Exhibition view: Group Exhibition, MELENCOLIA, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich (11 November 2023–24 February 2024). Courtesy the artists and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich / Vienna.
The exhibition shares its title with the first major group show Eva Presenhuber curated in 1988 at Galerie Grita Insam in Vienna, which was titled after Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I (1514). In it, melancholy is personified as a winged figure, seated on a stone bench, head resting on their hand and staring into the horizon.
Often interpreted as a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer, Melancholy appears more distressed than inspired by the surrounding tools and instruments—an hourglass, scales, a hammer—that promise more precise, rationalist interpretations of the world.
Since this first exhibition, Presenhuber has undertaken diverse endeavours from directing Zurich-based non-profit Galerie Walcheturm to partnering with Hauser & Wirth. She opened her own gallery in Zurich in 2003, which has propelled a good number of Swiss and international artists onto the global art circuit.
These include Ugo Rondinone, whose work was shown in the 1988 Melencolia exhibition and is now presented in Zurich. MELENCOLIA also features works by both gallery artists and others, including Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Louisa Gagliardi, and Valentin Carron.
Among those familiar with the gallerist's work is Zurich-based artist and curator Mitchell Anderson, who founded the project space Plymouth Rock in 2014 to 'show artists who weren't getting the attention they deserved' in Zurich. In this conversation, Anderson shares his thoughts on the significance of hosting such an exhibition now, the relationship between art and melancholy, and the Swiss city's ever-evolving art scene.
EZThe exhibition appears to be a return to origins. What in your opinion is the importance of staging such an exhibition now?
MAThe crazy balancing act of looking forward while pondering the past, in ways broad and personal, should usually be a universal aim. Returning to things keeps us tethered and sometimes tied down. This exhibition, and in many ways Eva's programme, is aware of the past while being built from the new. It doesn't stagnate in memories or discount them as old and useless. That seems reflective of Eva and her decades-long support of art and artists.
EZHave you had the chance to see the works in person? What were your initial thoughts as a curator? And as an artist?
MAI like any show with a lot of art without a heavy-handed theme. There's no need to try to contain art and artists into illustrating some concept—artists reflect the world, and they'll do all the work regarding content if you let them. Here, there's a lot to explore and I had a lot of new AND good things to see in person. These are valuable offerings for anyone—artist, curator, or public—and it's especially important for somewhere like Zurich.
EZIt's been said that artists tend to have a melancholic disposition. Your own work deals with how meaning can change with time as symbols are reappropriated into different contexts. What does melancholia evoke for you?
MALucidity. Being forced to be alive without an invitation creates universal experiences miserable and amazing. Looking at the world with that outlook can be crushing and also allow a transcendent awe.
EZYou set up the more casual Plymouth Rock project space in Zurich in 2014 to support the kind of work you believed was absent from local cultural spaces. What did that look like back then? What would you like to see more of in 2024?
MAIt's been ten years since I started it, back then I was looking for opportunities to show artists who weren't getting the attention they deserved. Louisa Gagliardi, who is in this exhibition was one of them. The reason I keep running Plymie, other than some undiagnosed mental illness, is that there is constantly art and artists not getting the attention they deserve.
Other than that, for 2024 I'd love to see a broader part of the public stop seeing things in stark black and white and accept the central aspect of grey morals in being alive within a society.
EZA good number of artists have been selected for this exhibition. Are there particular works that stand out to you? Why?
MAWell, I'm partial, but Louisa Gagliardi's diptych Rendezvous (2023) belongs in a museum. She's managed to walk a tightrope between many references in these works without sacrificing the painterly. The digital, cinematic, literary, and art historical all swirl in an unsettling storm.
Valentin Carron's new sculptures continue to impress. He's having a kind of mid-career renaissance that maintains the vernacular references of his earlier work with the deeply heartfelt—something not easily captured in the plastic arts. There's also a Jonathan Lyndon Chase painting [Center City Sunset (2023)] that has a kind of ambiguous eroticism I'm attracted to.
EZMelancholia is often described as a longing for the past. Your work has appropriated historic symbols and imagery, such as war-time propaganda posters, or age-old motifs like the rose. Do you identify with the melancholic temperament of Dürer's sitter? What do you think is the role of the past in shaping the present or future?
MAI've always seen a kind of Faustian depression in that print. Yet, knowledge is sour. The 'past is prologue' of Shakespeare's Antonio is both cliché and absolute truth. Everyone wants to think they live in the most important moment of human history, but all the horrors and radical change that surround us have usually surrounded our species. That makes sifting through it all my artistic practice and passion, and I'm alone again in rainy Zurich during the holidays, so yes, I'm melancholic. —[O]