Wood panelled rooms with French windows, parquet flooring, linen duvets and night gowns embroidered with edelweiss. What is on display at Parasol unit are not the surfaces themselves but their skins, cast in latex by the Swiss artist Heidi Bucher whose importance has been increasingly recognised since a posthumous retrospective at the Migros Museum in Zurich (2004).
Born in Winterthur, Switzerland in 1926, Bucher’s most significant work from the 1970s onwards consists of strange castings whose presence as objects indicate their importance to their creator. Bucher often chose subjects to cast where form was secondary to the emotional resonance of the surface. She is said to have used the mantra ‘Raüme sind Hüllen, sind Häute’ (spaces are shells, are skins) and like human skin the history of the surfaces is evident in their outward appearance.
One of the largest pieces in the exhibition is ‘Kleines Glasportal Bellevue Kreuzlingen’ (1988), a cast of a three bay French window from Bellevue Sanatorium which was built in 1843. Hanging from the ceiling the skin is a witness to the doors’ existence where every grain of wood has been described by latex. Bucher made the sculpture when the building was over one hundred and forty years old and much of her skinnings are of objects that already seem out of time, that are almost ruins when compared to the industrialised architecture and objects that surround us now.
Bucher lived in the North America and particularly Los Angeles between 1969 and 1973 where she made friends with Ed Kienholz, whose ‘fondness for large freestanding tableaux evoking the underbelly of American life’ is well-described by the poet and critic John Yau in the catalogue. Kienholz’s earthy surrealism is surely closest in outlook to Bucher’s concern with her surroundings, both artists reconfigured objects and architecture, and in the process drew out the deeper cultural history held within their material existence. For Bucher, the underbelly is not so important as the unconscious. Works like ‘Bett (Bed)’ (1975), a wall piece with embroidered linen duvet and pillows, hint at the unknown personal significance of the cast subject. Equally, though the catalogue is quiet about any interest on Bucher’s part in the unconscious, it cannot be coincidence that she chose to make latex casts of the Bellevue Kreuzlingen, the institution where Sigmund Freud sent Anna O., his first psychoanalysed patient.
Looking at a work like ‘Fenster mit Läden und Schindeln (Window with Shutters and Shingles)’ (1988) or ‘Parkettstern (Parquet Star)’ (1991) it strikes you just how old-fashioned these works are. There seems to be a lack of concern with the status of the sculptural object that characterised so much of what her contemporaries the United States were doing. Instead, we are presented with an evocation of something often both old and beautiful that is matched aesthetically by the sculpture in front of us. Although arguably radical in her use of materials it is surely Bucher’s great achievement that she was able to memorialise historical objects and surfaces without the need to make them grand.