A number of exhibitions this summer in Switzerland gave visitors the sense that the country's image has become a source of civic obsession. The city of Zurich has sponsored an "action" in which some 800 plastic cows - lifelike, life-size, and bearing madcap designs - have been distributed throughout the city. They were enlisted to create an image of Zurich as "teeming with fantasy, joyful, and many-sided," to quote the flyer announcing the event. An exhibition at the Swiss National Museum is titled "Inventing Switzerland, 1848-1998." Its advertisements declare that "The Switzerland of the future must be reinvented!" In the questionnaire bound into the catalogue for the exhibition "An Unrestricted View of the Mediterranean: Young Swiss Art" at the Kunsthaus Zurich, one respondent writes: "Switzerland's image is currently very bad abroad. (Ownership of a Swiss passport is not a good thing to reveal on a first date)." The question asked whether the present exhibition, when shown abroad, would help correct the dubious image Switzerland acquired in the period 1933-45. It is always risky for a visitor to suppose he or she grasps the political subtexts of a foreign culture, but the effort at self-examination is so heavily avowed just now in Switzerland that it is impossible to overlook. Spin is the national preoccupation.
We must, accordingly, approach the Kunsthaus exhibition with reference not merely to what is being shown but to what is being said through showing it at this moment. Will the exhibition, when it travels to Frankfurt this month, indeed help modulate Switzerland's image from the war years? For example, it might be regarded as deeply significant if Swiss art did not look at all different from art produced anywhere else these days - if the show looked, say, like a singularly successful Whitney Biennial. That might hopefully imply that Switzerland had joined the rest of the world, at least through its art.
As it happens, Young Swiss Art is pretty much like Young Art elsewhere, dealing with many of the same themes through much the same mixtures of media as artists in New York or Cologne, Rotterdam or Milan, Warsaw or Prague. "Curators," 1998, a suite of posed photographs on view by Dogan Firuzbay (which seems to draw on the work of Clegg and Guttmann), shows curators, at home wherever art is exhibited, smiling by their Rolodexes. There is nothing obviously Swiss about those pictured, and the photographs themselves belong to the international pool from which real curators draw works for exhibitions everywhere. Here and there a particular Swiss reference may be detected, but nothing as explicit as those images through which Bruno Bischofberger each month projects an Alpine utopia on the back cover of Artforum. The only obvious depiction of the Alps connected with this show - brilliantly curated by Bice Curiger - is the photograph of peaks surrounded by clouds on the catalogue's cover. This brings us to the title, which may be the show's main Swiss reference.
Initially a protest against rebuilding the municipal opera house, the Zurich street riots in the early '80s escalated into an action militant enough to call for plastic bullets and tear gas, yet imaginative enough to produce some crazy ideas, like demolishing the Alps to open a free view of the Mediterranean - Nieder mit den Alpen! Frei Sicht aufs Mittelmeer! Razing the Alps is a metaphor for changing national identity ("Switzerland must be re-invented?), of course, for the mountain chain per se does not constitute much of a moral problem. But this nonnegotiable demand is also pure Dada, as are so many of the works in the show, and it is important to remember that in addition to some scary banking practices and a questionable posture of neutrality, Switzerland is also the home of Dada, invented in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire, just down the street from the Kunsthaus. The works on view imply that the seemingly absurd demand has been met, so far as art is concerned. …