The commitment of Audemars Piguet to the development of contemporary art finds further, intense confirmation at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Vice-president of the Audemars Piguet’s Board of Directors and great-grandson of Edward Auguste Piguet, one of the Maison’s founders, Olivier Audemars explains the strong affinities that link the haute horology brand with the universe of art. Two worlds that draw their vital lymph from creativity, and that live thanks above all to human talent and the need to perpetuate and respect freedom of expression. Contemporary art thus becomes the path for a deeper understanding not only of the brand, but of all Swiss watchmaking tied to the land from which it was born. An emotional journey through which Audemars Piguet explains how the sharing of emotions and dialogue between humans, especially in the times we are living, is still the fundamental instrument through which we are each able to confront our own future challenges.
F.1.M. : The 58th International Art Exhibition in Venice is entitled “May You Live In Interesting Times”. A title which, according the Venice Biennale’s President Paolo Baratta, could suggest the idea of challenge, new developments. At the same time, the watchmaking industry is going through a period of intense transformation. What are your thoughts and feelings to this regard?
O.A.: The history of watchmaking has evolved through many transformations, and at times difficult challenges. In the late 19th century the United States began industrialising watch production, making hundreds of thousands of timepieces. This evolution obviously reached Europe and Switzerland. But the two founders of Audemars Piguet chose not to follow that path, and continued to make watches that still had involved a significant amount of human talent. This objective was already fundamental in the decision to create a brand, and represented a choice and a challenge to perpetuate a tradition. Later, my grandfather Paul-Edward Piguet told me that in 1928, just before the great depression, that American agents who at the time represented around 50% of today’s turnover went bankrupt and destroyed the company: the next year we produced just one watch. This past experience is part of the reason why a few years ago we weren’t reckless in our entry into the Chinese market, as opposed to other haute horology brands. It’s true, we are going through a period of change. But in the long term, the history of the brand has always been a history of challenges to find the path to our future.
F.1.M. : The Royal Oak must certainly be one of the challenges that led Audemars Piguet to global success.
O.A.: It certainly is! With the advent of quartz technology, in the ‘seventies Swiss watchmaking lost many great brands that simply disappeared from the market. It was then that we decided to create the Royal Oak, as a response to the changes in society. We understood that above and beyond the demand for quartz watches, what was changing above all was the modus vivendi of the people. People’s perception of horology was changing and the market demanded a timepiece to wear for every occasion. For us the challenge was to find a solution that allowed us to keep making beautiful complications and mechanisms, but adapted to the new demand to be worn all the time. The Royal Oak was the answer: solid and secure to protect the beautiful mechanism within. We’ve learned never to take anything for granted, and always be ready to make changes, even big ones. Changes that might seem a little crazy at first, but that perpetuate our company’s reason for existing.
Left: With its steel case, octagonal bezel, “tapisserie” dial and integrated bracelet, the Royal Oak overturned the prevailing codes in 1972 and took its rightful place as a true modern icon. / Right: Audemars Piguet – The new Code 11.59 watch presented by the brand at SIHH 2019.
F.1.M. : In many respects the advent of the smart watch is very similar to that of quartz in the ‘seventies…
O.A.: Absolutely. Today we live in a very unstable world. We’re surrounded by objects and devices we don’t fully understand. On the contrary, in haute horology we create beautiful, minute movements made of pure human talent. People can meet our master watchmakers in the flesh, and every customer, even if they aren’t connoisseurs specialised in watch movements, can understand a timepiece. Because the watch is a product comprehensible at both emotive and physical level. For example Audemars Piguet has a workshop where all the watches we’ve produced in the history of the brand can be repaired. In this world, where objects have very little value over time and everything seems unstable, Audemars Piguet makes objects perceivable on a personal level, because we are artisans. Watches are entities that speak more to the heart than the mind. In the future we will never take shortcuts, never replace people with machines. We believe it’s fundamental that Audemars Piguet customers understand where the product they buy is coming from. That’s why we’re moving directly onto the markets with the opening of new monobrand stores and A.P. Houses.
F.1.M. : I think sharing the values and history of haute horology is the real key to understanding the timepiece. A watch isn’t perceived simply as product. It tells of all the people involved in its creation. These three days we’ve shared together, savouring the harmony between contemporary art and horology, are a perfect example.
O.A.: In these times of changes, where new technology is everywhere and people rarely communicate vis-à-vis, it’s increasingly important to build human relations between them. In our case, we‘re forming relations between master watchmakers and customers: it’s an emotional thing, seeing the pride of the artisans as they see the customer’s eyes light up at the sight of their work! Right now we’re just finishing the hotel adjacent to our workshop in Les Brassus and our atelier museum. The idea is to bring the world to the Vallée de Joux so our customers can get to know our history and who we are.
Left: Paysage by Dan Holdsworth depicts the nature of the Vallée de Joux. / Right: The new Audemars Piguet museum, the “Musée Atelier” designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.
F.1.M. : Of all the Haute Horology brands, Audemars Piguet has developed solid ties with contemporary art. What are the values your atelier shares with art?
O.A.: They are values that stem from the relationship between artisan and artist. In horology these two attitudes have always been closely linked, the dimension of time associated with the dimension of values like the beauty, perfection and complexity of an object in its expression of mastery. In the past, the precision and aesthetics even of the minutest components, perfectly finished and decorated even inside the mechanism, became the means for elevating it to a higher dimension. This beauty has kept its importance, even with the advent of the quartz era, when the dimension of time seemed so obsolete.
F.1.M. : What opportunities can the universe of art offer the Mechanics of Time?
O.A.: Our affinities with contemporary art began in 2012 with a project to commemorate the anniversary of the Royal Oak. We invited a lot of artists to visit the Vallée de Joux. Among them was Dan Holdsworth who did a photographic exploration of our valley. We were a little shocked by the results because the images portrayed a very inhospitable place, very different to the ideal we’ve always perceived it as. It made us ask ourselves how a place so desolate and wild could have become the cradle of complex watchmaking, and we took that as the starting point for rediscovering our own history! We understood that artists have the capacity to see things differently because of the special way they have of looking. It was a great opportunity for Audemars Piguet, a brand with its headquarters in a very isolated valley, to get a deeper understanding of the way the world is changing through the vision of art. And since we knew perfectly well we weren’t specialists in the universe of art, we established an Art Commission with an advisory board made up of exceptional experts.
Left: Strandbeest, the work by Theo Jansen, 2014, Miami Beach. / Right: Ryoji Ikeda – data-verse 1, 2019 – Venice Biennale 2019.
F.1.M. : How does the Audemars Piguet Art Commission work?
O.A.: Each year the Art Commission invites a guest curator to the Vallée de Joux. The curator short-lists around five or six artists who we invite to spend some time with us in Switzerland to work on their projects. After this the Commission selects one. We never try to influence the artists in their work, we just provide them with the means to realise it, leaving them the greatest possible freedom. If we were to limit their freedom of expression, there’d be no surprise in what they produce, which should ideally be something different to what we had in mind. We look for emerging artists, capable of achieving complete results through real challenge. We don’t just cover their financial needs, but everything they need for the conception and realisation of their work and their vision.
F.1.M. : Does Audemars Piguet then have rights to the works created by the artists?
O.A.: No, that’s one of the fundamental principles of the Art Commission. If we owned the art it would freeze it, stop it evolving. If it belongs to the artists they’re free to exhibit it in other galleries or foundations, or transform it. Audemars Piguet offers support for future presentations as well. It’s like being there when a child is born and then giving it the freedom to grow and get on in life.
F.1.M. : In addition to these projects, Audemars Piguet is at Art Basel every year …
O.A.: In this case we invite the artists to visit the Vallée de Joux and Le Brassus and produce something specific for the fair, but always through a totally autonomous creative process. Sometimes it happens that we cross paths again with an artist we’ve worked with before, like in the case of Davide Quayola.
F.1.M. : But at the 58th Venice Biennale, Audemars Piguet presented a project by Ryoji Ikeda, electronic composer and visual artist.
O.A.: We already knew Ryoji Ikedas’ art: works closely connected with variables like precision, complexity and light. Our collaboration with Ikeda began before he got the call from Ralph Rugoff (Curator of the 58th Venice Biennale 2019) to exhibit the first work of the Data-Verse trilogy (realised with the support of Audemars Piguet) at the Biennale. Our partnership with the artist will be continuing with another two events to present the second and third variants of this project: in Tokyo next October/November and at a location still to be defined in 2020.
Now Audemars Piguet is changing the way it presents itself to the world, at the same time as changing the way the brand perceives itself. What we want is to create the highest possible number of opportunities for us to get involved in the world of contemporary art. The art commission is one of the links, but we’re also partners with the Montreux Jazz Festival, which gives us a connections between the art and music worlds. Ikeda is an artist whose means of expression straddles both these worlds. Together we’ve had some extremely interesting discussions about life, the universe and everything. I’m sure we’re going to see more connections coming out of this activity, especially since the guidelines aren’t that strict, to avoid missing the chance of learning something new from the artistic process. The artist has to be free, not an ambassador for the brand!
F.1.M. : At the Biennale we saw Ryoji Ikeda’s video projection, an ocean of audio-visual data with a pulsing heart of light and sound. Using data provided by the CERN and NASA the artist developed mathematical compositions, reprocessing it into digital “verses” to probe space and the universe. To fully express its essence, for an artwork it’s fundamental to have an observer, a user willing to be led into the experience. And every feeling the work arouses, whether positive or negative, is always appreciated … In much the same way, in horology the relationship that develops between a timepiece and the person wearing it is fundamental. What kind of feelings did Ikeda’s “data-verse1” arouse in you?
O.A.: I’ve always been fascinated by physics and mathematics. The first time I saw “data-verse 1” I tried almost immediately to understand the images in quantic terms. I really wanted to understand the numbers and their meaning. The fourth time I saw the work I just left my mind and body free of any perception. Obviously Ryoji Ikeda is exploring something extremely complex, using notions of physics, cosmology and mathematics, and one of the fundamental variables in all this is time.
F.1.M. : It was certainly an experience that makes you think and question all of our mental constructs.
O.A.: Art is not something easy to digest, it takes time. And I hope that everyone in our company can take time to see this work, because it could well have an effect on the way they think and work. Art gives us the chance to use the left hemisphere of our brains when we’re used to always using the right. But as I said, you have to give it time!
The A.P. House in Hong Kong, inaugurated in 2018.