Many artworks spend a lifetime unseen, sitting in storage facilities after they have been acquired—but not at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland. Founded under the Laurenz Foundation in 2003, the museum combines storage with showcases for contemporary art. Fittingly, its name could be imprecisely translated from the German to “showroom.”
While the Schaulager primarily serves as an institution for scholars, researchers, and students, the space occasionally mounts public exhibitions, too. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Schaulager is opening its doors with the show “Out of the Box,” which features time-based media from the collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation.
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In an interview with ARTnews, curator Isabel Friedli discussed how the show came together, along with some of the must-see works in it.
ARTnews: How did you first conceive of the exhibition?
Isabel Friedli: Last fall, we realized that we were going to celebrate Schaulager’s 20th anniversary. Initially, we weren’t sure if we were going to mount an exhibition, but ultimately, we felt it was time, since the last exhibition we had was a retrospective of Bruce Nauman’s work in 2018. This anniversary is a great occasion for an exhibition, but the idea was to produce something that was a low lift for us.
The Schaulager was founded with the idea of combining the storage of artworks with accessibility and visibility to the public. We don’t have exhibitions for the broader public all the time, but we regularly welcome researchers, specialists, and students to visit the storage rooms where the works are installed. We thought it was a nice idea to translate this into an exhibition.
We decided to focus on newer acquisitions from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation that haven’t been shown before because of the space they require. We followed this idea of making the room perceptible around each artwork’s needs—its own constructed room, a dark space, a well-lit space, et cetera. While the show is centered around time-based media, there are a variety of mediums included.
How did you go about organizing and selecting works for the show?
In the exhibition, we wanted to show a few core works. One of these works, for instance, is Anri Sala’s installation Ravel Ravel Interval, which he initially conceived as a commission for the Venice Biennale in 2013. He represented France, but showed the work in the German pavilion. Not only was this a symbolic gesture between the two countries, but because of the size of the German Pavilion, Sala could show a double video projection with two projection screens stacked one on top of the other.
Regarding the content of the work itself, Paul Wittenstein, the brother of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, lost his right arm fighting in the World War II. He was a passionate piano player who wished to continue after his injury. He asked French composer Maurice Ravel and others to compose a piano piece for the left hand. Sala commissioned two professional pianists to play this concerto while he filmed. He recorded these performances and then projected the two video recordings. The players both offered different interpretations of the same work. So, viewers can experience both renditions as they go in and out of sync.
The Emmanuel Hoffmann Foundation bought this work for its collection in 2013, but we haven’t had an occasion to reshow this piece at the Schaulager since it was purchased because we didn’t have the space for it. Since Sala is a contemporary artist, however, we invited him to the Schaulager to help us find a solution. He was then able to adapt the piece by instead placing the projections one behind the other. The video recordings are now projected on semi-transparent screens so that viewers can see and hear both projections at the same time, with the option to move in and out between the two screens.
It was important for us to show the piece, but to respect the integrity of it and the way the artist conceived of it.
What are some of the highlights of the show?
All of the works in the show are important, but some highlights include works by Dieter Roth, Peter Fischli, and Dayanita Singh.
Another great example of what we have on view is a three-part work by Tacita Dean based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Choreographer Wayne McGregor was invited by the Royal Ballet to make a piece based on the infamous book trilogy [ca. 1308–21]. He asked Thomas Adès to compose the music, and since he eagerly wanted to work with Dean, he invited her to create the stage design and costumes for the three-part ballet. For Hell, Dean created a blackboard drawing with inverted mountains. It’s a black-and-white drawing in chalk, and it depicts this frozen landscape that Dante describes in the book. The lighting of the chalkboard would have impacted the way it appeared on stage. For Purgatory, Dean took a photograph of a jacaranda tree, which is quite popular where the artist lives, in Los Angeles. She captures the intensity of the tree’s green color right before its flowers bloomed into a bold violet hue. Suddenly, their appearance changes, which is a great analogy for Purgatory. For Paradise, she created an abstract film, which was a new venture for Dean. She worked with double projections, masking technology, and coloring to create the piece. She was inspired by the William Blake’s watercolors, also based on the book.
How did this idea of “liberating works of art from a life in storage crates” come about?
This goes back to the intentions of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation. The founder, Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin, and her late husband were very passionate about collecting contemporary art. For them, it wasn’t just about collecting, but about creating relationships with the artists whose work they collected. When the foundation was created, there was this intention that just because it’s a private collection, it shouldn’t disappear into private rooms.
The granddaughter and now president of the foundation, Maja Oeri, realized that to achieve this goal, space is really important. The works that we have must be constantly observed and require specific conditions, often because of their mediums. As its name indicates, the Schaulager is essentially accessible storage rooms for the works. When a work is acquired by the collection, it arrives in its transport crate and is then unpacked. The works are always visible and liberated from a life in storage crates, in a sense. This is the gesture we are showing with this exhibition.
Why is the exhibition centered around time-based media?
Many of these are works we struggled to show in other exhibitions because we didn’t have the time and space. There are other time-based media works that we chose not to show because we didn’t want to overwhelm the space and viewers in a negative way. But we want to present these works again because for some of them, this is the first time they will be shown in an institutional setting such as this.
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Since it’s a time-based exhibition, one ticket can get visitors into the show three times. We did this because the works in the show can be time demanding and tiring to watch, and we wanted people to be able to enjoy the full scope of what we have to offer.
“Out of the Box” is on view at the Schaulager through November 19.