If time is an illusion, as the Swiss genius Albert Einstein once said, imagine, then, an unspoilt countryside from the peak of the sierras: the lush greenery of the surroundings broken on either side by a strait of blue that meets the sky. This is a mortal glimpse of the Vallée de Joux in the heart of the Jura mountains, an ethereal slade of natural hues an hour’s drive from Geneva. It does no justice to the subtle majesty of this landscape, a subject that is the inspiration behind the Collectors Lounge booth of Audemars Piguet at the 48th edition of Art Basel, the world’s most important art fair for contemporary and modern art.
As a young boy, the Swiss enterprise’s fourth-generation descendant, Olivier Audemars, recounts, “I never understood why my grandfather spent so much time there [at Vallée de Joux].” At that point in the company’s history, Audemars Piguet had only 40 employees. One day, he relates, his grandfather had brought home an assembled watch mechanism, and prompted the six-year-old Olivier to touch the escapements. “It came alive!” said the current vice-chairman, “Like literal hearts beating, all of a sudden I saw the second hand moving.” Despite venturing on his own business in adulthood, Olivier went back into the family business they still own to carry on the elaborate practice that Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet began in 1875, based mostly on the fascination in this memory.
The small town of Le Brassus has taken this craft of horology to create a heritage that is known the world over for its complexity and precision. It began, essentially, to pass the time of their long winters. From their homes, these early artisans moulded iron by their hands as a means to survive, but the 140-year-old tradition bore a passion that defied utility and provoked a deeper purpose.
“A watch used to be necessary. It used to have a practical function. You didn’t have the time if you didn’t have a watch,” shares Sebastian Errazuriz, the artist and designer of the Audemars Piguet lounge. “To make a watch by hand today makes no sense, because it takes months and months of fabrication. [When Audemars Piguet granted me the Commission,] I wanted to say that we spend too much time making the watch, [but with] the idea being to explain it as an act of passion, as an act of love. As something insane, but only because of the love that goes behind it.”
Errazuriz has created Second Nature, a sculpture of a tree that the artist tirelessly sketched to the minutest detail over a course of months since his visit to the Vallée de Joux. The drawings were then carved by robotic implements using CAD technology, precise to the millimetre of the rings of the bark. At the debut in Art Basel Hong Kong in March this year, the tree was bare with outstretched branches. By the time Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland opened last month, the tree sprouted shoots to mimic the change of the seasons from spring to summer.
Nature and the Vallée de Joux are so fundamental to Audemars Piguet’s craft that it has effected resilience and innovation into the values of the company. “For instance,” Olivier shares, “[During the quartz crisis,] instead of just making simple watches, [the watchmakers] added mechanisms. They took the motion of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun and turned that into something that is the Perpetual Calendar.” This mechanism is what allows the watch to map time cycles of 48 months and automatically factor the variation in 30 or 31 days within that month, and also the number of days in February to indicate when it is a leap year.
In 2016, Errazuriz had exhibited with a theme of water and ice, also influenced by the Vallée de Joux. Errazuriz’s use of wood for Second Nature is then anything but wooden, so to speak, reflecting the evolution of such temporal material through innovation afforded by cutting-edge technology. “As an artist, to be able to fabricate your vision in accordance to the best idea, as opposed to prostituting the piece and deluding the intention of it,” says Errazuriz, indicates the culture of respect for art that is inherent in Audemars Piguet.
For Audemars Piguet, art is an appreciation of making time to explore the profound relationship between watchmaker and watch; timekeeper with nature; even nature with humanity. The company’s exposure to art, Olivier says, has allowed them to discover their own story. “We use this knowledge to explain to our people first then to the rest of the world what the Vallée de Joux is, what Audemars Piguet is, and why we are so closely linked to each other.”
As a part of the booth’s visit to Art Basel Hong Kong, Audemars Piguet had also commissioned the Chinese artist, Cheng Ran, whose video installation Circadian Rhythm dissects the motions in the natural environment that tick in synchronicity with the body’s clock. Circadian Rhythm also travelled to Art Basel, Basel. Audemars Piguet’s next commission falls unto the American activist, director and visual artist Lars Jan, whose work will be unveiled at Art Basel Miami in December of this year.
“The commission is very open-ended. I resonated strongly with the obsessive work ethic of the watchmakers,” shares Jan. “I see them as artists, not only for their attention to detail and their eccentric obsession with perfection, but also the investment on the beauty of the interior that most people will never see.”
To this end, Olivier remarks, “We try to maximise the chance that something unexpected might happen.” Altogether, the three Art Commissions reflect mastery of beauty and transcendence of craft from Audemars Piguet. Time, then, will tell what’s next.
Interviews: Mia Borromeo