‘A Sunday in the Mountains’ at the Swiss Institute

Still from Jean Tinguely, 'Study for an End of the World, No. 2,' 1962. (Courtesy the Swiss Institute)

Still from Jean Tinguely, ‘Study for an End of the World, No. 2,’ 1962. (Courtesy the Swiss Institute)

This show of 16 artists, which takes its deceptively pastoral title from Daniel de Roulet’s 2006 book concerning a 1970s Swiss terrorist attack, was curated by Gianni Jetzer, who is stepping down as the Swiss Institute’s director after seven years, and can pretty much be summed up in eight words: Swiss men behaving badly, but not too badly. 

The earliest piece here is a classic—one of Jean Tinguely’s unwieldy Rube Goldberg-like contraptions self-destructing in a short TV clip from 1962. Elsewhere, Valentin Carron has added vicious-looking blades to a three-wheeled cycle, turning it into a vehicle capable of causing some serious injury. Roman Signer has blown up a mailing package with explosives, scattering cardboard throughout a metal cylinder. And Andreas Züst has snapped 81 slides of whimsical graffiti, often very clever, made in Zurich in the 1970s by a street artist named Harald Nägeli, who served jail time for his vandalism.

Carron, 'Death Race 2000,' 2000. (Courtesy the artist and Swiss Institute)

Carron, ‘Death Race 2000,’ 2000. (Courtesy the artist and Swiss Institute)

In a text that accompanies the exhibition, Mr. Jetzer suggests that tranquil, regimented Switzerland relegates “the subversive or revolutionary exclusively to the arts.” That’s probably true of most modern democracies: we want our artists to act out, to make things and live in ways that ordinary folk do not, whether because they are incapable or unwilling. Unfortunately, while many of the artists here take “sabotage and anarchism as content in their work,” as the curator puts it, they do so in fairly conventional ways, and the results vary from emptily provocative to simply milquetoast. A case in point is Dieter Meier, who is shown in photos performing outside a gallery in New York in 1971, holding a gun in front of a sign that reads, “This man will not shoot.” (That same year, of course, someone pulled the trigger on another artist, Chris Burden, for a performance.) The artists tend to (almost satirically) illustrate radical intentions rather than actually enact or embody them.

A few more open-ended pieces do linger, like Olivier Mosset’s eerie, seductive cardboard replicas of antitank barriers and a supremely weird video in which a figure dressed as a panda bear pole dances vigorously before pulling off the head to reveal a woman, who then addresses the viewer. That’s by Elodie Pong, the only female in the show, and it seems intent on temporarily short-circuiting the way that desire and objectification occur.

Installation view with works by Mosset and Motti. (Courtesy Swiss Institute)

Installation view with works by Mosset and Motti. (Courtesy Swiss Institute)

Two works did scare the hell out of me; both were by Gianni Motti, who’s best known for claiming to have made about a decade ago a bar of soap out of Silvio Berlusconi’s liposuctioned fat. He contributes charts and photos in which he declares responsibility for the 1992 California earthquake and the 1986 Challenger disaster. He’s denying cause and effect, wholeheartedly embracing death and disaster with such commitment that it surpasses the simple transgression of a lie, beyond mere misbehavior. That’s as pure a definition of anarchy as I can think of.

‘A Sunday in the Mountains’ at the Swiss Institute