Philipp Kaiser is curating the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. Curator Esther Schlicht spoke to him about the influence of the artist Alberto Giacometti on our present day.

Esther Schlicht: Mr. Kaiser, you are curator of the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017. I was delighted to read that you are planning an exhibition entitled “Women of Venice.” The title relates to the famous group of figures by Alberto Giacometti and your project is clearly intended as a sort of homage to Giacometti. Why Giacometti now in Venice? 

Philipp Kaiser: The Swiss Pavilion was built by Bruno Giacometti, Alberto’s younger brother. In that regard, my task was to formulate something specific to the location that is narrative and relates to this pavilion. For 12 years the official Swiss representatives asked Alberto Giacometti to exhibit in this pavilion, for example at the opening in 1952, in vain. France also asked him to exhibit time and again in Venice, an invitation he likewise refused. Apart from the “Femmes de Venise” group of figures, he never exhibited anything there. 

Schlicht: Yes, he refused to be steered in this direction either by his homeland or by the country in which he primarily lived and worked for no fewer than four decades. 

Kaiser: What interests me is this blank spot in history. And of course it’s also an homage so that we can take a look at Giacometti with fresh eyes. I believe he is an unbelievably important figure for the American art of the 1960s, because he formulated a phenomenological premonition which would then prove crucial, for example for the Minimalists. The plinth is eliminated, the theatricality of the ensemble of figures (which actually subverts the autonomy of the future), seriality, process – these are all things that become relevant in the 1960s.

Pavilion of Switzerland at the Giardini della Biennale, Venice, built by architect Bruno Giacometti in 1951/52. (Pro Helvetia)

Schlicht: There are only a few artists of this generation who will profess to it, but in some remarks, such as those of Donald Judd, a certain admiration for Giacometti shows through … 

Kaiser: Yes, most definitely. I recently talked to Michael Heizer about this. Giacometti was an important “hinge” figure, who also fully undermines the myth of the American “zero hour.” His extensive exhibition at the MoMA in 1965 was a major event in this sense. 

Schlicht: Yet your exhibition in Venice is not an historical one. You’re inviting young, contemporary artists to take a look at Giacometti in the context of the Swiss Pavilion. Are you able to reveal something of their plans at this stage? 

Kaiser: Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have decided to make a cinematic work on Giacometti’s relationship with the American Flora Mayo. They veritably threw themselves into the micro-research, examining Giacometti’s first great love. Flora Mayo was herself an artist; she came from a very affluent house in Colorado and lived in Paris. Then in 1929, as the Recession took hold, she had to move back to the USA, became destitute and destroyed all her work. Hubbard and Birchler carried out genealogical research and found out that there was a son born out of wedlock, so they truly discovered an untold story here. The whole thing relates closely to the artist couple Hubbard and Birchler, who themselves are an American-Swiss couple.

Carol Bove, The Bicycle, 2016, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner New York/London

Schlicht: And will the artist Carol Bove also be exhibiting in the Swiss Pavilion? 

Kaiser: Yes, she will. In her work I see an interesting approach to the question of the autonomy of sculpture, which was something that also interested Giacometti. On the one hand he formulates this autonomy, whilst on the other he also takes it back in his ensembles of figures. The new sculptures by Carol Bove look like strongly autonomous sculptures, but she actually always perceives them in relation to other objects, to other sculptures. And she’s keenly interested in this ontological moment of Giacometti’s sculptures, the verticality and the essence of the sculpture. The fictional nature of the sculpture, i.e., material versus fictional nature, is one that is pre-formulated in Giacometti’s work.  

Schlicht: So to what extent does her project also respond to the architecture of the pavilion?

Kaiser: Carol Bove is making a large work with two sculptures in the tall sculpture hall. And in the outdoor area, in the courtyard, she will exhibit seven sculptures that loosely relate to a forest and thus also to the tree that grows in the pavilion – a group of figures somewhere between forest and Giacometti’s “Femmes de Venise.” And naturally they interact with one another. 

Schlicht: And the pavilion itself – will you change that? 

Kaiser: There was previously a wall in the entrance area of the Swiss Pavilion. That is now being rebuilt, because I find it better in spatial terms. So something is being reinstalled, but only temporarily.

GIACOMETTI-NAUMAN, Ausstellungsansicht © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2016, Foto: Norbert Miguletz

Schlicht: And to come back to Giacometti once again: Do you get the impression that there is once again interest in Giacometti among contemporary artists of the younger generation? 

Kaiser: I talked to the American artist Louise Lawler about Giacometti, for example. For her generation Giacometti was an important figure between the late-modern and the postmodern. But does that apply to the really young ones? That’s a good question! I believe that an exhibition like Giacometti-Nauman will enable young people to see Giacometti with fresh eyes again. After all, this rather essentialist-humanist existentialism thinking of the 1950s has littered the artist so much that you actually forget how important he was, don’t you? And what he was really all about. 

Schlicht: Yes, I also think that it only gets interesting again when you detach yourself from the themes and content and take a look at the sculptural approaches and concepts. It’s only then that it will be clear just how important Giacometti was for certain developments in contemporary art post-1960. 

Kaiser: Absolutely. A formalist reading makes it much more interesting. 

Schlicht: It is also remarkable that so few young art scholars are studying Giacometti. That also means that not much happens. But let’s get back to Venice: Will Giacometti himself also be represented in the pavilion? 

Kaiser: No. I thought about it for a long time, but eventually I decided to take him out. I think we carry Giacometti within us, as it were, or an image of Giacometti. I didn’t want to create the impression that Giacometti did not want to exhibit there and now the curator comes along and shows him anyway. That would be inappropriate. 

Schlicht: Many thanks for talking to us. I’m really excited and looking forward to seeing the Swiss Pavilion in Venice! 

Kaiser: Thank you.

Curator Philipp Kaiser in Zurich on 5 April 2016. (Pro Helvetia/Ennio Leanza)