It’s easy to fall in love with Anton Bruhin – clever jokes, goofy tallness, liberal beer belly and heavy mountaineering boots – and even more so when he fishes his trümpi, or Jew’s harp, out of a kitchen Tupperware and starts playing it as if it was a synthesiser or a shamanic didgeridoo, as he did twice during this show’s run. In Italian, the instrument is called a scacciapensieri (‘dispeller of worries’), a perfect word to describe what Bruhin can do with it, stretching from folk to trance music and Neue Musik. It takes him little to work technical wonders: the resonator for his electrified instrument is a plastic tube filled with water. Bruhin enjoys turning everyday objects into DIY musical devices, as he’s been doing for five decades. To play, by all meanings, is key for him. The outcome is conceptually rigorous and refreshingly ludic.
Born in 1949 in Lachen, an artist’s artist and underground hero of the Zürich avant-garde scene (where he befriended David Weiss, to whom is dedicated the silkscreen series Hice for Weiss, 2012, on show here), Bruhin started his career in the 1960s by creating happenings and performances, self-publishing books and experimenting with concrete poetry and sound. With a hundred works, mostly drawings, paintings and mosaics, ranging from 1975 to the present, the exhibition is a retrospective, but avoids all didacticism. It’s cleverly installed along the walls: many series are grouped in swarms, in regular grids or irregular flocks, with a few pieces ‘flying’ well above the regular line of vision, up to a few inches below the high ceiling of the main room, as if by consequence of their natural levity. Chirps and tweets fill the space: the small backroom hosts a selection of sound poems and records, like the mesmerising cycle of bird songs Vogelsang/Vogelsong/Vogelsung/Vögelsäng (1977), now reissued by Alga Marghen. The overall effect is that of an amused study in combinatory logics, a personal grammar made of recursive signs (palindromes abound, for instance) and universal icons (clowns, ice creams, letters, buildings), where the human hand and wit rule over the technically reproduced.
The display is divided into two opposing thematic areas, at whose point of intersection stands the acrylic Selbstportrait mit Mickey (Self-portrait with Mickey, 1984), where the ‘Mickey’ in question is an older painting on stretched canvas hanging nearby, shaped like a mouse head: Suprematistischer Mickey (Suprematist Mickey, 1980), a deadpan black-and-white combination of two icons of the Cold War, the US’s Mickey Mouse and, from the USSR, Malevich’s Black Square paintings (1915–), both figurative and abstract, Pop and modernist. On one hand, the exhibition celebrates Bruhin’s love for painting en plein air, with luminous colours and traditional brush-work, as a revolt against the Duchampian idea of the death of art, although the subjects of his impressionist landscapes are ordinary buildings covered in scaffoldings and unpicturesque urban scenes (Panorama Letzigrund, 2012; Gasthaus Banhof Schübelbach, 1989). On the other hand, it reveals all his passion for geometry, serialisation, repetition and graphic modulation. For his latest mosaics, for instance, he uses black and white flat Lego blocks – the quintessential ‘pixel’ and toy – to mimic computer-generated imagery.
For Bruhin, he’s said, such work points back to a thousand-year history of digitalisation, taking in folk textiles and Mesoamerican carvings, and devolving into the binary, yes/no logic of punch cards and coding. Again, it doesn’t take much to think and practice out of the box.
23 October – 12 December 2015, Istituto Svizzero, Milan
This article was first published in the January & February 2016 issue of ArtReview.