Florian Graf - Oscillating in the World Fabric


Ever since it was so hot this past year, the beams of a mighty lighthouse have been straying over the international waters of Lake Constance. Instead of offering guidance, they cause confusion. It is, take it or leave it, the self-portrait of the young Swiss artist, Florian Graf, who studied architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich and has now committed himself unconditionally to the freedom of artistic processes. So instead of rooting around in routine, he has chosen to spend his time wandering in wonder.

“Ich Genie” “Ich bin gescheit” These two handwritten claims on the front and back end papers of Graf’s first publication catch us off guard. The work of Florian Graf – its obvious quality, referentiality and intelligence – is fascinating, but where does the artist’s inquiry into the relationship between human being and architecture end and where does the egocentrism that limits perception begin? Who is this dandy who claims he's a genius and clever, who draws attention to himself by being a variously bored, under challenged, superior or humorous inhabitant of his own work, for instance, as the real estate agent in Cumbernauld near Glasgow in 2009 or a Second World War soldier in 2007? It would do well to fold out the front and back cover flaps of the booklet published as part of the Pro Helvetia Cahiers d’Artistes series in 2011 – something practically no reader does. There you will find the rest of the two handwritten messages: “Ich genie/re mich” “Ich bin gescheit/ert”. Instead of “I genius” and “I am clever”, they now read “I am embarrassed” and “I have failed”. We might write this off as coy and superficial, as pretentious profundity; or we might suspend judgement for a moment and curiously investigate the ambivalence of being both attracted and repelled. In so doing, we discover that Graf skilfully and deliberately undermines the tendency of language to turn assumptions into facts: he breaks down the linearity of its claims into complexities and ambiguities that counteract the preconceptions that underlie our reading and seeing. Unmoored, he errs from place to place with no fixed abode, from studio grant to exhibition invitation, living where he is working and working where he is living. He may even take up residence in a church, as he did, for instance, in the Jura hills near Bern in 2011. There, in the church belonging to Bellelay Abbey, now converted into a psychiatric clinic, he settled down for all the world like St. Jerome in Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome in His Study. Or was his occupancy there actually more in the nature of a squatter? He lived in the choir and set up a studio in the nave, a geometrical structure of beams that destabilizes perspective while simultaneously supporting and destroying existing structures. The installation as a whole conjures Piranesi’s capriccios. Sterben/Streben (expiring/aspiring) is hand-painted in skewed mirror writing on the back of the headboard of the artist’s double bed. And the emergency exit is properly highlighted as well. The meaning of pictures and words oscillates between the poles of belief and doubt, life and death, normal and abnormal.

Parodying his, the artist’s, life   
Graf has a way of insinuating himself into new networks: a case in point, the Locarno Film Festival in 2012, where he presented his film trilogy in the exhibition venue la rada. In a parody on his own life, he plays Olf Graphenheim, a serious and ambitious artist. As a fellow in the tower of the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, his experiments with space, individual and society went awry. His architecture was obelisk and observatory, as well as a place on which to project anxieties and longings between loneliness and independence. At the same time he recurred to the myths associated with Lake Constance. The uncertainty of his existence drew renewed attention to the surface of the water, spawning myths that have inspired many another contemporary artist. However, in contrast to legends like that of Mocmoc in Romanshorn, Graf does not set traps that strike the weak spots of society but instead disrupts routine and produces images between certainty and loss of orientation: images that may certainly be read as metaphors of the world fabric, of financial crisis and the arenas of war. The clarity of the architecture and the confusion it causes – similarly featured in sound and image in the installation at the Zeppelin Museum – give Graf the license to speak about the flute playing competition between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas; Apollo defeats the satyr and skins him; it is the conquest of civilization over savagery. But this is not about conquests, it is about oscillating. Clarity proves to be an (optical) illusion. Graf is eternally crossing borders, the borders of countries and the borders of perception. In his own words, “I'm interested in the abstract, in the diversity of things conceivable, in the question of presence and absence – regardless of medium, whether sculpture, architecture, performance, or painting.” Echoes of Giorgio Morandi and de Chirico resonate here and so does the question of how moment and monument, finitude and infinity relate to each other. No wonder. After all, Graf’s father is a well-known musician and he first funnelled himself through the study of architecture at The Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). The Dionysian and the Apollonian mingle. “A lot of my interests converged in architecture. It mirrors social structures. But the freedom to cross borders is found only in art.”

Living in the Errory Tower
He invested the money received as the best ETH student of his year in his first art project. And in 2005 he won the competition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ETH along with Ivica Brnic and Wolfgang Rossbauer. Instead of erecting an ephemeral ivory tower in Zürich, they built a tangible and sturdy university in Afghanistan. With friends from Camenzind Magazine, Graf, the interdisciplinary cosmopolitan, launched a magazine on architecture, urbanism and culture in East Africa’s Dar es Salaam (www.anzastart.com). This is an artist who transcends trends and art-immanent discourse to embrace the situationist challenge of everyday life. During the summer weeks, Graf lived in the Errory Tower, inhabiting himself as it were, uniting sculpture and body. It was also possible to inhabit or at least walk around in the shell of the Waltzing Walls at Art Chicago in 2010: exhibition walls moving around as if steered by a ghostly hand or by a computer, and replete with pictures mounted on them. The nonchalance and ease that mark the appearance of these projects do not belie the struggle underlying their evolution. Rampant and wild, utterly indifferent to norm, the artist is as much the idiot in Dostoyevsky as he is Don Quixote. He is not good at being goal oriented. Now that the Errory Tower project has come to an end, he is looking forward to a drifting phase, gliding about in open spaces, meandering among associations – like the lighthouse on the lake. Stray, stroll and play! Ne travaillez jamais!

Ursula Badrutt, art historian, cultural director, canton of  St. Gallen, lives in Herisau.
Fokus Kunstbulletin 11 2012


Translation: Catherine Schelbert