This is the story of a missing artwork.
Zürich 2020. A quiet year for the city, but behind a hoarding on the Hungerinsel, a triangle of pavement caught in the middle of Limmatquai beside Terrasse restaurant, building work was ongoing. Mid-December, all was revealed: the Sardonabrunnen (Sardona fountain) designed by Timon Reichle and Christian Aubry. It’s a pear-shaped basin that emerges straight out of the pavement, about 70 cm tall at its lower end. The surface is a grey terrazzo speckled with Sardona quartzite. Two golden spouts, one about three metres tall, the other at drinking height, spurt water into the basin.
It is a very attractive basin. It is rather similar to another one that is part of Romero Schaefle Partner Architekten’s 2017 redesign of the Münsterhof, about 500 metres away. I hope small children will not crack their heads on the beautiful stones. Nevertheless, it is a very attractive basin. But is that all there is?
The fountain celebrates 150 years of Wasserversorgung Zürich, the department that maintains the city’s supply of drinking water. It should rightly be celebrated – not just the water quality, but that it gurgles freely from more than 1,000 fountains with a generosity that is paralleled in few other cities. And the designs of these fountains chart political, social and aesthetic movements in the city, as Sophie Nys, for instance, captured in her photographic study of Alfred Aebersold’s Cold War-era autonomous water system fountains. Fountains are traditional social nexus, as the Liberation Bar project during Manifesta 11 in Zürich explored. They may be utilitarian in their design, or can be combined with public art commissions, like Michael Meier and Christoph Franz’s 2019 work for the University of Zürich’s Department of Banking and Finance. Might the city not have dared make a more expressive gesture on the Hungerinsel, or is this the gesture for our times?
Next to the new fountain is Terrasse restaurant’s (private) garden, with a cluster of painfully inoffensive bronze figures; Rolf Brem’s sunbathing figure found a deckchair but not a swimsuit. In the public arena, the zürich transit maritime project by Jan Morgenthaler, Barbara Roth, Martin Senn and Fariba Sepehrnia was located nearby. This ran in several guises from 2009-2015, and though it was received sniffly by many aesthetes, was highly popular judging by the crowds who came to see it. The city of Zürich has KiöR – an office for art in public spaces – which has, over the years, placed a Louise Bourgeois spider at Bürkliplatz and hung Denise Altermatt’s pink poodle on the Stadthaus just across the river. Bold public art statements are thus possible, at least temporary ones, particularly if co-funded by the private sector. (Recent reports suggest uncertainty as to whether the recently retired head of department, Christoph Doswald, will be replaced.)
Granted, it’s a tricky area; public sculpture commissioned with the best of intentions can turn out disastrously, take the recent example of Mary on the Green. Nevertheless, while Zürich has an abundance of public fountains, it has gaping holes too – women artists are woefully underrepresented in public spaces and collections, as @huldazwingli demonstrates. And if both female artists and clothed women are hard to find, you can bet emancipated non-white figures are too, despite the colonial resources that fuelled Swiss economic, social and academic development. In short, a new public art commission could begin to redress several imbalances.
This is not an appeal for more figurative art in public – I don’t know why the city’s parliament need devote resources to a figurative representation of Katharina von Zimmern when the Fraumünster’s last Abbess is already commemorated by Anna-Maria Bauer’s striking work on the very site. It’s an appeal for more ambition. New public art commissions will never please everyone. They may not please me. Yet commissioners should not be hobbled by the fear of causing offense, because our urban fabric is a page that can be written on. It can communicate complex ideas that transcend the limits of social media posts; it can accommodate more than the feelgood messaging you find on food wrappers. It can be the site for art and design that is ambiguous and challenging. The city is composed of strata, the deeds and misdeeds of planning, policy, belief and aspiration. Why must the uppermost layer be a sweet fondant icing that disguises the differences underneath? Courage, Stadt Zürich!
Sardonabrunnen, Limmatquai, 8001 Zürich
Images: Maurice C. Grünig, Aoife Rosenmeyer
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