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The Zürich That Would Captivate John Waters

John Waters shot to fame by directing outlandish, low-budget movies such as Pink Flamingos (1972) which glorify violence, sexual perversion and bad taste. He uses provocation as a weapon targeting the good-mannered hypocrisy, iron-fisted morals and religious values of the American way of life. However, few realise that the American dandy with a pencil moustache has also designed large-format collages and photomontages. He has chosen 40 of these pieces – including storyboards from his movies – for the exhibition, How Much Can You Take?, which runs until 1 November at the acclaimed Kunsthaus Zürich, coinciding with the murals by Joan Miró on display there until the end of January.

Paradoxically, the multifaceted filmmaker has other traits in common with Zürich, such as class, a sense of order and extreme cleanliness. Deep down, Waters also has a tenderness and fetishism that suggests he would delight in the bric-a-brac on sale in downtown Teddy’s Souvenir Shop, offering the music boxes, Swiss army knives, cowbells and cuckoo clocks so typical of Switzerland’s bucolic image. That same cliché embodied by Heidi, the children’s character created by the writer, Johanna Spyri who, like the poet, Gottfried Keller, is buried in the leafy park of Sihlfeld Cemetery, the first in Europe to incorporate a crematory. Waters would surely relish a visit there, both for his fascination for the macabre and his professed love of literature, which of late he is more engaged in than cinema. Hence, we might also recommend he visit Fluntern Cemetery, site of the beautiful tomb of James Joyce, who in Zürich gave himself over to a licentious alcoholism while writing much of Ulysses, a diatribe against Church and State. Another writer who also passed away in this city was the German author of The Magic Mountain, immortalised in the Thomas Mann Archives, a small museum housed in the ETH Zürich. This State university has also been graced by no fewer than twenty Nobel prizewinners, notably the scientist Albert Einstein, as much a rebel against conventional mores as Waters. Located in the same university is the spectacular Law Faculty Library, designed by the architect, Santiago Calatrava. However, the maker of morbid films would probably prefer to read in the old abbey housing the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, the city’s main library.

The filmmaker’s more iconoclastic side would relish the recollection that Zürich was the cradle of Dadaism, the anarchic “anti-art” so critical of middle-class society in World War I. That was when the artistic couple, Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball, founded the celebrated Cabaret Voltaire in Niederdorf’s Old Town. Together with Tristan Tzara, the locale broke with all established canons. The building gradually became derelict until it was occupied in 2001 by a group of artivists and used to stage neo-Dadaist-style performances before vast crowds of Zurichers. After their eviction, the City Council overturned its original plan to demolish the building, which was then refurbished as an alternative cultural centre. Also located in the Old Town is the unusual Musée Visionnaire, where visitors choose what they want to see – and are encouraged to critique it – from a catalogue of Art Brut, a movement also known as Outsider Art – the work of amateurs, the mentally disabled and any creator alien to institutions and the boundaries set by official culture. In short, characters who would not be out of place among the Dreamlanders, counter-culture misfits and such regular collaborators of Waters as Mink Stole or Divine.

The young Waters who was so enthralled by gruesome accidents and bloodthirsty tales would also take a fancy to the Moulangenmuseum, a museum featuring wax representations of body parts twisted by disfiguring diseases, including exhibits in the University Hospital’s medical teaching collection dating from 1917. And, lured by the repulsive, he might also look up the dark oeuvre, biomechanical aesthetic and highly charged erotic sense of another illustrious native of Zürich who designed the visual effects for the movie, Alien – the recently deceased H.R. Giger. Although fans of the illustrator and sculptor have to choose between a visit to his comprehensive museum in the walled town of Gruyères (nearly two hours south of Zürich), and the stunning Giger Bar in his native Chur (about an hour’s drive from Zürich), situated, strangely enough, in the same land that inspired the pastoral Heidi.

To wind up this walk on the dark side, nothing better than supper at Blindekuh Zurich, the world’s first restaurant where diners eat in the pitch black. Fortunately, Waters is not the chef, so you needn’t worry about being served what Divine ate in Pink Flamingos. I assume you get my drift but, just to make sure, before you take the plunge you should go to a quality chocolaterie like Sprüngli.

In any event, remember that the Waters exhibition only lasts for a few more weeks, so get your tickets here!


Text by Carlos G. Vela para ISABELYLUIS Comunicación

Images by David Shankbone, Roland zh, Juerg Peter Hug, Absinthe, Edsel Little

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