A GIANT INFLATABLE SNOW-COVERED MOUNTAIN chalet moored on the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay in Miami; self-propelled giant kinetic sculptures made from PVC tubes roaming a Miami beach; a large bamboo pavilion showcasing a 3D animation about cosmology and the metaphysics of time; these are some of the awe-inspiring art projects supported by Audemars Piguet at Art Basel Miami.
For the last six years, the Swiss luxury watchmaker has been deepening its involvement with contemporary art that has in turn had an effect on the company, adding a new artistic dimension to many of its projects.
“Through the contemporary art program, the company has discovered a shared conviction that imagination is the only limit when one is willing to break rules and conventions to arrive at something surprising and meaningful,” says Olivier Audemars, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors, Audemars Piguet.
“Artists have a capacity to see the world differently from the rest of us, and to express this unique vision in their work. They seem to have special lenses that help them take in a different perception of reality. And by working closely with some of them, we have been able to borrow these lenses for a while, to help us see our own work and lives in a different light,” says Audemars, revealing the result is “nothing less than a fresh understanding of the purpose of Audemars Piguet, which has already dramatically modified the way in which we communicate about our raison d’être, internally as well as externally.”
The watchmaker’s first foray into the contemporary art world started modestly in 2012 when it commissioned artists to create works inspired by the Vallée de Joux for an international exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the company’s Royal Oak model. But it quickly expanded the following year, when it decided to become a global Associate Partner of Art Basel, the world’s largest international art fair, and continued to strengthen its bond with the artistic community with the launch in 2015 of the annual Audemars Piguet Art Commission.
“As the only watch company still in the hands of its founding families, we tend to think in terms of generations, not quarterly results. In much the same way, it was extremely important for us to ensure that this engagement with contemporary art would turn into a long-term relationship,” Audemars says.
With the connection to contemporary art quickly developing, the brand soon decided to focus on supporting large-scale art projects that revolve around the themes of complexity and precision, both of which particularly resonate with watchmaking. And to underline its long-term commitment it set up the Audemars Piguet Art Commission, which not only nurtures artistic talent but also supports curatorial visions by inviting a guest curator each year to commission a new work that straddle art, science, and technology.
Under the programme, three short-listed artists are invited to the watchmaker’s headquarters in Le Brassus to learn about the company’s history, interact with its craftsmen and find inspiration for an artwork that will embrace the two key themes.
Audemars says beyond exploring topics of complexity and precision, the committee that selects the winner is also looking at projects that demand the highest level of execution and skill. “We help one of these ideas to come to life by providing access to our resources and connections to any kind of special expertise that the artist may need to realize the work,” he adds.
The 2016 Audemars Piguet Art Commission was a piece by Beijing-based artist Sun Xun, titled Reconstruction of the Universe that involved multiple spherical projections and a ten-minute, 3-D animation with woodblock prints. The watch brand helped the Chinese artist secure the highest quality optical and projection devices necessary to achieve his vision.
“All of the artists and projects that have come to life under the auspices of Audemars Piguet share certain common characteristics. Among them are an interest in philosophical and scientific inquiry, a willingness to cross the boundaries of artistic disciplines and experiment with new tools and technology, and a keen desire to create all-encompassing sensory experiences,” explains Audemars.
Perhaps above all, these artists, encouraged and supported by the patronage of Audemars Piguet, have demonstrated a willingness to break rules and conventions in order to arrive at something deeply surprising and meaningful.
“I am continually surprised to see what an impact visiting the Vallée de Joux and encountering our watchmakers has made on the artists. Immersing themselves in our environment and our culture is a unique experience for our invited artists — it is totally different from anything they’ve seen before,” Audemars says.
Sun Xun evidently concurs: “In the Vallée de Joux everything seems elevated, pure. The air is so clean. The stars are so clear. The mountains are so tall. I think this elevation is true also in the spiritual sense. I think it is what allows the watchmakers to achieve something God-like in its complexity — the hand-making of impossibly complicated watches. Like Buddhists, these watchmakers work in a kind of meditative state. They seem to understand that connecting to the spirit means emptying the body and mind so they can be deeply enough in the here and now to catch time, to make time slow down. All of this was in my head as I approached the installation.”
“Our hope is that the experience of coming into the world of AP, even for a short time, will also be a catalyst for the artists to progress in their artistic approach. And, indeed, it seems to be so. If exposure to the world of contemporary art is changing our company, the discovery of our world is also broadening the horizons of the artists who have travelled along with us for a little time,” Audemars adds.