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Swiss hope to satisfy China's hunger for culture

Pius Knüsel (left) and Mario Annoni, Pro Helvetia's president


The Chinese love Swiss music, plastic arts and cinema. The head of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss arts council, tells how they are being given more.

Pius Knüsel also discusses his plans for video games and the controversial Basel artist Christoph Büchel, who recently ruffled feathers at a contemporary art venue in Vienna where part of his project involved a real sex club.

Pro Helvetia has run a cultural exchange programme with China for two years. At its annual news conference in Bern on Tuesday, Knüsel explained how the organisation was now moving to the next stage and opening a permanent base in Shanghai. What aspects of Swiss culture are you showing in Shanghai?

Pius Knüsel: Virtually every aspect possible, but it depends a lot on the demand from the Chinese side. We’ve learnt over the past two years that there’s a great interest in the visual, contemporary – even digital – arts. And music. People there have “open ears”, as we say in German, and an enormous interest in Swiss music, in all its forms. Dance has also worked well.

As for literature, we’re looking for editors prepared to publish Swiss works – translated into Chinese of course. I think we’ll get there. Theatre is by its nature very hard, as language plays a central role. All the big stages have live supertitles, but it’s not the same experience.

One area that is very, very fruitful is the cinema. We’ve managed to enter at least 100 Swiss films, including many shorts, in the big Chinese festivals – winning several prizes. The way you tell it, the Chinese are culture mad...

P.K.: They are. It’s a country that’s still looking for its place in the world and is in the process of reinventing its culture, which had been destroyed.

China is in the middle of an experimental phase. And I think that’s always the best time to launch cultural exchanges – there’s an interest in everything and a will to invest and invent projects, which is really extreme compared with the situation in Europe. Pro Helvetia’s involvement in video games in Switzerland is through the “GameCulture” programme. Do you think this has potential, although the industry is essentially in the hands of the big players?

P.K.: We’re convinced that there’s a very respectable potential. A one-year study enabled us to identify around 200 Swiss designers, of whom the majority work abroad. But they’ve gone into partnership with us.

As for developing games in Switzerland, we still don’t know. We’re in a phase of analysis and experimentation. The idea is to develop a system that encourages designers. We can’t give further details until after the interview process.

It’s like with the cinema. Switzerland hasn’t got a hope of matching Hollywood, but we continue to provide support, also to maintain a level of expertise in the country and to counter somewhat the commercial productions with projects a bit more, well, idealist, but also, we hope, more intelligent. A Pro Helvetia project recently caused a scandal. Not everyone understood Christoph Büchel’s sex club installation.

P.K.: The Secession gallery is the only place in Vienna devoted to contemporary art. Its opening at the beginning of last century was marked by a scandal when Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze was considered pornographic because of the naked female bodies. Now it’s considered one of Klimt’s leading works and part of Vienna’s cultural heritage.

For 2010 the Secession invited Christoph Büchel, a world-renowned installation artist, who for Vienna created a work based on physical and moral hygiene. What is clean and what is dirty? What makes the project extraordinary is that while the swingers’ club is empty during the day, it’s business as usual at night. Anyone can join in.

So, the question one is forced to ask is whether sex in a museum is permitted. And if not, why is sex in swingers’ clubs allowed? Everything turns on the question of double standards. Be that as it may, Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2004 exhibition in Paris, which featured someone urinating on a poster of former Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, resulted in Pro Helvetia’s budget being cut by a million francs. You’re not worried by another parliamentary sense of humour failure?

P.K.: Sure, there’s always the risk, but if the fear of being punished by parliament became our guiding principle, we’d only end up supporting yodel concerts and exhibitions by Ferdinand Hodler [a Swiss painter known for his landscapes, collected by Blocher].

It’s neither for politicians, nor for Pro Helvetia, to try to define art. The art world evolves and develops an idea of what art could be. But provocation like that is an element of the art world.

Büchel is part of an art world that begins with small paintings and cut-outs – such as those that we are currently displaying in China with great success – and which also includes installations, such as Büchel’s. It’s necessary to cover the whole spectrum – you can’t leave out an element as important as installation art.

Marc-André Miserez, (Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)

Controversy in Switzerland

The swingers’ club in Vienna’s Secession is not only keeping politicians in Vienna busy, but also those in Switzerland. Büchel’s provocative exhibition has been supported with SFr15,000 from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council.

The council says that no public funds went to the privately-run swingers’ club in the basement of the exhibition hall.

A number of Swiss politicians have protested in the media against subsidising this form of conceptual art.

The director of Pro Helvetia, Pius Knüsel, says he does not fear a repeat of the case of artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who four years ago provoked the Swiss establishment with a performance in Paris. It featured an actor pretending to urinate on an image of the then Swiss justice minister, Christoph Blocher.

Knüsel says the swingers’ club attacks no one, insults no one and is not breaking any laws.

After the case involving Hirschhorn, parliament cut Pro Helvetia’s budget by SFr1 million a year.

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