Human imagination and skill are essential elements in making art. Whenever one encounters an art installation, skilled craftsmanship, understanding of materials and awareness of structural engineering are required to have its aesthetics.
Whenever I see enormous artworks, I wonder how and where they had been produced to such exacting and polished standards. Artworks like Sir Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Chicago’s Millennium Park were all ‘fabricated’ at specialist producers that artists are increasingly reliant upon for their most ambitious projects. Another example is Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s Venice Biennale project at Arsenale. His large wax candle sculptures were scaled copies of figures which slowly melt away over the six-month-long biennale. Subodh Gupta’s Carrara marble works or giant metal banyan tree—outdoor installation at National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi—were produced with the precision and attention to detail normally reserved for architecture and high specification engineered products.
A few years ago I heard about a place called Sittertal, St Gallen, in rural Switzerland. Two of my colleagues from the Kochi Biennale Foundation—Riyas Komu and Shwetal Patel—visited the place and told me about a secluded foundry and its amazing production centre for contemporary art works.
As I was attending the annual Art Basel fair this summer, I wrote to Marianne Burki, head of visual arts in the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, to arrange a guided tour and appointment with Felix Lehner, the founder and director of the art foundry Kunstgiesserei St Gallen.
Along with Richa Agarwal, an art connoisseur and a patron of Kochi Biennale Foundation, I set out to see the production facilities. Richa will be opening her new gallery space and 60,000 square-foot cultural centre in Kolkata this September.
There are two institutions on site. The art foundry, Kunstgiesserei St Gallen, and Foundation Sitterwerk—a nonprofit institution with an exhibition space, a library, a material archive and two guest studios. At Sitterwerk, we were received by Roland Früh, librarian at Sitterwerk Art Library. He accompanied us on a guided walk through the institutions of Sitterwerk and Kunstgiesserei St Gallen, recalling its history and anecdotes along the way. About three decades ago Felix met with artist Hans Josephsohn, and being a passionate craftsman Felix started producing sculptures for him and others. In 2006, Felix founded the Sitterwerk Foundation with Hans Jorg Schmid, owner of the area, and Daniel Rohner, book collector. The art foundry is located on the grounds of a former textile dyeing factory. The library at Sitterwerk has over 25,000 volumes on art architecture and design, all meticulously archived. The material archive has an incredible collection of materials and mediums, and processes of every kind imaginable. The foundation includes two residency art studios, a gallery space called Kesselhaus Josephsohn—an exhibition and storage space for the works of Hans Josephsohn, and a collection of casted artworks, moulds, catalogues and other materials.
While walking through the Kunstgiesserei, one could see miniature models to massive sculpture-making foundries, ceramic studios, 3D printers, graphic studios, wax mounding to all kinds of steel, aluminium, copper and metal processing facilities.
We were able to see the making process for Subodh Gupta, Urs Fischer, and many other eminent works at the factory. Approximately 50 craftsmen, artist-assistants and fabricators were working towards what the artists envisioned. It was great to join with Felix, Roland and others at communal kitchen to have lunch together, and I was touched to see Felix queue up with other staff for food.
As we departed for Art Basel, Felix said: “We hope to see you at Art Basel tonight. Also, look out for some fresh works from the Kunstgiesserei at the gallery booths.”