AUDEMARS & ART
As a global associate partner of Art Basel, Audemars Piguet now has a presence at all three editions of one of the world's preeminent art fairs. So how has the Le Brassus-based brand made the transition into the art world? Elizabeth Doerr looks for answe
Audermars Piguet seal their place in the art world as global partner of Art Basel.
It was Olivier Audemars, vice-president of the board and a member of the Piguet family, who reminded me of the saying, ‘the only things that grow in the Vallée de Joux are stones and rocks’. This valley, situated between Geneva and Switzerland’s Jura, is wild, almost violent, in its harsh natural beauty.
Can such a severe environment be the birthplace for art? In a word, yes. Audemars goes on to explain how as he pulls a midsized, orange-and-grey coloured stone from his pocket. We sit in a well-designed VIP area of what is known as the ‘sandlot’, a beachfront location belonging to Art Basel Miami that is located – where else? – on the beach.
“This looks like an old rusty rock because that's exactly what it is,” Audemars, who is the great- grandson of company co- founder Edward August Piguet, says with earnest deadpan. “And rust is the oxide of iron. So what [our ancestors] did was use the wood from the forest as a thermal source of energy to build machines to extract this rust and transform it into iron. As it was a long process, and the quantities were limited, they had to specialise in making small objects with a high added value.”
By small objects he means, of course, watch components and timepieces, the first of which were made using iron.
Which begins the history of artisans making horological art in the remote Vallée de Joux, often closed off from the rest of civilization for the duration of the winter months.
But, back to the rocks, Art Basel Miami, and art. How does this all fit together again?
As a sponsor of the cultural event taking place in tropical south Florida, the brand has a “booth” located in the collector’s lounge alongside the other sponsors within the convention centre. This acts as the fair's central location housing billions of dollars worth of precious paintings, drawings, sketches and sculptures. Emphasizing its commitment to this visual world, Audemars Piguet went so far as to hire two artists to work on concepts for the booth, which also functions as a showplace for watches and meeting point for friends and clients of the brand. The idea behind hiring the artists was to enable the brand to express who it is and where it comes from in a way that befits such an event.
The first is Kurt Hentschläger, a Chicagobased, Austrian-born audio-visual artist, who created a panoramic video installation for the booth, shot in the Vallée de Joux, called
Measure. Measure’s theme centres on the nature prevalent in Le Brassus, and asks the question as to whether “original nature” can still exist in the age of human influence.
French designer Mathieu Lehanneur is the second artist involved in the artistic visuals of the Audemars Piguet booth. Lehanneur made the trip to Le Brassus, and remained for an extended period to better understand both the traditional brand and its remote Vallée de Joux surroundings.
It was the rocks that Lehanneur found of utmost importance in understanding the origins of the Swiss brand’s art Like Olivier Audemars, who said, “We asked Mathieu Lehanneur to come and spend some time in the Vallée de Joux, to walk and to try to express what for him was the quintessence of Le Brassus. This idea of the rocks came, so, basically, he used the same technique that palaeontologists use to get prints…”
Instead of exporting a few of the large rocks – boulders, actually – from the Vallée de Joux to Miami Beach, Lehanneur took silicon moulds of actual boulders he found in the remote Swiss valley, and recreated them in his Paris studio using crushed stone powder mixed with resin. This process also allowed the rocks to be hollow making them not only significant but a practical addition to the stand, like as a display background for iPads.
“This retains the DNA of the rocks,” says Lehanneur. Le Brassus is a tiny place set in the midst of a strong and violent nature. I tried to show the contrast, the balance between the sophistication of the items Audemars Piguet creates and the violence of the nature it is surrounded by.”
“I think, if you spend time enough to let
“Audemars Piguet has extended its involvement from solely being a sponsor of the Art Basel fair to actively taking part in the world of art by choosing one contemporary artist per year to support.”
those two artists ‘enter’ you, then you can understand what it is to live in the Vallée de Joux and why people started to make those objects,” Audemars continues. “It may also link to something else, which is the reason why we decided to be involved in contemporary arts: in the past there were no clear differentiations between artist and artisan; only after Michelangelo was this ‘split.’ The artisan made beautiful objects with a functional utility, and artists were people making objects or things that pleased the mind. So now, if you take the complicated watch, we are back to this crossroad, because what makes it special is that people with extreme skills are able to create a very small volume of an extremely complicated product. You also want it to be as beautiful as possible.”
Audemars went on to explain that as the company refined its communication strategies, it searched out a field that would at the same time aid the company in continuing to evolve with new concepts. And, thus, Audemars Piguet has extended its involvement from solely being a sponsor of the Art Basel fair to actively taking part in the world of art by choosing one contemporary artist per year to support.
Heading back to the “sandlot” located across from Miami Beach’s Collins Park, right next to the ultra-hip W Hotel, one encountered the artist’s “lair” that Audemars Piguet sponsored this year. Theo Jansen is relatively high profile in the art world, and has been making headlines for close to a decade with YouTube videos and television reports of what seem to the uninitiated to be cool kinetic structures. When you get to know Jansen better, though, you understand that his Strandbeests are far more than locomotive art; they are examples of “life forms” and they are the result of years of study of physics, theology, philosophy and even robotics.
The Dutch artist’s “beach animals” (the literal translation of “Strandbeests”) are made of yellow plastic PVC tubing, while their energy comes from the wind. Jansen compares the creation of his “animals” to the work of a watchmaker when you ask him about their inspiration long enough. The discussion is completely philosophical, of course. This comparison is known as the “watchmaker analogy,” and it is an accepted philosophical metaphor for correlating evolution and a complicated watch: teleological argumentation states that the complexity of the watch’s movement necessitates an intelligent designer. It stands for the complexity of a given natural phenomena. In this case: evolution.
Superficially, the mechanical nature of the Strandbeests already makes the answer to the question of why Audemars Piguet has chosen to support Jansen fairly obvious and logical. It takes a bit of digging, though, to find the deeper philosophical meanings that Jansen’s work moves within. Both elements combined make him a perfect choice: spectacular, mechanical, philosophical beauty all rolled up in the talents of a man who is both artist and artisan in the broader sense of both words.
Fortuitously, Audemars Piguet has chosen not to make a limited edition wristwatch celebrating its sponsorship of either Art Basel or Jansen, allowing the partnerships to sink into the art world in just the right sort of way. This doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen in the future, but for now, the brand is concentrating on seeing the partnerships settle and gel.
A quick perusal of random wrists sauntering past me at the fair, however, shows that the strategy seems to paying off: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a large gathering of Audemars Piguet models “in the wild” before. Could this be coincidence? Or an evolved sense of style in Miami Beach?
“What is important in a mechanical watch is not the material itself, it is the ingenuity that has been put into it,” Olivier Audemars says, summing up the connections that bridge time, space, and – of course – art. And this seems to be understood among art lovers now, who welcome this little patch of Le Brassus to the sunny world of Miami Beach Art Basel.