The Swiss Institute (SI) is my goldilocks of contemporary art museums — free, quick, and never too busy (especially for a museum in NYC). Tucked in a corner in the East Village, the museum has four floors of galleries with just enough art that you can spend time on each piece without feeling rushed or overloaded.
Two exhibitions are on view from September 9th: Tobias Spichtig’s “Good OK Great Fantastic Perfect Grand Thank You” and Rosemary Mayer’s “Ways of Attaching.” Outside the galleries, semi-permanent installations deck the walls, stairways, and the rooftop terrace, bringing art to every step you take.
Look for a swarm of palm-sized fruit flies on the walk up to the second floor, cast in resin and filled with bright beads. On a wall, ceramic peels curl around ceramic apples, so lifelike you could bite into them. Even the rooftop garden is an art piece; each aluminum cube is home to a plant that is extinct in the wild. Spiked Lotus berthelotii spill from the soil, Cosmos atrosanguineus bloom wine-red flowers, and Ginkgo biloba stretch against the NYC skyline.
Hungry for art but too busy to visit? Head to swissinstitute.net for the online exhibition, Sable Elyse Smith’s “FEAR TOUCH POLICE.” It is a three-part digital magazine with contributions from five artists — poems, stories, music, and video typed in white text over a dark clip of a burning car.
Another online feature is the “SI: Visions” video series. The 16 clips give a glimpse into how artists find inspiration as they lead viewers down rabbit holes of medieval manuscripts, Rubbermaid trash cans, improv exercises, and ecospheres. My favorite is “Ian Cheng on the Society of the Mind.” The video flashes between scenes from his work as Cheng unpacks how he “creates a mind” in his video simulations with each frame packed with details for you to pause and excavate.
Contemporary art can feel distant — what is that pile of forks and floss doing on the floor, and how is it supposed to make me feel? “Visions” make sense of the abstract fixations that artists imbue into tangible works. It snaps an X-ray of a piece so you can see the mosaic of media that influenced it and the ideas it stands on. The pile of forks and floss from Nancy Lupo’s “All, Always, Already” comes alive with the hours and energy she spent weaving them together.
To borrow a line from Joseph Giovannini’s New York Times review of the SI, these videos shift your perspective on contemporary art from “I could have done this” to “I actually could do this.” They hit you with a jolt of inspiration to lean into whatever theories fascinate you and maybe create something out of it.
If you visit the SI onsite, do not miss the Printed Matter bookstore by the entrance stocked with artists’ books and zines, self-published booklets. I spent as long browsing the floor-to-ceiling shelves as I did wandering through the galleries.
A parting tip: It goes against my instincts, but I try to discover a piece of art myself before I read its description or take a photo. Stare at it, get up close (or as close as you can without triggering the security alarm), notice whatever comes to mind, then see what the artist has to say, or snap a shot for Instagram.