The international art world is soon to descend upon the city for Zürich Art Weekend (10 & 11 June), a precursor to Art Basel the following week (13–18 June), and Zürich’s galleries are preparing stellar shows to greet them. 

I. 
Exhibition title: For Evergreen
Artist: Thomas Flechtner
Galerie: Bildhalle
Dates: Until 24 June. 2017


My breath caught when I entered Bildhalle’s bright white lofty space, punctuated with large-scale colour photographs by Thomas Flechtner (b. 1961, Switzerland). Vibrant colours, seeping into lurid, alongside glimpses of nature felt just right to accompany summer’s arrival in the city. But any sense of purity soon receded - things were not quite what they seemed. 

Flechtner’s exhibition, For Evergreen, combines photographs from different series made over the last 10 years - Bulb, Germs, Leaves, Grasses and News. The obvious connection is nature, but these are predominantly artificial landscapes. When looking at Germs No. 8, for example, I imagined delicate shoots of grass growing from islands of red flesh floating on a bright blue lake. What was this place? I learnt that this landscape is wholly constructed - the artist had dipped cotton balls in red ink and placed them on a mirror reflecting the sky. Both confusing and compelling, Flechtner also plays with scale, further mystifying his works’ origins. In another piece, News, the artist cultivated seeds in his garden, and germinated the vegetation over 100 international newspapers, which he assiduously watered. Over time, the newspaper print faded and receded as nature took over. The straight photographs document an aesthetic and ideological dialogue between the green shoots and the news images and text below. 

The works continue to surprise, wherever Flechtner has intervened with the environment, creating tension between what is natural and man-made. 

Thomas Flechtner, News, 2010 © Thomas Flechtner, Courtesy of Bildhalle

Thomas Flechtner, News, 2010
© Thomas Flechtner, Courtesy of Bildhalle

II.
Exhibition title: Press ++
Artist: Thomas Ruff
Galerie: Mai 36
Dates: 9 June – 29 July, 2017


Since the late 1970s, having famously studied with Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1977 alongside Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff (b.1958, Germany) has been exploring the internal structures of the photographic medium and questioning the construction and meaning of an image. 

Press ++ includes photographic prints Ruff collected over many years - American and Japanese press photographs from the 1930s to 1970s, which span politics, society, science, technology and fashion. For this series, he scanned the front and backs of each found photograph and merged the two sides in a single image. The results include images of astronauts, airplanes, car crashes and film stars interrupted by pressroom scribbles, stamps, ink stains and pencil drawn crop guidelines. 

Looking at these pieces reminded me of my days working with Magnum Photos, poring over boxes of vintage press prints, where the backs with all their stamps, scribbles and fingerprints were often more intriguing than the images themselves. Observing Ruff’s works on this vast scale (224 x 185 cm), being able to inspect the rough notations, transports us back to the heyday of photojournalism, which holds special meaning in today’s digital age. However, the scale of the works takes them into a different realm from press prints – they have a formidable presence and a contemporary aesthetic. As with earlier series, Ruff makes us contemplate the authenticity and meaning of a single image. 

Thomas Ruff, Press ++32.64, 2016 © Thomas Ruff, Courtesy of Galerie Mai 36

Thomas Ruff, Press ++32.64, 2016
© Thomas Ruff, Courtesy of Galerie Mai 36

III.
Exhibition title:  No title
Artist: Danny Lyon
Galerie: Edwynn Houk
Dates: 24 May – 29 July 2017


It’s difficult not to enter this exhibition with a great deal of expectation. Danny Lyon (b. 1942, USA) is such a cult figure, thanks to his seminal works from the 1960s on the Civil Rights Movement (“The Movement”, 1964) and the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club (“The Bikeriders”, 1968). 

Lyon is best known for creating a new style of documentary photography by embroiling himself in the lives of his subjects. He would get close, very close! Most notably, when he was only 23, he joined the Chicago Outlaws, a group maligned for living free of the conventional expectations of society. The resulting photographs, alongside his earlier work covering the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, led to his association with the “New Journalism” of Hunter S Thomson and Truman Capote in the late 1960s / early 1970s. Even the intrepid Hunter S Thomson, however, wrote him a letter warning him against staying with the Chicago Outlaws: “Dear Danny, I think you should get the hell out of that club unless it’s absolutely necessary for photo action”. Lyon’s belief that documentary photography was a powerful instrument of truth seems somewhat old-fashioned and romantic today (think Ruff’s conceptualizing of the “truth” of an image), however his non-conformist attitude produced gritty and intimate imagery, which inspired generations of younger photographers.

Far from outdated, I found these images highly relatable at what feels like a moment of intensified political and racial tension globally. Arrest of Taylor Washington, Lebs Restaurant, Atlanta, 1963 (image below) is a salient image of a violent police clash with a young black student, which could just as easily have been taken today. In his Bikers photographs, such as Memorial Day Run, 1966 (image below), we can connect with their sheer defiance and sense of freedom. 

It is definitely worth following with a visit to the Fotomuseum in Winterthur, to see Danny Lyon: Message to the Future (until 27th August), which has toured from the Whitney Museum of American Art (NYC) and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. 

Arrest of Taylor Washington, Lebs Restaurant, Atlanta, 1963 © Danny Lyon / Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery Zürich

Arrest of Taylor Washington, Lebs Restaurant, Atlanta, 1963
© Danny Lyon / Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery Zürich

Memorial Day Run, Milwaukee, 1966 © Danny Lyon / Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery Zürich Header Image: Thomas Ruff, press++21.04, 2016 © Thomas Ruff, Courtesy of Galerie Mai 36

Memorial Day Run, Milwaukee, 1966
© Danny Lyon / Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery Zürich


Header Image: Thomas Ruff, press++21.04, 2016
© Thomas Ruff, Courtesy of Galerie Mai 36