Basel from an Artist’s Perspective: an Interview with Johannes Willi

by Claudia Malfitano
May 20, 2019
Claudia Malfitano
Willi Johannes

Claudia Malfitano: You studied and took part in the local art scene both in Switzerland and Colombia. What aspects of each country are still present in your practice and where did you find the most creative humus?

Johannes Willi: Humus for my work is fortunately everywhere. Depending on the place of course in other compositions, sometimes with more minerals, sometimes with extra many worms sometimes completely dry and then again lush and lascivious. In this sense, I would say that both the humus in Colombia and the Swiss humus offered my art the best possible conditions. To see, feel, understand and then to forget; during the Art Basel at the Swiss Art Awards in hall 3.

C.M.: How would you describe your practice? What do you wish to achieve through your art?

J.W.: Over the last few years I have been building a body of work, whilst diverse and far-reaching in its subject matter, remains coherent and entirely my own. Through various subjects, from Beethoven’s most celebrated composition, his “5th Symphony”; to one of Werner Herzog’s lesser known films, “Happy People”; the nineties’ blockbuster: “Free Willy”; or the work that focuses on the notion of the Antropocene where I worked together with a Clique (die Unbaggene) of the famous Basler Fasnacht; my work explores hidden histories, formal affinities, and secret connections between events. Through my work, I hope to get embroiled with people to make them feel connected. Not only with my art, but also with myself and all the other fantastic species out there. I would not call myself a research- based artist, but someone whose efforts studying, finding, or researching is just as important as the final form. For me, the visual, material qualities of the project outcome, is very much where the artwork lies. My practice is intuitive, and adapts to each project I work on: having worked with performance, installation, sculpture, live events, and the printed page. I try to define the physical manifestation of my ideas anew each time; finding the media that will best respond to the subject matter.

C.M.: It seems to me that collaboration played an important part in your past creations. Do you plan to expand this format in your future exhibitions?

J.W.: You might think that collaboration plays a very important role in my work, but for me it’s much more about getting embroiled with my environment. This can happen in terms of content, craftsmanship, erotic, threatening, loving but always at eye level. I believe that a contemporary discourse is of the utmost importance and that art makes available to you the most diverse languages with which you can claim the unsaid, the unthought, the untaught, the impudent, the impossible and the unexpected carved in stone. This will also be seen in my works and exhibitions in the future.

C.M.: What is your relationship with Basel like? You are the co- founder of Hinterhof Offspace in Basel and I Never Read Art Book Fair: what is your perspective on the city’s art scene?

J.W.: The two projects are very different, but of course both have great significance for me as an artist in Basel. The Off- space which I programmed during two years with Thomas Keller and then also with Eveline Wüthrich was the perfect introduction for me. Working for the Künstlerraum allowed me to make the necessary contacts and also to concretise my own vision of my art during my studies. The project lasted two years and was also the place where I Never Read, Art Book Fair Basel was born. As we all know, the fair is already in its eighth year and the art week can no longer be imagined without it as an independent and visionary platform during Art Basel.
As an art city, Basel not only has a lot of money to afford incredible collections, but also enables young artists to manifest a place where they can create their own works. What lacks is often the connection of both worlds.

C.M.: My Art Guides likes to recommend to its readers unique places to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected to contemporary art. In your opinion, what are the absolutely unmissable places, landmarks and spots in Basel? Could you recommend something that shouldn’t be missed during Art Week?

J.W.: Of course, I have some insider tips you shouldn’t miss. A place of peace can be found for example in the fantastic Kunsthalle. This is not in Dora Budors or Geumhyung Jeong’s exhibitions, but in the reading room of the library which is located at the height of the skylight of the halls and can only be reached by a small stairway. Since I like such places, I want to draw your attention to the viewing platforms on the two cathedral towers. After climbing the stairs, one has the best view of the city and you will probably be able to see one or the other work of the Art Parcours from a bird’s eye view. Then it is also an absolute must, and a wonderful acoustic phenomenon, to listen to the “wild” animals in the zoo that are being fed – lions, or are flirting – storks a lot more to be discovered during an evening walk through the Bachlette and Gundeldinger quarters. And then as last and most important to do, a visit to the I Never Read, Art Book Fair Basel at Kaserne Basel where you can find next to fantastic publications, wonderful people, music, drinks and a basketball tournament, a laid back atmosphere to enjoy. And if you are still hungry by then, just walk over to Artemis Fontana’s Artist-run restaurant, open 11–15 June 2019, from noon till midnight at Grand Café Basel, in Clarastrasse 2. Enjoy!

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