Last week I went to Mudac, Lausanne’s Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts’ and was fortunate to share a lunch table with both the Museum’s director Chantal Prod’Hom and Yves Mirande, the organiser of one of their latest exhibitions, to discuss what art means.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the almost family atmosphere in the museum. The space has a very human scale. Like a spacious modern home in a historical building. And the friendly unpretentious staff made everyone feel very welcome and at home.
The gallery is a perfect size. Large enough to satisfy, without leaving you overwhelmed or with weary feet or grumbly children.
So what is art for?
One idea is that art is therapy. That it reflects the challenges of our times and helps to guide or somehow help us to better cope with some aspect of life that is beyond our control. It might provide something we lack, like a stronger connection with what it means to be a human. An antidote to the unrelenting changes and dislocation brought about by technology for example?
Our archaic future
This is what Mudac’s current exhibition Futur archaïque aims to do. It exposes some very contemporary concerns. There is a widely shared idea that the pace of technological development is accelerating, and that its impact is being imposed on us in our personal, professional and social lives. Technological progress can be seen as invasive, creating anxiety. There is an emerging sense of its threat, a fear that artificial intelligence could take control, or even that we, as a world, are losing our bearings.
The exhibition’s curator Yves Mirande, is a sociologist by training and this comes through in the collection. It’s clear that he understands the human condition.
The artists represented favour organic or raw materials, and forms that flirt with our human fascination with the archaic or primitive. Far from beating a reactionary retreat, they have chosen to connect with the latest technology. They use primitive materials such as animal fleeces, volcanic lava, petrified ceramics, flint, skulls and bones, seeds, natural pigments, carbonised wood, bladders and stomachs, but bring them together with recent technology.
Freitag ad absurdum
On the lower level is an exhibition put together by two pairs of brothers: the well-known Freitag brothers, known for their world-famous bags made from old truck covers, and the Riklin twins known for art that can be used by the public, such as the world’s first chain of zero-starred bunker hotels with the slogan “Null Stern, the only star is you”.
At the opening the four lads, all originally from Zurich, who I later interviewed in English, explained their exhibition in German, while it was translated into French for the audience. It was one of those only-in-Switzerland moments that never fail to fascinate. No one from Switzerland even batted an eyelid of course!
This exhibition is an experiment in how humans connect to things and other people. It asks questions about ownership. What does it mean to own something? Why own things?
In the first of two rooms, old Freitag bags are laid out in a row on the floor for anyone to borrow. They come with a borrower’s rule book and a pencil. They all have a history and a future and you can borrow one and become part of that bag’s future.
Part of the experiment required the four to convince members of the public to give their Freitag bags back. Bags were sent in from faraway places like Japan. Some of these bags are now on display while others have been turned back into a truck cover.
Nothing was given to the bag owners in exchange – the artists were insistent on this point. And now, no one actually owns them. They were given by their original owners and are in a sort of ownership limbo. I asked Patrik Riklin why he thought people gave up their bags. He thinks it’s so they could be part of a collective story. Something bigger. He was visibly excited by the idea that the bag owners had exchanged a material thing, the bag, for something intangible: being part of a collective human project, giving their bag a new collective life.
A recycling theme runs through the work too. Grubby old truck covers were washed and turned into bags. Then those bags were turned back into truck covers. A full cycle.
Two very thought provoking exhibitions.
Both run from 28 October to 28 February 2016.
Mudac in just below Lausanne Cathedral. Practical information on access and admission can be found here.