Marianne Burki, manager

Moving Backwards is one of those (rare) examples in which art meets real life and deals – not required and unauthorized, after all, by its role – to take a position and invade the field of politics and social interactions.

The Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale (until Nov. 24th) has been transformed into an ‘abstract club’ in the Giardini exhibition area. A place of fiction that immediately plunges us into the state in which we are: defenseless, however, deviating from this shouted policy – most of us unable to react.

Two artists based in Berlin and known for an unconventional style that mixes dance and art (Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz) are the authors.

It is not just a film organized in chapters that hosts five choreographies (by performers Julie Cunningham, Werner Hirsch, Latifa Laâbissi, Marbles Jumbo Radio and Nach) where you are invited to the vision through a mechanized theater curtain whose movements participate in the leitmotif of the history: walking backwards.

For us, this work is a true act of rebellion; according to the artists, it is a way to reject this status quo of muscular and liberticidal politics: to mend, rework the backlash from the harshness of life and political tensions. To oppose the inescapable linearity of fascisms, of totalitarianisms. Not in my name, they seem to say. And they do it, actually, by complementing the exhibition with a garden with stools and a free journal collecting letters, essays and other forms of writings of many authors about colonialism, suprematism, queer culture and much more.

We liked so much what we saw because it works great and returns a message of rare intensity.

In times when dialogue is so difficult – we wanted to meet who made this show possible, the Pro Helvetia government commissioner Marianne Burki, a Swiss manager who has embraced the courage of the artists and financed this so disruptive proposal that comes on display at the most visited art festival in the world.

Your life in a few words, especially the early years and the dreams ‘of the self to be’ at that stage

I was always interested to get to know worlds unknown to me, reaching different views on things, undertake new challenges and I really love passionate debates and stimulating encounters. Of course now, with my profession, I really want to see the invisible, crucial places of society.

The Swiss Council Pro Helvetia is looking (worldwide) to potentiate the message and the presence of the Swiss creative scene in very competitive arenas in the entire world (from festivals like the Venice Biennial  to the everyday market) by being also engaged with the promotion of literature, design and other discipline beyond visual art, which is more the topic of our conversation.

Before asking you about a very seminal message I felt widespread by the Swiss Pavilion at Venice Art Biennale, I wanted to ask if you feel worried by the fact that so many talents of outstanding academies of the country (from HEAD to Ecal to the many other institutions) – are lost once the  students graduate because they leave the country after the degree, not being  residents.

Many countries have the same problems with their student VISA policies.

Switzerland is witnessing a big stream of talents in one direction which is taking away what the country and the government agencies put in place with learning, exchange, stages, etc…

Mobility is the big asset today…Artists have to work internationally to understand many contexts – and what it might mean for their work. The more contexts they dwell, the better it is. 

Today the idea of a ‘Swiss’ artist or of a ‘Chinese’ artist is very arbitrary because many of them take inspiration and education from a variety of places. Basically of course, in an ideal world, I would be very happy for artists of any nationality to influence this field in Switzerland but also influence the field abroad. This said, there is a permanent contradiction between the need of mobility and the visa-policies. 

The Swiss Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2019 incarnates many trends which have been already visible in other artists’ and curator’s proposal: a very keen set and video design to make viable very political concepts (often tied with queer and gender issues). 

The pavilion itself has been also carefully redesigned to serve this purpose…rethinking the outer and inner space as if it were one unity of sense. Moreover the message about ‘back-warding’ and about the declaration of not being ‘represented’ by a government is sharing the light – in the art debate – with a bunch of other artists feeling called to be more socially engaged.

The curator Charlotte Laubard, who is Head of Visual Art at HEAD, has many experiences in backing art having strong purposes and aims; she also curated events as La Nuit Blanche and also consulting in her professional early stages with Pinchuck Art Centre design (Ukraine).

Which was the reaction in the Swiss press about this kind of art happening in this ‘precise’ historical moment either Switzerland and Eu are sharing?

Which were your personal feelings once taking some time to visit it as any member of the audience?

The press was more interested to tackle the project in the frame of the Swiss society, here opinions were as diverse as you could imagine –  what the issue has to do with Switzerland, or the very subtle impact of the message conveyed by the artists which has been addressed to audience. The Swiss German press was a bit more critical in commentating the pavilion than the media of other parts of Swizerland and especially the International one, which were very positive (for instance Le Figaro, or other magazines having this kind of rating system, told that the Swiss pavilion got five stars!), this is because of what you say: the pavilion has a very strong political standing and a very very clear and very concise artistic vision conceiving the space as a whole to walk through it, as an immersive experience.

Seeing it for the first time, I couldn’t imagine myself as a normal visitor even for a minute – having known everything of it from the top to the bottom (in theory, concept and development). But I had imaginations and expectations I would compare with. 

It was anyway so fantastic to see how I was guided through this work from all the elements composing it. I was totally fascinated for instance from such a powerful and personal quality of any of the objects composing it – as the curtain wall but also the choreography. Therefore I immediately was deeply confronted with the idea  that there was no distinction among all the elements of the work of art, which goes from the performances to the individual reading given to any visitor in the form of a free newspaper. This reading moments were so personal and direct – very touching indeed. For me it  really was a unforgettable experience, either or because knowing so much before.

What do you feel to give back to your country as a citizen and what do you feel to take back from it?

At Pro Helvetia, we really try our best to give a truly experimental space to art. This has always something to do with the future: we have to take risks because this could be a research for the future. Of course this is also what we get back as well and then on a more practical level, we do our best to make visible the Swiss art abroad. 

With the Swiss Pavilion we wish to give the work the best possible space it deserves. It was wonderful, for instance, that last year the Swiss pavilion gained the Golden Lion for the first time (it was at the Architecture Biennale) and this is already my reward. I love  where and what I work and I am excited about the way projects develop, it makes me very happy to see things getting better and more precise as time passes. 

We are always very interested to how and where our ‘people from this world’ read and listen to music. Therefore we would please know which is the book in your hands and the music in your ears now.

And if you can tell us also which is the last Swiss author you’ve read, in prose or poetry (given Pro Helvetia supports also literature).

Regarding music, I very much enjoy Aisha Devi and Camilla Sparkss but I always listen again and again to Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier a and one of long long term favorites whenever I have a quiet moment is Eugenio Onegin (an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky). So, I mix the past and the present.

A favorite author? It’s always very difficult to find one for me as it always changes. I enjoyed very much discovering “Deine Nacht mein Tag” or “Panda Sex” by the Chinese writer Mian Mian. At the moment I’m reading   “Retour à Reims” by Didier Eribon.I think it is a precise insight on our society and why and how the working class has turned rather to the right. Another author I really like to read again and again is Melinda Nadj Abonji. I got to know her work with her famous novel Tauben fliegen auf with its subtle multlayered questions of society and identity!

Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?

I see myself traveling, blogging about art and reaching an always wider audience. I see myself always working on this theme: making the importance of art visible in everydays life and always putting it in different contexts, knowing and learning more about it. Largely, I really want to make this role, the arts’ role, even more stringent in society. As I see art as the basis of our society – I will be continue my exploration and research into this 

What did you learn from life until now?

This is really a big question! I think it is marvelous to be surprised and its wonderful and precious how continuously this happens and how everything can develop further and further. To keep absolutely passionate about what I do, this means also that I learned better to be aware of a lot of  distractions. Well, I try my best, I try my best!

Cover: Marianne Burki, courtesy Pro Helvetia



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