The hills of Somerset are alive for the rest of this year with the sights and sounds of Hauser & Wirth’s latest exhibition – an expansive and playful celebration of the gallery’s Swiss heritage. But its subversive approach to design and presentation is an attraction in itself
Photography courtesy of © Archiv Franz West © Estate Franz West, featuring Franz West, Etude de Couleur, 1991 Copper pipe, brass, lead, water hose, polyester, Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Words by Joe Lloyd
Gruppenausstellung is not a name that gives much away. German for ‘group exhibition’, the title for Hauser & Wirth Somerset’s present show tells us very little about the art contained within. And yet it raises a couple of questions. Why does it have a German name, despite being couched in a farmstead in the Somerset hills? And why is its name so plain?
The answer to the first is clear as soon as you visit. Hauser & Wirth, now one of the most prominent private art galleries, was established in Zürich in 1992. Gruppenausstellung, which runs until 1 January 2024, celebrates this Swiss heritage. As the gallery’s global creative director and exhibition curator, Neil Wenman, says: ‘The show is based on a loose, playful theme, a kind of satire of what people think is the heritage of Hauser & Wirth as a Swiss gallery in the English countryside.’ It features several Swiss artists, some of whom have worked with the gallery from the off.
The gallery has been speckled with references to that country’s Alpine aesthetics, with red and white gingham textiles, fur blankets, mustard bottles and sausage motifs. The restaurant is selling St Gallen sausages and 1936 Bière. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Hauser & Wirth Somerset, and Gruppenausstellung is a pre-celebration of the Swiss gallery’s presence in the area.
Photography courtesy of © Allison Katz, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, featuring GRUPPENAUSSTELLUNG (Sausages), 2023, Poster
The answer to the second question is a little more ambiguous. But one answer is that it draws attention to the matter of the exhibition itself, rather than any particular formal or thematic concerns. This matter is subtly interesting. Gruppenausstellung subverts some of the norms of exhibition design.
It has a looseness, spilling outside the galleries and into Hauser & Wirth’s gardens and outbuildings. Franz West’s Étude de couleur (1991), a block-coloured walkway that leads to a public urinal, rests on the lawn opposite the main entrance. ‘Going outside was a way to rethink what a typical exhibition can be,’ explains Wenman, ‘to be a total takeover of the site.’
Works by Martin Creed and Mika Rottenberg stand in the foyer; the latter, recently artist-in-residence at the farm, has added two sculptures to the show since it began. And indeed Gruppenausstellung, as its subtitle ‘an exhibition in three acts’ suggests, does not aim to be a static showcase but one whose exhibitions shift over time. Wenman says: ‘As the show was set for a seven-month run, I knew it needed to evolve and to interact with the visitor in different ways – it makes a place for play and to allow it to be, without justification.’
Photography by Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich, courtesy The Estate of Jason Rhoades, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner, © The Estate of Jason Rhoades, featuring Jason Rhoades Shelf (Mutton Chops) with Unpainted Donkey
The farm’s former threshing barn has been stuffed with dozens of works by artists from the gallery’s stable. Tables are piled up with monographs and surrounded by chairs, encouraging visitors to linger rather than simply passing through. Drawings and paintings are hung as if in the sitting room of an eccentric collector. The artworks feel part of a larger arrangement. ‘The idea,’ says Wenman, ‘was a cacophony of light and form, where painting and neon and underpants collide and question.’
Some take the form of design objects. There are block shapes by the American painter Mary Heilmann and a chandelier made from underpants by the Swiss experimental artist Pipilotti Rist. Jason Rhoades’ Shelf (Mutton Chops) with Unpainted Donkey (2003) features three wheeled shelving units holding neon lights, tied to the white sculpture of a donkey.
Wenman also gives special attention to a medium that lies at the interchange of art and graphic design: the poster. Some regarded the rise of the poster form in the 19th century as a challenge to traditional artworks. John Ruskin said: ‘Giotto’s time is past, but the bill poster succeeds.’ Modernists such as the Russian constructivists sought to appropriate the techniques of poster- making. Yet, despite this, posters are often consigned to applied art collections, seen as design artefacts rather than artworks themselves.
Photography courtesy of © Archiv Franz West © Estate Franz West, Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, featuring Franz West, Etude de Couleur, 1991
In Somerset, Wenman has covered internal walls in posters from previous Hauser & Wirth exhibitions, to evoke the aesthetic of the Mitteleuropean Kunsthalle: institutions that often aim to bring new and challenging works to a wide audience. Outside, the wall of the farm shop has been fly-postered with imaginative, riotous posters for Gruppenausstellung by the Canadian artist Allison Katz, a recent artist- in-residence. This wall is exposed to the elements. As the summer turns to autumn, the posters will begin to dampen, loosen and peel off the walls, to be replaced.
Katz’s practice often looks at the connections between art history and commodity culture, as well as the way art is framed and viewed. The poster form allows her to explore these ideas. Some feature artworks by participants in the exhibition; others play on the Swiss theme, with letters made from sausages and timber-framed houses.
Another picks out artists in the show as stars surrounding the constellation Ursa Major, a reference to gallery co-founder Ursula Hauser. While exhibition posters tend to home in on a single work, serving as a sort of preview and a memento of the show they advertise, Katz’s embody the frolicsome tone of the exhibition. They stand as both artworks and design objects, drawing two fields together.