In the Studio with Gina Fischli

Words by

Dessislava Pirinchieva

In the Studio with Gina Fischli

Hello Gina. I know you were born in Zürich. Are you there right now?

Yes, I was born in Zürich, but I moved away when I was nineteen. After high school, I moved abroad and then I was all over for thirteen years, and now I moved here a year and a half ago.

You started your studies by learning stage design in 2011 in Hamburg. And I would like to ask you how your studies in stage design have affected your artistic practises.

I think that also influences my work a lot. It is not something I actively think about, but when I look at the finished exhibition and talk about it, I can always really see it there. Because I often conceive of the exhibition as a whole. Most of the time I don´t  produce work and then later is an exhibition and I just put all the recent work in it, but I already have an idea of what the exhibition as a whole could be, and then I make the work, or I already have some of the pieces, and I make the other piece to make the experience of the exhibition. And I think what I really liked about stage design as well is that you direct people, you give the actors certain instructions on how to behave within the space, and obviously you give the audience a hint on how to feel about the space or about the situation. You could do very similar things in an exhibition as well. When you place a work, you can instruct the people on how to walk through the space and how to interact with the art, with themselves, or with other people. So I think that's something that I´m still very interested in intrigued by, whether you do it in theatre or in art.

What you are saying makes me think about your exhibition I Love Being Creative, which was your first institutional exhibition in the US and happened at the Swiss Institute in New York. There you projected a video piece and you sprayed around it, on its borders, curtains somehow as a frame, and you conceive the piece more like an installation, and as I know, I can relate this kind of installation to stage design and to creating a narrative because of the work.

Yes. It was the first time I´ve ever made a film as an art work. When I had the file, I knew that I wanted to stage it in some way because it is about performance; I wanted to give it a stage and also acknowledge that it does exist within a space. Everything always exists within a context, and I wanted to also address the context of the Swiss Institute and of it being a basement space as well. And I had the idea with the curtains when I was on a plane with my daughters, and when you sit in economy class, the stewardess is coming through the curtains from the first class to the back, and my younger daughter, who is three years old, said, "Oh, oh, there is going to be a show! It is going to be a show!" She thought that something was happening because someone was coming out of the curtains, and I thought that was so simple; you just need curtains, and then everything is a show, everything is a performance if you are coming out of the curtains, and it is so simple in a way.

And after your studies in Stage Design, you started Fine Arts as well in Hamburg. Which was the motif of making this decision and going for arts studies.

I did both. I started with Stage Design for one year, but I had already worked in stage design for a few years since I was a teenager and started to work in theatre. So when I initiated studying it, I realised that I kind of already knew the job because it is a very practical job, and if you are already doing it, you don´t really need to study it because it is teamwork; you have to do it with other people. If you are studying it and just doing hypothetical stages, that is not really the job. The job is working with the stage, with the director, and with the actresses, coming up with things together, and it really didn´t make sense for me to study stage design at some point I also found that in theatre, or at least in Germany at the time it was quite cerebral; everything was very intellectual, and it is all in the words, when I started to get more interested in things that may have more subtexts or music as well, in things that are not completely outspoken. And I wasn´t really convinced anymore at some point. Often in theatre, you think you have this cultural agency that you are making a play about the economic crisis, and then people watch it and then they understand and they are going to be less greedy or something, but that is never going to happen.

It is kind of pretentious, no?

A bit pretentious and a bit didactic, teaching people to be different. I started to be a bit annoyed by some of the attitudes. Of course, there are also super cool people doing super cool stuff, but I started to believe more for myself in the communication form of art. And I like that you have more freedom to do so. You don´t need to have a ticket sale. Even if no one cares about my art, I can go to the studio and make more art, whereas in theatre, I need to be employed by a theatre to make my art, and that makes you very dependent in a way.

Talking about the accessibility of art, my mind goes to your project at Cork Street in London where your made a project, called Ravenous and Predatory in 2021.I know that the project happened because of an interview you did with Hans Ulrich Obrist for his Catalogue project, and there you shared one of your unrealized projects that was about the placing of banners in the public space in London, banners you´ve already installed in The Royal Academy of Art. Please tell me more about the project and how it happened.

I was always interested in reaching a large audience as well as an audience that was not in the museum. This project was so special because I went to study at the Royal Academy Schools, in 2015-2018 and it is such a surreal place because it is  the oldest art school in England, and it is also the only one that is still for free. There is no other place in England where you can study art for free. And then you go there, and it is like Hogwarts is like from 1768; everything is still super old in the building (or at least the bits that Chipperfield didn’t destroy) ; you have these secret studios in the back of the museum; and you are in this Mayfair world of crazy expensive cars and Louis Vuitton and kind of a Disney idea of what England is or what London is, or like a Mary Poppins kind of fairytale world. It was super surreal or maybe super transparent for me to study art in this context, to go every day to Mayfair, and to spend all of my time in this world. And I really started to look at the area. I was very interested in what it looks like and how it functions, and then the Royal Academy was doing the two hundred fifty-year celebration, and because I always went to architecture talks that they were hosting, these people were asking me: "Do you want to do a public art project because we know the people from the Council?" and then I made the collage with my idea with the banners, but it never happened. I gave them the proposal, but I never really heard anything back. Years later, Hans Ulrich Obrist, during the pandemic, had this idea of doing a catalogue, which I think is a great idea where artists could talk about projects that had not materialized and so I gave them this collage, and then someone from Westminster Council saw the catalogue and they had money for public art because of COVID and they were very interested in doing things again outside so the people could engage with the city, and then them and Cork Street approached me. We got to do it.

It is great! You launched the project. I saw the installation of Sonia Boyce in 2022 during the Frieze week, and I was really touched by the intervention. Your protagonists for the project are a mouse, a bat, and a squirrel. Why is this obsession with animals, and please tell me more about it?

I don’t know! I love watching animals, depicting animals, and taking animal photographs. I think that is something you cannot really change as an artist. Some people always want to draw the human form, and they have a never-ending interest in it. What I like about this situation is that the banners in such a commercial context will always look a bit ambiguous. There are also flags from like Louis Vuitton. I think it is curious how animals are being used for advertising, especially because you try to emotionally blackmail people into thinking that what may be a very predatory company is actually really sweet. I wanted to also express this hunger that people are feeling when they are in the city centre, like Marais in Paris or Mayfair in London, and you can feel it in the air that people want to do shopping, and it becomes very tangible in these places, so the animals are reflecting that.

For instance, when I saw a piece by you for the first time in 2019 at FIAC, it was the big-size bag, and I remember that just entering from one of the sides of the Grand Palais, I found the work in front of me at the booth of the London-based gallery Soft Opening one of the galleries that is representing you, and it was the enormous faux fur bag surrounded by those seductively colourful cakes, much smaller than the bag. Tell me more about those works, please.

Actually I’m showing the hand bag now. Again!

Installation View, Pride and Prejudice at Karma International. Courtesy of the artist and Karma International.

Yes, fantastic, I know, at Karma International in Zurich.

… and I´m so happy that I can show it again because that is a work I really love. And again, it was just before the pandemic, and I had to put it away, so  I´m super happy that I get to whip it out again. This exhibition Pride and Prejudice talks a lot about surface, but also shopping.

Why is the exhibition titled Pride and Prejudice? And please tell me more about those fantastic animal sculptures that I think you started doing in the pandemic because you found yourself indoors surrounded by pillows and fabrics and you created the pieces. As well, in the exhibition you are showing your glitter glasses and fake Joseph Albert compositions.

Yes, the exhibition is called Pride and Prejudice because of the famous novel and it’s fitting topics which was set in England during the Victorian era. It is a time when people started to breed animals and make animal shows. Before, you would say, "This is a hunting dog or this is a lap dog," but there wasn´t yet that absurd idea of a race having a purebred terrier or purebred German Shepherd. And then in Victorian times, they started to get really obsessed with this idea of breeding, where you have to have the tail exactly at this angle or a specific nose, and then making these kinds of animal shows where you show your animals and then you get a prize, and I thought that that was very fitting to show also with these animal sculptures. And again, they became these animals from that time on, became a status symbol, and you don´t just have any dog; you have a poodle because the pooddle is going to represent something. The book itself talks lot about class and about marriage and choosing the right match, seeing through the surface of something there is a lot in there that I thought was very fitting to the work. both to the animal sculptures and to the handbag.

Albers (Greener), 2020, Glitter, glue, plywood, 53 x 53 x 4.5 cm / 20 7/8 x 20 7/8 x 1 3/4 in, FISGI52758

I see it as being very much related to your sense of humour because the animals are quite fragmented; they are not the kind of animals that would be winners at a beauty competition.

But they are trying. I think that they are trying, and I think that this is something that also reflects in these cake sculptures. That the cake is always an attempt to make something nice. It may not look nice in the end, but you just try, and you can see the effort, putting another ball on it, another heart, another piece of something, like you try so hard to make it presentable in a way.

The titles of the cake sculptures are names of real castles…

Yes, It was quite necessary to give them serious, real names. Often the castles have a semi-dark background. Almost all castles have a spooky story about someone being killed or ghosts. So I thought that it would be good to tie them to very real places. The castle presents this fairytale dream and fantasy, but actually it is a manifestation of very brutal power and of subjugation, and both of these aspects of the castle have to be within the sculpture somehow.

Installation View, Pride and Prejudice at Karma International. Courtesy of the artist and Karma International.

What are your current topics of obsession? What are you working on right now?

I´ve got to do a few more cake sculptures because I made them before the pandemic, and during the pandemic I had no studio. Now that I have the studio again and I can make sculpture.

I´m also thinking a lot about art in public places, and that is something that I guess I have the most urgency with because, for me, Ravenous and Predatory in that respect was one of the most important works, and I would really love to find more ways to engage with people outside of galleries and museums and think about what that could be public space is not clearly defined as to what is what. You can encounter anything on the street.

Do you have any specific ideas of a city or a place where you would like to see your work and make an intervention?

At the moment, I'm making sketches for fountains. There is a project for Paris + in October where they are doing the Tuileries sculptures garden, and I´m going to apply with a project for there because I would absolutely love showing in the Tuileries Garden.

Let´s end up with one more question. You´ve been showing with Chapter Gallery and 303 Gallery in New York, with Soft Opening in London, and now you have the exhibition with Karma International in Zürich, and I´m wondering how you think the perception of your work changes through the location. And how has your life abroad during those thirteen years not living in Zürich shaped your artistic practises?

Oh, that is a very complex question. For me personally, it is easier to be an outsider, and I really enjoy being an outsider in a city and looking from the inward from that viewpoint. I find that a very comfortable position, where as in your home town you can read all the codes. I guess that makes it more complicated being here, but it is only the beginning; I`ve only been here for a year and a half. So I don´t know yet what it might hold. It is definitely exciting showing here and it was very satisfying to introduce myself in this city with my work.

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Photos by Azuli Peeters