space and the second floor is the Swiss Institute Library and space for public programs and educational workshops."
And the rooftop?
"The roof is also a space for public programs, for screenings, for events, and it will feature work by Valentin Carron. It’s a floor sculpture in the shape of a heart, very large and lilac color. You can see it from the sky. And then we have a bench by Nancy Lupo that is a bench from a public park in Los Angeles that she appropriated and remade, but scaled to accommodate the average height of a 9-year-old child. It’s kind of a very uncanny scale because you don’t quite know as an adult whether to sit on it or not."
What other works should we expect to see?
"There’s going to be a Christian Holstad installation at the top of the stairs. There’s going to be a William Levitt painting in the staircase. We have work by Raúl de Nieves, I mean there’s like a million different things. These are all outside the exhibition, it’s called SI ONSITE. Works that have either been commissioned or borrowed with the idea to give artists access to the entire building."
Can you tell us about Readymades Belong to Everyone?
"It’s part of the architecture and design series, the third iteration of that series. It has artists from all over the world. It’s an exhibition that blends all those disciplines together, and it’s a series with a very playful yet deep and thoughtful and considerate approach to what architecture and design exhibitions can provide and open up in terms of disciplines.
So here were working with curators Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen; the show looks kind of chaotic but within it, you have very salient connections that are made. You can trace how younger artists used the readymade to explore some political themes, including the idea of surveillance, the tropes of consumption, etc. It’s an overview of all the different kinds of strategies that are being used both in architecture and in art during this major turning point in our history. It’s the centennial plus one of the readymade. So it’s a good time to pay homage to that, and in the end, ready mades never die."
And this is based on Duchamp's "Fountain"?
"Arguably yes, 1917."
Any personal favorites from the readymade exhibit?
It really had a wide range in both topics and timeline, if you go in a more established direction, you can look at Rem Koolhaas’ series of the Berlin Wall, where he proposed to consider this as an architectural readymade. It’s being shown for the very first time at Swiss Institute. On the other end of that spectrum, you have a work by Richard Sides & Gili Tal, which is a series of t-shirts that somehow mimic existing t-shirts that are sold on St Marks Place, but takes them in a different direction and combines this very uncanny juxtaposition."
Your goal as director of SI, amongst others, is to showcase new talent.
"Yes, it’s definitely some people for whom institutional exposure is one among their first, but in general, the way we describe the work that we show is emerging work, and there are many ways artists can be emerging. You can be emerging when you’re 25, you can be emerging when you’re 85. It all depends on the context, on the country, on the type of work your showing."
Why did you guys decide to keep entry free?
"It’s something that was a choice we had to make over and over again because it would be easy to charge, there’s nothing easier than to start charging. But is that what you want? I think it’s a very important part of what we do, we make art accessible to as many people as possible. When you start charging admission you immediately create a barrier and that’s the last thing we want to do, even though it comes at a cost to us."
Visit the Swiss Institute's new permanent location at 38 St Marks Place as of June 23.
Wednesday - Friday: 2-8PM