Surreal sights in Zurich, the home of Dada

“Not even the Dadaists know what Dada is. Only the old Dada does, and he tells no one.” I’m in the darkened basement of Cabaret Voltaire at Spiegelgasse 1 (www.cabaretvoltaire.ch), where a bizarre black-and-white montage-style film rolls, featuring performance and book readings, accompanied by an equally eccentric commentary. I’m the only viewer, though that doesn’t […]

“Not even the Dadaists know what Dada is. Only the old Dada does, and he tells no one.” I’m in the darkened basement of Cabaret Voltaire at Spiegelgasse 1 (www.cabaretvoltaire.ch), where a bizarre black-and-white montage-style film rolls, featuring performance and book readings, accompanied by an equally eccentric commentary. I’m the only viewer, though that doesn’t seem to bother the studenty-looking manager, who also looks after the attached concept store.

It’s 100 years since the avant-garde movement was founded here in Zurich in 1916; as many believe, it was in this very building, after it was opened to gatherings and performances by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, that art that mocked convention and emphasised the illogical, absurd and chaotic began to gather real force. “Dada is the world’s soul,” I hear. “How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Dada.”

Difficult to define, Dadaism actually begins to make sense here. From the film, I gather that it was a reaction to rationalism, and an embrace of the innate inconsistency, changeability and madness of human nature, a rejection of rules and expectations. “It wanted to bring irrationality, fantasy and speculation back into people’s lives,” I’m told. Since performances could take on the mood, feelings or random influences of the time, the Dadaists sometimes pushed their roles to the brink of exhaustion, and took pride in outraging and confounding bourgeois sensibilities. One of their methods of creating original literature was to tear articles out of newspapers, cut out all the words separately, then rearrange them.

Why this movement took place in sedate Switzerland is thought to be down to the country’s neutrality during the First World War. While artists, poets, scientists, photographers, musicians and philosophers found themselves disrupted and persecuted elsewhere, they banded together here in safety, producing manifestos and expanding their belief that war is caused by conformity of thought and social structures. While branches soon opened up all around the world, attracting names such as Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, the Zurich founders included Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp.

Half an hour of Dada at 10am is about as much as any visitor can take in a morning, but this being the movement’s centenary year, there’s a host of Dada-themed events, including exhibitions, guide walks and hotel packages. Upstairs at Cabaret Voltaire, the various shabby-chic cafe spaces are enticing, but I can’t find anyone to serve me, so I make my way out into the heart of Zurich’s old town, a beautifully preserved mass of narrow lanes, with medieval guildhouses and small shops. I’m staying at the 39-room Marktgasse Hotel, a new, four-star boutique hotel a few steps away from Cabaret Voltaire. Old walls and frescoes dating from 1291 are juxtaposed with Scandinavian wood floors and French and Italian furniture. There’s even a Dada library.

Revolutionary in its own way and predating Dadaism, the Üetliberg railway takes visitors from Zurich’s grand main train station most of the way up nearby Üetliberg (www.uetliberg.ch), in about 15 minutes. There, from a viewing platform at the 871-metre summit, panoramic views of the city and surrounding valleys are offered. Yet before I can get to the top, the spirit of Dadaism makes an impromptu appearance – a “mad” woman on the Üetliberg station platform is roaming around, randomly shouting and screaming at people. I think I have dodged her by going to the bathroom, but she seems to follow me in, so I beat a hasty retreat up the mountain, taking refuge in the restaurant of the old-fashioned Hotel Uto Kulm (www.utokulm.ch).

I fortify myself with a deliciously rich Zürcher geschnetzeltes (sliced veal cooked in sauce, with potato rösti; 44 Swiss francs [Dh170]), before taking on an impromptu 90-minute hike along the scenic, partly wooded mountain ridge to Felsenegg. It’s not quite Dadaism, although the route isn’t that well-signposted, and my iPhone dies, leaving me to guess the route in some parts. Helpfully, there are a few mountainside “tea houses” towards the end, before you reach the cable car that takes you back down.

In search of solitude and beauty but wanting to escape tourist traps such as Lucerne, I take a train to Zug, a little more than 30 minutes south of Zurich. On the train, the free daily newspaper 20 Minuten carries the front page news (including a photo) of a train which has been disfigured by graffiti involving swear words directed towards the police. Probably more vandalism than Dadaism, though there’s possibly some overlap.

On the beautiful Zugersee (Lake Zug), the town is said to be the richest in Switzerland thanks to low taxation rates and a concentration of hedge funds. Modern office blocks on the outskirts mix nicely with a gorgeous medieval town centre, complete with cobblestoned streets, lakeside restaurants, traditional bakeries and seasonal parades. A 13th-century tower with a massive clock face, in operation since 1574, stands out, along with a gothic town hall dating from 1505.

Conveniently, the Zugerberg Bahn funicular takes you up the nearby Mount Zugerberg. At 925 metres, it’s not one of Switzerland’s highest mountains, but affords an impressive view of the surrounding jagged ranges. Hafenrestaurant (www.hafenrestaurant.ch) is an ultra-modern structure right next to the marina. All around are lakeside walks and free public swimming areas. One of the prettiest is at Cham, just north of Zug, served by its own train station (you can also walk or cycle between the two). Here, you can take an exquisite walk around the lake in Villette Park, which once formed the grounds of Villa Villette (www.villa-villette.ch). It’s now a characterful but expensive restaurant, and built as the Victorian country escape of the Zurich banker and arts patron Heinrich Schulthess von Meiss.

As I contemplate the view onto the lake, surrounded by huge, ancient trees, manicured lawns and the generally hushed tones of lakeside walkers, the peace is shattered by a group of Somali children, who shout and throw stones at an unsuspecting swan. Resisting the urge to intervene, or at least have a word with the boys’ father, I wonder if the ghost of Dadaism has struck yet again.

rbehan@thenational.ae

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Source: art & life

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