Manifesta 11 Biennial: Helmhaus and Löwenbräukunst


Located in the Zurich’s ancient core, the Helmhaus museum usually exhibits contemporary art exponents of the most renowned Swiss art scene, with a focus on Zurich. Every year, five exhibitions are usually staged, collectively showing the works of some hundred artists. Great care is taken to represent the art scene’s diversity, so much so that all media and every generation are represented. The museum also shows works with which artists apply for residencies and stipends, and many exhibitions are accompanied by exclusive publications which are graphically intriguing. Aiming to boost accessibility, the Helmhaus also offers public tours for adults and children and hosts concerts, talks, readings and more.

However, Manifesta 11 is exactly on the contrary: visitors find the museum surrounded by sandbags, objects universally recognised as icons of emergency situations, for example in the case of wars or overflowing rivers. The windows and entrance arches are completely sealed off, leaving only two controlled access points, whilst the riverside bristles with barbed wires. Santiago Sierra has worked with a private security company, developing one of the thirty commissioned Joint Ventures projects, to assess the building vulnerabilities and to ensure it physically safe. What kind of threats do these protective measures evoke? “Let’s imagine this building was not in Zurich, but in Syria or Iraq,” suggests the artist. A time lapse video installation at Sierra’s satellite shows the transformation of the Helmhaus into a protected, sheltered building.

The construction represents one of the most dense and relevant Manifesta 11 venues – a satellite, a realm of The Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Constructions. Here, Christian Jankowski and Francesca Gavin collected a peculiar milieu of artworks, installed some hundred metres from the floating Pavilion of Reflections. In the non-sacred cathedral, annexed to Helmhaus, Evgeny Antufiev and the Pastor Martin Rüsch’s conversations revealed a shared fascination for rituals of remembrance, conceiving one of the most delicate installations of the whole European Art Biennial. Eternal Garden stems from a quote in the Bible comparing the transience of human life to the wilting of a flower. Antufiev is compelled by the oblique connections formed hen species named after deceased famous figures. He has adorned the Wasserkirche with bowls of roses named after literary greats, whilst a giant rendering of a butterfly is suspended from the ceiling: an ode to Vladimir Nabokov’s other respected career in Lepidopterology. Antufiev’s film in Löwenbräukunst, as an aide-memoire, presents his pilgrimage to the Nabokov’s butterfly collection in Lausanne.

On the first floor, the Professions Performing in Art’s section includes artworks by Karmelo Bermejo, Sophie Calle, Jill Magid, Jonathan Monk, Yoshua Okón, Sarah Pickering, Fernando Sánchez Castillo and Wermke/Leinkauf. Painting, videos, projections, documents, photos and objects elegantly set in the black scaffolding grid system. Here artists show how people working in other fields have become involved in the process of making art – either intentionally or not. The artworks, or their documentation, often address power structures, providing moments of resistance, subversion or affirmation. They might incorporate footage from surveillance camera operators or records from customs officers, or turn a sold-out charter flight into an empty gesture. In each case professional activity activates the artwork. Among them, three other Joint Ventures projects are ‘melted’ into an intimate exhibition.

The very first room introduces to the public one of the Michel Houellebecq first official presentations of visual art. The famous writer turns a microscopic gaze on his own health. He headed to Zurich for a full-body-check-up with some of Switzerland’s famous specialists. So in the Helmhaus and in the Hirslanden clinic, visitors can see –watching a series of black and white X-rays tests- his beating heart and blood pumping, then be allowed to take away a print-out of the Houellebecq’s electrocardiogram and blood analysis.

After a ten-minutes-long venture into Shelly Nadashy’s Chatter Box, it’s possible to approach Helmaus’ lunar cabin installation: Romance, by Ceal Floyer and the traducer Lorenz Oehler. For the artist, the work of a translator consists not only in providing a translation but also in elucidating the social conventions that are intrinsic to linguistic expression. Ceal Floyer is fascinated by what gets lost in translation, moments when linguistic and cultural incongruities  lead to misunderstanding. For Romance, a woman and a man in simultaneous translation booths translate an English text into French and Italian respectively. The simultaneous rendition of the two Romance languages results in the playful and absurd failure of the semantic relationship. One of the most fine and emblematic metaphors played out in Manifesta11.


Christian Jankowski’s artistic-curatorial concept is finally on its way, beginning its approach in Switzerland. Manifesta11 opened officially, aiming, once more, to explore the genius loci and serving as a think tank to re-identify how we live, work, think and see our future here in Europe in the context of the growing challenges of economic recession, migration, climate change. As a sensitive as well as pretentious mirror of our times. The Biennial should also represent, study and evaluate on how these might affect our changing habitats, our thinking and our society. And with its title What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures, the event is focusing attention on the relation between work and labour.

Zurich, especially during this edition, is going to demonstrate its great potential as a city of historically exciting artistic structure and developments with a rich culture of discourse. The city in which Dada was born, the centre of Neues Bauen, where die Gute Form all started, the home of Swiss design and the concrete artists Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, is aiming to put down a new art-historical marker with Manifesta 11. Considering this historical landmark, Manifesta 11 is adding a contemporary, international and visionary dimension to the festivities marking the centenary of Dada.

Löwenbräukunst, Helmhaus, the Pavillon of Reflection and Cabaret der Künstler – Zunfthaus Voltaire are actually the main exhibition venues at Manifesta 11, whilst new works can also be seen at satellite venues. This project addresses the various professional groups in Zurich and facilitates encounters and collaborations (Joint Ventures) between artists and these occupations. Thirty international artists were invited to embark on a process-like dialogue with their chosen professions.

But Christian Jankowski and Francesca Gavin conceived Löwenbräukunst and Helmhaus as hosting sites welcoming to the conceptual, the “historical” roots of Manifesta 11. The Löwenbräukunst complex –located ten minutes by tram from the Zurich central railway station-  reopened in the new millennium after an office and apartment building had been added to historic structure. Today, the plot of the former brewery is a location especially combining museums, galleries and private collections. During Manifesta 11, three art institutions on different floors, borrow the European art biennial exhibitions spaces: Luma Westbau /Pool, Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst and Kunsthalle Zurich. The exhibition in the institutions consists of two groups of works: new artworks specifically produced for Manifesta standing in dialogue with existing works, which have been installed on black and essential scaffolding.

The structures called Sites Under Construction, highlight different aspects of the relationship between art and professions. This kind of setting surveys the flickering between the personal and the public, private and professional, poetic and practical, asking why and how artists have portrayed, questioned and interacted with the ideas and processes of occupations. So, minimal grids are today supporting The Historical Exhibition eschewing a fixed narrative. History is here meaning to represent a state of permanent construction, to be explored, renewed and repositioned. Assembled on the scaffold-like structures are artworks and non-art materials from the past fifty years, a period in which social strata have broken down and visitors are, arguably, no longer defined by the position they were born into.

At the ground floor, the very first room is titled Of Hunters and Astronauts, functioning as an overture to Manifesta 11. It introduces a scene from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972), which presents an encounter between an astronaut and an alien, in the form of a dead loved one. In the second room Matyàs Chocola’s installation, Ultra Violet Ritual, occupies several squared meters, tracing some stories latent in sports equipment such as chains, pads, punch bags, marked with individual efforts and experiences. This sculptural/ installatory work re-locates part of a Thai Boxing studio in Wintherthur, evocating the peculiar joint venture that Chocola and the professional personal trainer engaged, during the last weeks. But more new committed works could be found also some floors up, where American artist Mike Bouchet reroutes and transforms the human waste of Zurich’s inhabitants. Into a white and locked room, Bouchet presents  new form of obscure faeces, whose 80,000 kilos is equivalent to a day’s worth of sewage production in the city.

Amongst Asli Çavuşoglu’s painting restorations, Andrea Èva Györi’s sex lessons, Jorinde Voigt’s wooden boat and Jiṙì Thỳn’s pathological In search of a Monument, Torbjørn Rødland exhibits a disquieting series of photos, illustrating his joint venture with a regarded dentist. Rather than capturing a dentist’s pragmatic point of view, they, in fact, inspect teeth as a symbol for intuitive fears and irrational anxieties.

Ginevra Bria

Manifesta 11: The European biennial of contemporary art runs until 18 September, Zurich, Switzerland.

For more information:

1. Installation views from Manifesta 11, Courtesy of Ginevra Bria.