Parafin is delighted to present a new exhibition by the acclaimed Swiss artist Uwe Wittwer, his third with the gallery. In ’The Mission’, Wittwer weaves together historical and fictional subjects with autobiographical elements, forming a web of cultural references around collective and personal memory. The legacy of conflict, displacement and the failure of the imperial and colonial projects are recurring themes.
In addition to oil paintings and watercolours, a new series of sculptural glass works will be shown for the first time in the UK. Taken as a whole, this new body of work evokes a ‘dream journey’, exploring ideas around authenticity and truth and the search for knowledge.
Wittwer’s working process has long been associated with that of an archivist, or interrogator of archives, primarily within the depths of the internet. In this instance, Wittwer’s researches led him to explore the photographic collections at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Imperial War Museum in London. In particular, he was fascinated by the Pitt-Rivers Museum’s collection of photographs by A. Robert Hottot (1884-1939), a French explorer and collector who eventually settled in Oxford in 1932 and was later President of the Oxford University Anthropological Society. Hottot made three expeditions to Central Africa in 1906, 1907 and 1908-9, which he documented with stereoscopic photography. It is primarily his imagery that has served as a source for Wittwer’s new work.
Wittwer’s work takes a critical position towards the images he works with. In dealing with this historical source material, he works through a process of deconstruction using strategies including rendering images as negatives or using repetition, redaction, fragmentation or reversal. Through such strategies the original images are transformed, creating alternative realities. Central to the exhibition is The Mission – a series of over fifty monochrome watercolours based on Hottot’s images – presented in Parafin’s lower gallery. The title of the series simultaneously evokes the militaristic and the religious and points to attempts to either conquer or convert a people or territory. By appropriating Hottot’s images of Central Africa, Wittwer examines the social and political power relationships that sustained colonialism, and the narratives surrounding the colonial project. In doing so, Wittwer positions Hottot as an ‘unreliable narrator’ and questions the nature of his anthropological activities.
Wittwer’s new hand-painted glass works were made at the Mayer'sche Hofkunstanstalt für Glasmalerei und Mosaik (Mayer’s Court Art Institute for Glass Painting and Mosaic) in Munich, founded in 1847. Fired in an elaborate process onto free-standing panels of glass, the images, despite the robustness of the material, appear as delicate watercolours hanging in space. Moreover, being translucent, we see through the works so that multiple images may become layered, a strategy relating to Wittwer’s ongoing use of doublings in his paintings; a device which questions the status of the image.
Many of the works in the exhibition evoke journeys, crossings and transitions. The figure of Charon is emblematic. Charon is the ferryman who, in Greek mythology, transports souls across the Styx and the Acheron, the rivers that separate the lands of the living and the dead. Wittwer suggests a connection between the ferryman, the medieval motif of the Ship of Fools, and the European explorers and ethnographers navigating the Zambezi.
Uwe Wittwer (born 1954, Zurich) lives and works in Zurich. Recent solo exhibitions include Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich (2021, 2019), Galerie Judin, Berlin (2021, 2018, 2016, 2013), Musée Ariana, Geneva (2020), Kunsthaus Grenchen (2019), Parafin, London (2018, 2015), Kunstraum Oktagon, Bern (2017), Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal (2013), VOID, Derry (2012) and Haunch of Venison, London (2011, 2009). Recent group exhibitions include Museum Franz Gertsch, Burgdorf (2020), Kunstmuseum Bern (2019), Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry (2018), Museum Langmatt, Baden, Switzerland (2017), Kunstmuseum Solothurn (2013), Centre Pasquart, Biel (2012), Tate Britain, London (2011) and the Courtauld Institute, London (2010).
Wittwer's work is included in public and institutional collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht, Kunsthaus Zurich, Sammlung Ludwig, Aachen, Kunstmuseum Bern, Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen, Sammlung Bosshard, UBS Art Collection, Credit Suisse Art Collection, Caldic Collection and the David and Indre Roberts Collection.