Raphael Gygax

On the occasion of  Extra Bodies – The Use of the “Other Body” in Contemporary Art, an exhibition which opened on 18 November at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, Art is Alive meets its Curator and Art Historian Dr. Raphael Gygax.

The exhibition explores the social and biosocial role of “extras” in performative and theatrical works, a movement started in 1990s which continued in the years 2000s where artists started integrating other people’s bodies as vehicles for their concepts. The exhibition features works by Ai Weiwei, Santiago Serra, Yves Klein, Vanessa Beecroft and many more luminaries.

Here, Raphael Gygax talks curating, performing arts and Kate Bush.

Please tell us more about your responsibilities at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst.

As curator at the museum, I program together with Heike Munder, the director, the exhibitions and I’m in charge of all the publications. We’re quite a small team, which is great; so we can work efficiently. But of course that also means that the division of work is not so definitive as in other institutions.

Please tell us about the most recent exhibition you’ve curated?

In 2017, I curated two big shows at the museum – a large overview exhibition of French-Bosnian artist Maja Bajevic and a big group exhibition Extra Bodies – The Use of the “Other Body” in Contemporary Art. Both shows’ commonality is their socio-political approach towards art.

How do you envisage / approach curating? How do you start working on an exhibition?

It all depends on the parameters. To curate a show in a museum is different than curating a show in a commercial context. And then it also depends what type of show it is: is it a solo exhibition with a living artist, a retrospective where you have to deal with many loans and estates, is it a group show that is guided by a thesis? And then there are subtypes for each of these exhibitions – so there’s no easy, “one-way” approach and that makes it also interesting  – and sometimes exhausting. So curating has something very holistic as a practice; you need to research, communicate, process information, etc., and this will eventually lead to an exhibition.

The exhibition you’re most proud of and why?

As I see them all interconnected, it’s hard to point one out. Probably some people would say it’s always the first and the most recent that have a special place in the heart. For me, it usually is  the projects that are still in my mind in all their different nebulous states. Sometimes it takes years until I (can) realize a project. It’s like secret love affairs.

What were the main challenges of curating Frieze Projects?

It’s a very special, unique setting – it isn’t just a non-profit program set in a commercial context. Also, it takes place in a tent with a massive number of visitors. So one question is, of course, how do you curate a program that doesn’t just fuel the spectacular but that also doesn’t just vanish in such an environment. And of course I need to collaborate with artists that are willing to accept such a “task”. This setting needs a lot of trust.

Your interests lie in performance, dance and body politics: who are your favourite performers and the emerging performing artists you’re looking at now?

Again one of these questions that are hard for me to answer. Maybe have a look at my exhibition cv – usually I work with performers that I really like. That’s the huge privilege I have.

How do you explain your fascination for body politics?

This answer might be unsatisfying or confusing. I think “body politics” are fascinating because they’re still urgent. As a teenager, in the 1990s, I thought this will be over at some point, in the future when I’m an adult. I had the feeling that we live in a world of high-speed progress and “body politics” will become superfluous at some point. Well… good old naïveté of teenagehood. What we experience at the moment is an incredible fragmentation of society. And I feel a strong backlash. I see discussions in conservative media that I thought would never happen again. One step forward, two steps back.

Why do you think museums are showing an increasing interest in movement / performing arts and which institution is leading at the moment? (Tate with the Tanks and Musee de la Danse, or the Chisenhale gallery in London, examples outside the UK?)

Maybe institutions start to realize that the “arts” are not so fragmented as it seems, i.e. that there are very strong bonds. Of course, some arts need their specific architectural parameters; but the white cube can be very interesting for certain choreographies / movement languages.

Experience vs performance?

Experience equals learning. Learning equals performance. Maybe even an epistemological performance.

Your dream collaboration with an artist would be and for what?

Haha – I give you that one. I love the music and videos of Kate Bush. She coined not just the history of music with her work but also the synthesis of visual arts, performance and music. I would love to meet her – but maybe that would also be enough already.

Is anyone pushing the medium (the body?) at the moment? Who is pioneering performing arts at the moment?

I love the performances by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd – because in her work it is always a collective body. A body that enjoys and is full of “lust”, a carnivalesque body, an excessive one.

Choreographers (if we stick to dance) and recent shows that have impressed you the most?

I like the work of quite a lot of choreographers and try to see as much as possible… of course, I can name some: Michael Clark, Erna Omarsdottir, Alexandra Bachzetsis. Just to name three.

Who are you looking at in contemporary art (artists, I mean), artists you appreciate the most?

That list is definitely too long. But of course you will find some of the names on my list of exhibitions. Some names you will even find several times.

Your future projects?

An ongoing project of mine is to try to slow down a bit, get more head space, talk a bit less. I would like to write more again – as it becomes rarer and rarer.

With regards to curating, I’m working on a show with Charles Atlas in February and a big show with German artist Maria Eichhorn in the fall. But in my head, projects for 2020 are growing…


Image: Portrait of Raphael Gygax. Photographer: Nicolas Duc, Zurich.