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In the Public Realm: Sislej Xhafa

by Aoife Rosenmeyer

On 23 September, Y (2011), a public sculpture by New York-based artist Sislej Xhafa, was unveiled in Zurich’s Hardau-Park. In light of this city’s recently chequered history in the realm of public art, the work is a triumph. Although Zurich boasts excellent art institutions, a decent collection of project spaces and healthy commercial galleries, recent headlines have nonetheless been embarrassing.

In December 2009, Zurich Transit Maritim, a much-publicized project of temporary art works to be sited on the quay of the River Limmat, was halted in its tracks when its budget was not passed by the Gemeinderat, the city’s parliament. The politicians’ move was a popular one, made during an election season, so the fact that contracts were already in place with artists Jan Morgenthaler, Barbara Roth, Martin Senn and Fariba Sepehrnia was of little consequence to them. Then, in September 2010, the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) called a referendum that overturned the already-approved plan for Nagelhaus (Nail House), a public art project conceived by Thomas Demand and Caruso St John Architects. The Nagelhaus would have been sited under an overpass in Zurich’s Escher-Wyss Platz and was planned to house a café and kiosk. The proposal for their structure was based on the so-called nail house in Chongqing, China, whose owners refused to be relocated from their home to make way for new construction, thus stalling the demolition of their property for many years. The rumoured six million CHF budget for the Nagelhaus project was said to be too expensive (the SVP’s longtime ringleader, Christoph Blocher, is a major collector of Ferdinand Hodler’s barrel-chested Swiss wood cutters and the like, an indication of what he may believe is ‘suitable’ art) and the project was narrowly rejected, even though local voters had approved it and all of the permissions for building it had already been obtained. Ironically, in the meantime, another ‘nail house’ has emerged nearby in the form of one half of a residential building (the city owned the other half and bulldozed it) that remains at the feet of the city’s newest skyscrapers. Its residents and owner prefer their status quo to the city and developers’ version of progress.

Parallel to the making and the halting of these projects, the Institute for Contemporary Art Research (IFCAR) at the Zurich University of the Arts had, since 2004, been running the research project ‘Kunst Öffentlichkeit Zürich’ (Public Art in the City of Zurich, KiöR). The institutional research project looked at public art in the context of contemporary practice (frequently multi-disciplinary, with less clearly defined areas of expertise), new means of production of knowledge and the new demands that are made of public art, however diffuse and optimistic they may be. Their aim was to strengthen the societal relevance of public art in Zurich through two concrete outcomes. Firstly, they wanted to create a considered public art policy for the city and a municipal panel that would handle it. To this end, the KiöR working group was established in 2006 to lead the now-stalled Zurich Transit Maritim scheme. Further to that, their impact has been limited: their most visible activity is the ‘Gasträume’ programme, now in its second year, in which open spaces host temporary sculptural projects. While it has brought interesting works to the city, Gasträume’s limited budget largely excludes any participants other than artists supported by commercial galleries.

KiöR’s second objective was that their research would inform current public projects, and the Hardau-Park was a focal point for several stages of artistic input. This new park lies northwest of the city centre near the four Hardau tower blocks, one of the last and least successful high-rise building projects of the 1970s. The neighbourhood has one of the most rapidly changing populations in the city, with an above-average percentage of foreigners, particularly southeastern Europeans, who arrived in Zurich in great numbers in the 20 years since the end of Communism in that region.

Today Hardau is home to an uneasy mix of generations, ethnicities and incomes. Rather than attempting to paper over these gaps, the briefs given to artists presented the new park as a place of meeting and exchange, where differences would be brought into the open. The new park is part of general physical regeneration of the area, along with a new school built to cope with increased numbers of students, but the artists invited by IFCAR to propose projects for the park were asked to reflect on the differences in how the space will be seen and used, and to make positive use of this frisson.

Following temporary projects by San Keller, Claudia and Julia Müller and others, Xhafa’s permanent sculpture has just been inaugurated. The shortlisted artists – Maja Bajevic, Marko Lulic, Adrian Paci and Ayse Erkmen, as well as Xhafa – were chosen not so much for a shared background with many of Hardau’s residents, but for an understanding of the experience of dislocation. As Xhafa wrote in his proposal, if public art is complicated anyway, ‘for an expatriate, the relationship between meaning and form is not obvious at best and dislocated at worst’.

Xhafa’s sculpture is a 16-metre-high white catapult standing nearly upright in the middle of the green space. Its oversized elastic sling hangs down to provide a seat for one or two people. When someone is seated, the whole structure is illuminated from within by LED lights that make it glow in bright white, yellow and orange tones. It’s no secret that in Switzerland immigrant populations are frequent scapegoats, be it in the press or through demonization by conservative politicians, so Xhafa’s overt, if ludic, face-off with authority on their turf is fearless and delightful. In a time when the act of rioting seems purposeless (and Zurich is not immune to similar disturbances to those in London and Manchester of late), Xhafa’s symbol of resistance – David’s tool against Goliath – reminds us of such struggles. And at the same time, beaming in the night, it signals that that struggle can be a positive catalyst.

Ultimately the commissioners should be lauded for their brief, as should Xhafa for his response to it. It seems that within the relatively sheltered environment of academia, a decent project has been conceived and brought to fruition without being beset by the local political bickering which makes KiöR thus far seem toothless. Zurich’s art scene is enjoying a qualitative and quantitative boom, but this is a recently won reputation; at least the moment will leave one significant monument.

About the author

  • Aoife Rosenmeyer's photo

    Aoife Rosenmeyer is a critic and independent curator based in Zurich, Switzerland.

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