Beat Streuli

born in Switzerland in 1957, attended art school in Basel and Zurich and later in Berlin, where he lived for most of the eighties. During his art studies he concentrated on abstract painting and installation art, with American minimal and conceptual art of that period as his main influences. Around the end of the decade, studio grants at Cité des Arts and Fondation Cartier in Paris, followed by Istituto Svizzero in Rome, allowed for extended stays in these two capitals. It was in their streets that he came back to an early fascination with photography and figuration.

In the nineties, Streuli moved his base to Düsseldorf. Coinciding with the recognition of photography in the visual arts, notably the large-format images produced by the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, he developed the style that became characteristic of his work, a form of contextualized street photography. First displayed in small black-and-white format, his images developed on a larger scale, particularly in the form of monumental slide projections. These works were first exhibited at PS1 in New York City, where he spent several decisive years. First gallery and museum shows followed, among them a major survey at Kunstmuseum Lucerne in 1993, his participation the same year in a “New Photography” show at MoMA in New York, and a solo exhibition at ARC / Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1996.

From that period on, billboards and other forms of installations in public space appeared in his work. Transparent images integrated in glass facades, a technique fully developed for the first time for a solo show at MACBA, Barcelona, in 1998, continue to be one of his favorite presentation modes today. It is around that time that his work gained popularity on a global scale. He participated in the Sydney, Johannesburg, and Gwangju Biennials and exhibited and photographed in many European cities such as London, Amsterdam, and Turin, but also in Japan and the United States.

From 2000, Streuli’s work, previously centered on the inhabitants and the everyday in mostly western cities, became more complex. His participation in the biennials of Sharjah, Yokohama, and Singapore, and his projects in India, Africa, South America, and the Near and Far East—a 160-meter-long wall of images erected in the desert at the entrance of the historical city of Petra, Jordan— resulted in a reflection on globalization and its related conflicts. As Zurich and Brussels became his European bases, he grew increasingly interested in the presence of non-Western cultures in the European social fabric. His publication BXL, photographed in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, testifies to this shift in his practice.

Streuli taught from 2012 to 2018 at ZHdK University of Fine Arts in Zurich. His new productions, which often oscillate between fixed and moving image, are created in a wide range of digital and traditional media. He continues to focus on city dwellers but also on cities as an urban and architectural concept and has recently often worked outside the global metropoles, in suburbs and smaller cities. He has developed both permanent and temporary large-scale installations in public space, experimenting with more pictorial forms yet not abandoning a certain documentary style.
 His images reflect the increasingly heterogenous reality of today’s world without forcing a specific sociopolitical reading onto the viewer.

General Approach

Streuli’s images have a precise destiny, which is to appear in the form of billboards in the streets, of large posters applied to walls, transparent figures on the windows of buildings, and as immaterial projections on wall high screens. Theirs is the destiny of images used by the mass media, from advertising to fashion, to cinema, television, and the Internet as well. With their essentiality, clarity, and visual presence, they speak directly to the locals, passersby, tourists, and anyone who moves in the urban spaces and public places where they are installed: people who are simultaneously the subjects of these images. Like a sort of gigantic television reality show, but with serious, elegant, civilized overtones. The circle is closed by a mechanism of mirroring which makes the actors and the spectators one and the same: in the circular nature of Beat Streuli’s project, the people who are photographed are the flesh of the city, but the flesh of the city is also those who view these large images installed in collective spaces. The images themselves have their effect on the architecture and on the image of the city itself. Streuli gently but resolutely compels us into the labyrinth of an art that takes over the techniques and places of the great, omnipresent communication that embraces everyone and everything. It is an art that wishes to be explicitly public and shared, today. An art that talks to us of beauty, of the possible beauty of us all. And of the identity of contemporary mankind, which is so hard to define.

Streuli’s work does not aim to single out ‘the other’, it simply aspires to document what lies around us, with characteristic formal clarity and sharpness of perception. Likewise, the artist does not try to force a specific, critical reading of his images. Although he does make us consider the question of how we view people – all people – around us, he refuses to exoticize or to emphasize difference in the political sense. So, while these images do reflect a multi-cultural reality, for Streuli this is not so much an issue, but rather something that is a de facto normality, and perpetually ‘there’. Similarly, he avoids pathos or sentimentality, or engendering feelings of naïve sympathy towards the people he photographs, and retains a certain distance at all times. As viewers we have to draw our own conclusions as to the possible meanings of these images. If one is indeed to talk about ‘difference’ in this context, it is a discussion that needs to be done on another level: what comes across more strikingly when considering the entirety of his project is that Streuli highlights what we often seem to forget when talking about ‘people’; the fact that the ordinary person in the street is as unique and individual as anyone. In that sense, Streuli’s work can be read as an ode to individuality and difference.

From texts by Roberta Valtorta and Katerina Gregos