For over 35 years, the Swiss Institute in New York has forged a reputation as an independent nonprofit committed to supporting and exhibiting innovative contemporary art. As its name signifies, the institute has been an important platform for bringing attention to Swiss art and artists while also serving as a bridge between Europe and the United States.
Yet, in the past, the Swiss Institute has on occasion championed artists from different parts of the world, such as Sandra Mujinga, Olga Balema, and Rodrigo Hernández, and worked to extend its roster of exhibitions beyond the Swiss context. But earlier this year, a change in its leadership with the appointment of curator Stefanie Hessler as the next director has primed Swiss Institute to solidify the expansion of the organization’s purview.
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“At S.I. there is a focus on introducing emerging artists but also on shining a new light on established artists as well as those who are underrepresented or who should have had exhibitions in an institution in New York but haven’t,” Hessler recently told ARTnews.
The institute’s current exhibition of Karen Lamassone (on view through January 8) is the first international survey of the cutting-edge Colombian American artist who had a significant role in the male-dominated art and film scenes of Bogotá and Cali during the 1970s and ’80s. Featuring works from the entirety of Lamassone’s career with a special focus on her portrayal of women as “desiring subjects,” Hessler believes this retrospective illustrates many of the elements the Institute plans to prioritize moving forward.
“The Karen Lamassone show ties beautifully into this idea of being able to present positions that have not had representation in New York [while] creating bridges between New York City and Europe, but also internationally,” she said.
Organized in partnership with the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Lamassone’s show will travel to both Germany and Colombia next year. “Collaboration is going to be very central to what we do, which I think is important to better support artists, create dialogues across disciplines and geographies, and think in terms of resources,” Hessler said.
Due to her professional experience, the new director is also intent on expanding Swiss Institute’s work regarding climate change, ecology, and environmental justice. From 2016 to 2019, Hessler served as curator of TBA21–Academy, an arts organization focused on protecting the ocean that was founded by ARTnews Top 200 Collector Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza in 2011. “My background is very much related to questions of ecology, and I’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time as a curator, both looking at the ocean and thinking about our human relationship to nature,” she said.
In particular, Hessler explained that the concept of “planetarity,” coined by Indian scholar Gayatri Spivak, has been useful to think about how she will address questions of ecology and social justice in her future curatorial work at the organization. “[Spivak’s idea conceives] the planet as something that connects us all. It’s a concept that emphasizes inequities…it allows us to see things in connection but without leveling out differences,” she said.
Moving forward, Hessler hopes to focus on these matters by making all decisions at Swiss Institute with climate action in mind and championing programming that centers artists working on ecology and climate.
For instance, this month, Swiss Institute began a series of public programs under the title “These Seasons” that explore the concept of seasons as indicators of global warming, social rituals, moods, and politics, while also thinking about these periods through the lens of nature, ecology, and climate action. The series—set to run well into 2023— will include talks, performances, film screenings, and other artworks by artists such as Ravi Agarwal, Mimi Park, Himali Singh Soin, Mel Y. Chen, and Jenna Sutela.
At the moment, the exhibitions on show at SI were conceived and curated by Hessler’s predecessor, Simon Castets. And officially, exhibitions curated by Hessler will begin next year in May, starting with a solo show of Swedish artist Lap-See Lam (a collaboration between the Swiss Institute and Portikus, Frankfurt). In Fall 2023, Hessler has planned solo shows featuring British-American visual artist Danielle Dean and Swiss artist Guillaume Dénervaud.
Speaking about the continued role of S.I. as an important platform for Swiss art and Switzerland-based artists, Hessler explained this emphasis will remain important to the Institute. “Thankfully, we don’t think of Swiss artists as limited to nationality, but people who have a connection with Switzerland, live there, or have had an important exhibition or career there. So there are certain exhibitions which will [still] connect to that,” she said.
Looking further into the future, Hessler said she plans to continue the organization’s legacy of centering artists through thematic exhibitions, as well as producing publications that would focus on larger topics like “questions of ecology, questions of technology, and how we need to think about these together,” Hessler said. “Questions of climate, ecology, and environmental justice are going to accompany us because these issues aren’t going anywhere.”
She added, “It’s an experiment and I’m excited [because] I think of S.I. as a bridge between various disciplines, geographies, and artists.”