Musée d’Art d’Histoire, Geneva

Walk On The Water

curated by Jakob Lena Knebl

Words by Riccardo Conti

With the recent nomination of Marc-Olivier Wahler as director of the Musee d’Art d’Histoire in Geneva, Switzerland, the historic museum has become increasingly involved in the global movement that has seen museums and institutions engage in a radical reflection on the role of exhibition spaces in the first two decades of the 21st century. This task involves asking crucial questions ranging from post-colonial heritage to the predominantly male points of view that have driven such spaces in previous centuries.

Wahler has rolled out a series of invitations to artists and other personalities, offering them ‘carte blanche’ to rethink and interpret the vast permanent collection of the museum by proposing new exhibition experiences. The idea for the first exhibition in this series was born from this approach, with the invitation of Austrian artist and designer Jakob Lena Knebl to reformulate a path within the MAH. Entitled ‘Marcher sur l’Eau’ or ‘Walk on the Water’, Knebl’s intervention perfectly summarizes her eccentric and paradoxical spirit, in a dual homage stemming from Knebl’s contemplation of the side panel of an altarpiece by the German painter Konrad Witz (held in the MAH collection) that represents Christ walking on water in the port of Geneva, and the song ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple – inspired by the 1971 concert fire of the Montreux Casino.

These symbolic references synthesize Jakob Lena Knebl’s visionary approach to artistic research, rejecting the hierarchical classification of art and its derivatives, such as design and fashion. The artist, born in 1970 in Baden, is set to represent Austria together with Ashley Hans Scheirl at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Knebl’s artistic parcours is an unconventional one; the artist spent years working in a geriatric ward, before training as a fashion designer at the Vienna University of Applied Arts under the guidance of Raf Simons and sculptor Heimo Zobernig. It is in those years that Knebl redefined her identity (her name combines the first and surnames of her maternal grandparents, ironically reaffirming a multiple identity that oscillates between the masculine and feminine) becoming one with her artistic practice that incorporates sculpture, performance, and installations to propose an active and critical reading of artistic, social and sexual models that describe our contemporaneity and the historical structures that preceded it.

For Walk on the Water, Knebl has applied the same approach as in recent shows at MUMOK in Vienna and the Lentos Museum in Linz, allowing a totally freeform visual conversation to emerge through vastly different objects from the museum’s collection, from archeological finds to early 20th century artefacts that span millennia and create surprising environments that revolutionise the very concept of a museum. “By creating hybrid locations and using humour as a tactic, I want to change our expectations, our viewing habits and the canon of how work is presented in a museum collection,” says Knebl.

In this veritable theater of historical possibilities, paintings, textile works, photographs, utensils, audio and video works alternate with the aim of sabotaging the conventional rules of museum displays, undermining the hierarchies of art and design, and of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. In addition to the individual works of the collection – pieces seen for the first time not as distant objects, protected as historical relics, but as real protagonists in an overall choreography – what radically transforms the space is Knebl’s overall design intervention, interiors that invites the viewer to approach the works in a new way, becoming a fundamental part of the experience of looking. Placed around the displays, memory foam sofas and other seating – furniture rarely associated with the great halls of history museums – invites museumgoers to interact with the space in comfort, on pink velvet around the imposing silhouette of Henri Laurens’ Océanide, for example. Reimagining the traditional gallery of nude sculptures from the world of the beaux arts, Knebl contemplates the female figure in new contexts, less sacred and aesthetic as they may be domestic and hygienic. To wit, various sculptures are housed in shower cubicles, decorated with related works and vintage graphics that refer to the world of hygiene. In this contex, Canova’s Venus and Henri Desmond’s Le Ballester take on a new and unsettling role that subverts the spectator’s typical expectations.

Océanide by Henri Laurens, 1932-33

Jakob Lena Knebl enjoys blurring the boundaries between genres and media, mixing pop culture, design or even fashion with the great history of art – disrupting our perception of the world and our definition of art. In this sense, Walk On The Water is first of all an invitation to challenge the ‘rules’ of the museum, and an invitation to rethink the classifications, genres and hierarchical logics that accompany Western models of culture and identity.

As such it is no coincidence that one of the transversal themes that can be perceived throughout the show’s various installations is the role of the female body as a mystical and rebellious element, one that has been subjected to a patriarchal reading and represented as a mere aesthetic object of desire for centuries. The artist considers all these previous states of representation but reflects on them in ironic juxtapositions invested with a new power: from antiquity to the works of Symbolism, Knebl suggests the woman’s body as that of a heroine endowed with occult superpowers, but also of a technological knowledge that has been able to define and invent the domestic space in its most advanced and modern formulation. After all, it was two women, Josephine Cochrane and Margaret Colvin, who invented the dishwasher and the washing machine respectively…

Furthermore, the artist dedicates a room to the kitchen, putting together pieces from various eras that lead us to consider the evolution of our food culture and our lifestyle, from a more rural to an urbanized dimension. In this regard, it is interesting to note that one of the nerve centers of the exhibition is a sort of temporary store, which perfectly embodies this extremely hybrid moment in history where various contemporary needs unite. “Body, desire and staging form a unit. fashion comes into play,” warned the artist. The language of fashion that Knebl knows perfectly plays an important role here in the curious ‘pop-up’ store she has imagined. “At the back of the shop you can see further portraits of men and women from different eras that reveal the fashion of the time. A running sushi conveyor belt presenting shoes from the MAH collection is dedicated to the flâneur, that figure from early urban modernity who moved through the streets to observe and be observed.”

Upon reflection, Knebl’s bold and creative remix of history is essentially similar to the practice of a designer who works by taking cues from the history of costume, art and the contemporary stimuli that surround them. Here, Knebl applies the same underlying criterion for the conception of a fashion collection – in an attempt to guide us on a path through history that is alive and closer to us. The result pushes us to reflect on the limits of contemporary artistic expression today. “The ‘offensive’ work was not shown,” reflects Knebl, “The ‘degenerate’ artworks and those from marginal groups, were invisible. Now, it is the politically incorrect works that disappear. What are we allowed to see, to make up our own mind? This is history in the making.”

Words by Riccardo Conti
Photography by Julien Gremaud

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