Collaborations in Whimsy

New York Times, March 8, 2012

NEW YORK — The day before the artist Brian Donnelly, better known by his alias, KAWS, flew to Atlanta to attend the opening of his solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art last month, he entertained a visitor to his studio in the Brooklyn borough of New York, by scrolling through photos of the installation on his iPhone.

The images documented the process by which his most famous sculpture — a gray cartoon mouse, 16 feet, or 5 meters, tall, with its head buried in its hands in a tragicomic gesture of mortification — had been disassembled and hauled, piece by piece, to its resting place on the museum’s piazza.

“They had to crane it over the building,” Mr. Donnelly said of the sculpture, titled “Companion (Passing Through).” He lingered a while on a snapshot of the mouse’s disembodied head hovering above the museum in a scene of cartoonish menace.

Mr. Donnelly was a street artist in the early 1990s before the subversive images he painted on New York City advertisements and billboards earned him recognition from the art world. Since then, he has created paintings, sculptures, toys, graffiti — even a pair of women’s shoes for Marc Jacobs, veering from art to commerce with little regard for the traditional boundaries that separate them.

This may explain why Mr. Donnelly did not flinch when Alexandre David, the chief executive of the cult watch brand Ikepod, asked him to collaborate on a limited edition timepiece, the KAWS Horizon, being introduced this week at the Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland.

Neither did Mr. Donnelly balk at the ostensible challenges of adapting his artistic vision to the dimensions of a watch dial. “It’s fun to see how the work at different scales changes and how people’s connections to the work change,” he said.

The KAWS Horizon, available in four dial iterations, each priced at $14,000, blends Ikepod’s iconic “black hole” Horizon shape, designed by Marc Newson, with Mr. Donnelly’s trademarks: The Xs that form the hands are his signature while the teeth that serve as the indexes on the dial were inspired by a toy he created about 10 years ago.

“It’s a rather simple watch, but with a twist,” Mr. David said. “It really represents what KAWS is about.”

Mr. David is not the only watchmaker to embrace the notion that contemporary artists are kindred spirits — and therefore ideal partners in the creative process.

Consider Greubel Forsey’s new Time Art Gallery, which opened in Shanghai in December. The space, 50 square meters, or 540 square feet, in a historic waterfront complex along the Bund showcases watches spanning several years of the boutique brand’s existence.

These include a handful of timepieces that the company’s owners, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, have deemed are milestones in horological history — the Duality model by the venerated traditionalist Philippe Dufour, for example — and, most intriguingly, the work of the British micro-sculptor Willard Wigan.

Rather than using the gallery as a vehicle to sell watches, Mr. Forsey said, he and Mr. Greubel preferred to give Chinese collectors “a snapshot of our inspiration and what we do today.”

Greubel Forsey is planning a project with Mr. Wigan, whose infinitesimal sculptures of masterpieces like “The Last Supper,” or cultural icons like Alice in Wonderland, fit into the eye of a needle.

Mr. Wigan, who honed his extraordinary craft as a child seeking solace from dyslexia, had never thought too deeply about timepieces before he formed a partnership with Greubel Forsey. “For Willard, a watch simply had to have a lot of diamonds,” said Sylva Nydegger, Mr. Wigan’s manager.

That changed after Mr. Wigan and Mr. Greubel were introduced in London in 2009.

“Willard does not speak French and Robert’s English is not strong, but they both found their own language when talking and visualizing very small things,” Ms. Nydegger said.

A Greubel Forsey timepiece incorporating one of Mr. Wigan’s nearly invisible sculptures is still a ways off, Ms. Nydegger said, but she is convinced that, once complete, it would stretch “the boundaries of horology and art like never before.”

Around the corner from the Time Art Gallery, the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, a historic building restored and reopened by the Swatch Group in 2010, stretches across several boundaries of its own. In addition to the Blancpain, Breguet and Omega retail boutiques that occupy the hotel’s street level, the building houses seven guest suites and 18 spaces for artists to live and work in.

Drawing on the Swatch brand’s nearly 30-year history of “working closely with artists to create collaborative works of art for ‘the canvas on the wrist,”’ the hotel’s artist-in-residence program “is at the heart of our ‘Art Hotel’ concept,” said Nick Hayek, president of the Swatch Group’s Executive Group Management Board.

“We’ve invited painters, musicians, photographers, sculptors, sound artists,” he said. “We don’t care if the artists are well-known or unknown. It’s a gut choice, not a head choice, and that’s the way we want to handle it, because we want the right mix. We’re not looking for the next big genius, either; it’s the work that counts.”

Mr. Hayek’s fierce commitment to nurturing and rewarding promising artists resonates with many people, but few are in a position to devote an entire gallery to sharing the work of like-minded thinkers. Enter Maximilian Büsser, the founder of the two-month-old MB&F M.A.D. Gallery (with M.A.D. standing for Mechanical Art Devices), a temple of kinetic art on Rue Verdaine, in the heart of the Old Town area of Geneva.

“I wanted to curate the creators,” Mr. Büsser said.

“Every single object is linked to a machine but there’s always a human being behind it.”

In addition to MB&F’s avant-garde Horological Machine timepieces, displayed in vitrines throughout the light-filled gallery, the space also showcases the “Machine Lights” of Berlin-based Frank Buchwald, the metallic transforming sculptures of the Chinese artist Xia Hang and humorous kinetic objects by the English pair behind Laikingland.

Elaborating on his rationale for creating the gallery, Mr. Büsser returned to a favorite topic: the mediocrity of 20th century watchmaking.

“It was a century of industrialization,” he said. “Practicality completely took over.”

By Mr. Büsser’s reckoning, the specter of technology that once threatened to make mechanical watches obsolete has in fact been a blessing for the industry because it has freed watchmakers from the need to approach their craft with overly literal aspirations.

“That’s why I’m angry that this whole industry keeps creating products that mimic the practical objects of the pre-quartz era,” he said. “Hence, that’s why we do what we do at MB&F. Yes, we will give you time, but that’s not the point.”