Life lines

3 Apr 2021 - 27 Jun 2021 | Johann Jacobs Museum

> Life lines at the Online Gallery

“Life lines” is an open-ended research and exhibition project. It explores the biographies of a group of youths who arrived in Switzerland as refugees in recent years and now go to school here. While the exhibition attempts to follow the tangled paths of their journeys, the intention is not to simply reiterate individual fates.

“Life lines” is a cartographic exercise – parallel to the official curriculum. The students map out both the real and imaginary terrains they crossed: theaters of war in the Middle East or Afghanistan, borders (not only physical boundaries, such as walls and fences, but also the limits of imagination). Encounters of all types belong to these journeys: encounters with smugglers and traffickers, humanitarian workers, with people who want nothing to do with all this, and those who do.

”Life lines” is a fruit of the lockdown. When the schools closed in March, the pupils did not want to simply accept the relative isolation. They turned to their teacher, the Swiss artist Walter Riedweg, who teaches the “integration class” in Volketswil. The idea came up to pursue the question “Where do we come from?”. Riedweg, in turn, turned to the Johann Jacobs Museum, to provide a curatorial platform in analogous space for the research and preparation of “Life lines”, which had taken place online and in zoom conferences.

“Life lines” itself consists of images and music, of memories, sounds and smells, of conversations with friends, parents and grandparents – but also fictions, desires and inventions, which will be collected, composed and stitched together over the course of the project (from November to April 2021).

This is all complemented by the works of contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei, Maja Bajevic, Giulio Bensasson, Ishita Chakraborty, Axel Crettenand, and others who address the encounters between the (mere) individuals and (great) history. The plasticity of the ‘mere’ and the ‘great’ – the relationship between history and the individual – is interwoven into the exhibition through stories of Ibn Battutah, a legendary Arab explorer of the 14th century, who performed the feat of writing history, while “making it” himself.

The student project by Dias & Riedweg is called “weg-zurück-da” is part of the exhibition curated by Francesca Ceccherini and Roger M. Buergel. The exhibition “Life lines” is supported by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Zurigo.


Title Image: Parcours – 2 Dias & Riedweg / Paris 2005. Courtesy of the artist


  • 20 Jun 2021 3:00 pm
    With Yann Stricker and Roger M. Buergel
  • 27 Jun 2021 3:00 pm
    Theme Talk
    With Eliana Sousa Silva, Margherita Moscardini, Li Mu, Dias & Riedweg, Francesca Ceccherini and Roger M. Buergel

Life lines

Workshop with Walter Riedweg and teens at the Johann Jacobs Museum, 2020.

In the beginning there was the lockdown. Schools were closed, as were museums. A digital transformation had to be mastered overnight. Somewhat euphemistically the term “online learning” came into use. In effect, this turned out to be more of a mix of technical glitches and faces on the screen – faces that rarely re- veal what they are really doing and thinking.These general conditions also applied to the lessons of an integration class from Volketswil (Canton of Zurich). With the sole difference that their teacher is also an artist. So, instead of attempting to translate the analog school format 1:1 into the digital space and more or less failing, the artist-teacher and the students decided to explore and test the possibilities of the new digital space. These students are all digital natives. They were happy to lend a hand to the artist-teacher, revealing their expertise in virtual worlds that are usually impermeable to adults and never appear in the classroom. The result was an alternative form of “online learning” in which it was no longer clear who was learning from whom: the students from the artist-teacher or vice versa. The Johann Jacobs Museum was also involved. In the good old days, the artist-teacher had frequently visited the museum with his class. There are a lot of strange things to talk about with children who are refugees or immigrants in Switzerland, who don’t speak German well, and who come with vastly different cultural backgrounds and expectations. The tiny museum on Seefeldquai is a protected place. It lacks the authority of the state institution. One may also dream here.

Abstract Cartographic Exercise from the Workshop with Walter Riedweg and teens at the Johann Jacobs Museum, 2020.

During the lockdown, the artist-teacher Walter Riedweg turned to the museum again. This was not only due to the afore-mentioned history, but also because Riedweg was currently exhibiting at the museum – as part of the Swiss-Brazilian artist duo Dias & Riedweg. But there was also a third, the real reason. Exploring the digital space together with the class is all very well. But there also must be a goal, if only to know at what point one goes astray. The goal should be called: Life lines. It should be about following the often-winding paths of one’s own exis-tence, that is, about turning back history to answer the question: Where do I actually come from? Could another goal or theme have been given out as “Life Lines”? Perhaps, but the students wanted it this way. And the museum wanted it too, after all, the history of global trade routes is its guiding theme. And what are global trade routes but the life lines of mankind? “Weg-zurück-da” is the name of the school project that has been running since 2020 and will continue in the future.

Dias & Riedweg, “weg-zurück-da”, 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

It is supervised by Dias & Riedweg and consists of episodes in which individual students have their say. The episodes are published on the website of the Johann Jacobs Museum. Some of them will be shown within the exhibition “Life Lines”, accompanied by a film that introduces the artistic methods of “Online Learning”.


“Because background characters, they never stick out.”, (freeze frame), screenplay, 5:37 mins., 2020.

The life lines that “Weg-zurück-da” puts into picture are of a delicate nature. They come from young people who have been through a lot and include stories of flight from Afghanistan via Iran through Turkey, across the Balkans to Switzerland, only to be re-placed in Switzerland by the trials and tribulations of dealing with the authorities. Despite all the existential hardships, these lines are still finely drawn. After all, the aim is not to shock or to arouse pity. The students are not victims, but they create: they draw their lines themselves, albeit with artistic accompaniment.The exhibition “Life Lines” should be understood in a sim- ilar sense. It accompanies “Weg-zurück-da” by embedding the digitally produced episodes within a context of artistic works that address “Life Lines” in one way or another. This context must be experienced physically – precisely as an exhibition.

This connection becomes clear as soon as you enter the gallery: individual episodes from “Weg-zurück-da” on the screen are joined by drawings from Ishita Chakraborty. As is well-known, “drawing” can mean all sorts of things. For her work “Zwischen I between I মধ#বতী'” Chakraborty does not use a pen or similar device but works the surface of the paper with a scalpel.

Work detail, Ishita Chakraborty, Zwischen I between I মধ্যবর্তী, Drawings on paper, 2020-2021. Courtesy of the artist.

The trace of the scalpel and the material thereby enter into an inseparable unity, which the eye can feel or “read” in a similar way as the finger can read Braille. These drawings are protocols or results of the artist’s own intensive listening. Like a seismograph, Chakraborty registers the often-underlying emotional intensity of narratives dealing with flight and exile. She listens to people but what she puts down on paper is not so much the manifest content of the narratives as their mental mood, including all that remains unsaid.

Giulio Bensasson, Non so dove, non so quando (I do not know where, I do not know when), installation with slides and slide viewers, 2016-2021. Courtesy of the artist.

In formal contrast to Chakraborty’s minimalist protocols are the brightly colored microcosms by Giulio Bensasson. The term “micro” applies to the installation entitled “Non so dove, non so quando (I do not know where, I do not know when)” in another respect, because it is microbes that generate these images. The artist acquired the source material – the photographs – at flea markets or antiquarian bookstores.


Giulio Bensasson, Non so dove, non so quando (I do not know where, I do not know when), slide, 2016-2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Axel Crettenand.


There are, we know, countless images that mean something to people. These images are care- fully stored, whether in photo albums or on smartphones. But there is a much larger number of images that no longer mean anything to anyone. Images that have, in a sense, fallen out of the world. Bensasson takes on these orphan images. He adopts them by handing them over to the chemical-biological play of microbes. In the pre-digital age, some still might remember, the photographic image acquisition in the laboratory was called “development”. That is what it is all about here, too: an evolution-ary process, a second life, so to speak, but one that is no longer the life of human beings.

Work detail, Maja Bajevic, Arts, Crafts and Facts, hand-woven carpet, wool, 2015. Collection Johann Jacobs Museum.

The carpet comes from a Bosnian textile factory and was designed by Maja Bajevic. It belongs to a group of works (“ Arts, Crafts and Facts”) with Bajevic’s textile tableaux hanging in the room next door. These tableaux are embroidered with diagrams depicting price developments of everyday goods or market indices.

Work Detail, Maja Bajevic, Arts, Crafts, and Facts (Rice, Corn, Wheat), Embroidery on cotton, 2015. Collection Johann Jacobs Museum. Photo: Axel Crettenand.

Work detail von Maja Bajevic, Arts, Crafts and Facts, hand-woven carpet, wool, 2015. Collection Johann Jacobs Museum.

Unlike the textile tableaux, however, the carpet pattern ab-stracts from any reference. We recognize charts, but do not learn what goods or forms of price fluctuations are involved. This raises the question – and how well suited this question is to a banking center like Zurich! – whether markets represent natural phenom- ena. Can markets be studied and calculated in the same way as gravity, for example, or do they follow different patterns? The question of the naturalism of carpet patterns, by the way, has a long history. Especially oriental carpet patterns prove their virtu- osity in the fact that they know how to abstract natural phe- nomena (like birds or cypresses and others) beyond recognition, but not completely. Leaving aside its formal language, the carpet in the Johann Jacobs Museum allows us to point a curatorial finger at another carpet that is now stored in the White House.

Work detail, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, A Carpet, 2017. Courtesy of the artists.

This is less about the carpet itself than about the incredible story that is, so to speak, woven into it. This story took place about 100 years ago. At that time, the Swiss missionary and doctor Jakob Künzler, a native of Appenzell,founded a carpet manufactory in Ghazir (in today’s Lebanon) together with his wife Elisabeth Bender (grand-daughter of an Ethiopian princess). The founding of the carpet manufactory was about what today is called “helping people to help themselves”. The Künzlers wanted to give Armenian orphans a livelihood with the business after they fled Turkey in 1922 with around 8,000 orphans in tow.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, A Carpet, 2017. Exhibition view. Courtesy of the artists.

Previously, the Künzlers had worked for about 20 years in a small mission hospital in Urfa (in what is now southeastern Turkey). They were well-integrated into the multi-ethnic society of Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, and Syrians there. They were thus all the more attentive to the emergence of national populist propa- ganda on the part of the new Turkish rulers. From 1915 on, “ethnic cleansing” began, in the wake of which around 1 million Arme- nians were murdered. Künzler recorded these events, which he witnessed at close quarters, in a moving book: “Im Lande des Blutes und der Tränen. Erlebnisse in Mesopotamien während des Ersten Weltkriegs (1914–1918)” – a book that is also included in the exhibition. In 1925, in gratitude for U.S. humanitarian support, Künzler’s orphans knotted a carpet that they gave as a gift to then-President Coolidge. Today, this carpet, on which 400 girls worked over 18 months, is stored in the White House. Despite being hidden from public view, this carpet has a life of its own – in the form of an artistic project by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: “A Carpet (a documentation)”.

On the “evacuation map”, on which arrows indicate the direction of flight of the Künzlers and their orphans, the paths of the refugees of that time cross with those of the refugees of today – refugees of the Syrian civil war – some of whom attend the integration class in Volketswil and participate in “Weg-zurück-da” …

Work detail, Axel Crettenand, A Brief Aerial Study I, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Axel Crettenand presents less the concrete paths than the abstract path networks in “A Brief Aerial Study 1″ (2020). The photographic images were taken with the help of Google Earth technology and serve as a comparison. They contrast the almost undescribed expanse of Siberia with the grid-like U.S. urban landscape including its agricultural areas. Now it would be obvious to romanticize the deserted natural landscape and to turn away with a shudder from the rationalized earth. In fact, artists have done exactly that since the beginning of modernism in order to base a somewhat tolerable business model on this clumsy contrast (it cannot be a coincidence that factory owners love to collect Impressionists). In fact, however, both visions belong together like pitch and brimstone. The idea of the “blank page” cannot be separated from the idea of “writing” or more ecologically spun, man cannot easily get rid of his own presence on the planet.

The gallery space to the right is dominated by a minimalist sculpture made of three identical or, better, identically deformed iron bars. But wait! What we recognize as a sculpture – probably simply because we are in a museum – is really something else.


Ai Weiwei went to the Chinese province of Sichuan in 2008 as a political activist. There, a devastating earthquake had occurred, in which primarily school buildings had collapsed, burying thou-sands of children underneath them. While the authorities tried to conceal the whole thing, Ai took part in an educational campaign. During this campaign, it came to light that some officials had di-verted funds intended for the construction of the school buildings into their own pockets. This resulted in what was called “tofu architecture“ in Sichuan.

Work detail, Ai Wei Wei, Rebar 41, Ai Wei Wei, Rebar 41, 3 steel rods, each about 1m long. Courtesy AWW Studio.

While visiting the rubble sites, Ai came across the bizarrely deformed and far too thin reinforcing irons whose purpose would have been to give stability to the concrete. Ai took some of the irons, like a child takes sticks in the forest: fascinated, but without much ulterior motive. Only with time did he realize what the irons meant. They were evidence of corruption, of course, so they had symbolic value. At the same time, they had a strange aesthetic power. They not only spoke of the catastrophe; they also spoke of themselves. Their strange curves were vaguely reminiscent of calligraphy. Only that this calligraphy did not come from human hands but was an expression of the force of nature. Ai would have found it macabre to exhibit the rebars he found in the rubble of the school buildings as works of art. Not display- ing the rebars and thus depriving people of experiencing them was, however, also out of the question. So, what was to be done?

Ai Wei Wei, Rebar 41, 3 steel rods, each about 1m long. Courtesy AWW Studio.

The artist decided to have people re-bend the irons as nature had formed them, three times. A mere reproduction would not do the trick – viewers would then remain stuck on the question of what is the original and what is the replica. Multiplying the pieces would not do the trick either. Quantity would relativize the individual character of the reinforcing iron and thus negate the criminal event of its specificity. The minimalist sculpture, which does not want to be one, is joined by a documentary film about the Sichuan earthquake and a photograph of a Northern Qi Buddha figure (China, mid-6th century), in which the fine lines of the robe catch the eye.

Northern Qi Buddha figure, China, mid-6th century. Collection DKM.