Despite their vast differences, the themes of ‘complexity’ and ‘precision’ find their direct expression in each of the extraordinary works produced as a result of the Audemars Piguet Art Commission. Each year since 2015, the luxury Swiss watchmaker has charged both emerging and mid-career artists with realising those themes in works that, while varying in scale and medium, demand that we ask questions of art’s role at the intersection of science, technology and the natural world.

Before work can begin on each of the projects, each year a guest curator is first tasked with identifying artists from their region whose work is congruent with the core themes as they relate to the company’s heritage. Since it was founded in 1875, Audemars Piguet has for over 140 years existed at the nexus of the creative and applied arts, technological precision and scientific innovation.

The affinity between artist and patron is further underscored when at least three shortlisted artists are invited on a journey to the home of the watchmaker in the bucolic village of Le Brassus in the Swiss Jura Mountains’ Vallée de Joux each year. There, over a period of weeks, the relationship between the artist and the artisan only deepens once the former proposes their vision for the large-scale commission. A six-member jury of international art experts and Audemars Piguet representatives is then given the unenviable challenge of electing the recipient of the Audemars Piguet Art Commission. The grant itself is not strictly monetary. The watchmaker not only provides financial support to develop the proposed project, but also facilitates access to the scientific support, craft expertise and technology required for the artist to bring their vision to life.

The finished projects then enjoy a public unveiling at one of the three international editions of the contemporary art fair, Art Basel (in either Hong Kong, Miami Beach, or Basel), of which Audemars Piguet has, since 2013, been an Associate Partner. More easily transported elements of the large-scale, experiential projects – prints, drawings, sculptures, videos, photographs – will often later tour internationally for exhibition in public venues after launching at Art Basel. When possible, the works also return to the the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland for exhibition at the Audemars Piguet headquarters. Their return represents the culmination of an exchange that’s of equal benefit to artist and watchmaker alike – an exchange of ideas, perspectives and resources that enriches both parties and draws from the history, mood, and unspoiled natural landscape that continues to inspire both.

In light of Art Basel 2018, explore the first three artworks produced as part of the Audemars Piguet Art Commission.

Robin Meier, Synchronicity, 2015
“I have always been fascinated by complex systems that somehow self-organize,” says the Swiss-born artist Robin Meier. The Paris-based musician, installation and multimedia artist cites phenomena from both the natural and built environments as examples of his fascination writ large. In nature, he looks to beehives, the synchronous movement of a flock of birds and the frequency shared by swarms of insects, namely fireflies and crickets. Mirrored in our own lives, Meier invokes the flow of pedestrian traffic, the fluctuations of the stock market and our transportation networks as examples of a similar praxis. “These different systems are all related to each other in the way their organizations arise or emerge without a leader from the innumerable interactions between individuals,” Meier continues. “The synchronization of fireflies is a beautiful example of this.”

The inaugural Audemars Piguet Art Commission was Synchronicity, a multimedia installation conceived by Meier that was overseen by guest curator Marc-Olivier Wahler. The work debuted at Art Basel in the summer of 2015 – a fitting confluence of circumstances, given the shared personal and cultural roots of artist, art fair and patron.

Meier’s proposal was born of his desire to investigate the dialectic between how the complex organic systems of the natural world can mimic and influence intelligent artificial systems, and vice versa. Synchronicity was Meier’s attempt to bridge the divide between those two spheres, to illuminate parallels that already existed between natural and mechanical phenomena and to give voice to those interested in questioning the long-term implications of that understanding.

Though Synchronicity took on a considerable scale in its realisation, its origins were much smaller. Meier had long been fascinated with a certain species of firefly that is unique to parts of Thailand and which has the ability to synchronise its bioluminescent flashes amongst its kind. After 10 years of interest, extensive travel and research, Meier finally witnessed the phenomenon first-hand in three synchronising fireflies in Thailand. He was, he says, ecstatic.

A new challenge then presented itself to Meier, who sought to replicate the experience en masse using fairly rudimentary instruments: metronomes and LED lights. As part of the artist’s research stages, which was supported by Audemars Piguet, Meier honed in on the study not only of how specific insects flash their bioluminescent light in unison, but how crickets chorus together in a single regulated pulse. After distributing LED lights that blinked in rhythm with metronomes throughout a swarm of fireflies, Meier deduced that it was possible to guide the insects’ responses.

Meier’s final commission took on a form that mirrored that early hypothesis. The artist created a greenhouse teeming with plants, insect life and the apparatus of a scientific laboratory. With the help of specialised entomologists and soft lighting, thousands of fireflies were imported from Japan in a humane fashion that didn’t disrupt their natural rhythms. Visitors to the installation entered Meier’s artistic experiment through an air locked tent similar to those used to house scientific field experiments or those used to cultivate hydroponic plant life.

Inside, an entirely contrived ecosystem comprised of pumps, ropes, metronomes, hundreds of ruby-coloured LED lights and scientific paraphernalia (oscilloscopes, seismographs, electroencephalographs and computer monitors) squared off with the transposed natural elements of grasses, moss, aquatic plant life, dozens of crickets, and thousands of fireflies. In Synchronicity, the LED light sources blinked in rhythm with the ticking metronomes, which likewise mirrored each other through the vibrations they created and transmitted through the floor. Their sounds replicated those emitted by computers that were also installed in the space, forming an aural call and response that the crickets emulated in time with the bioluminescent flashes of the surrounding swarm.

The result was an immersive biosphere of Meier’s creation. Synchronicity was (and continues to be, as it travels) a marvel of many moving parts. In Synchronicity, it is possible to witness biology and technology working not in opposition, but in tandem – a chorus swelling to an autonomous symphony no longer requiring Meier’s conduction, but nearing a state of perfect harmony.

Sun Xun, Reconstruction of the Universe, 2016
“I think of time as a philosophical prison,” says the Chinese artist Sun Xun. “We’ve lost the past, we never get to the future, and it is this way forever. So we are never really free. How can we gain freedom? Only by trying to something that seems impossible as much of the time as possible.”

If freedom is a state only attainable through attempting the impossible, then surely the artist’s Reconstruction of the Universe ranks amongst his most liberated works. An immersive large-scale multimedia installation and the second Audemars Piguet Art Commission presented at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December 2016, Reconstruction of the Universe saw Sun Xun merge the practices of traditional Chinese art with twenty-first century technology to create a startlingly original work. In doing so, the artist bridged the divide between past, future and lived experience to create a work that doubles as a reprieve from the demands of temporality – a stay from the unerring passage of time itself, however long your interaction with it lasts.

Sun Xun, who will next month stage his first solo exhibition in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art, has been lauded as one of China’s most dynamic contemporary artists, and was selected for commission on the advice of guest curator, Ruijun Shen. The artist is perhaps best known for his painstakingly complex stop-motion animation works that draw on China’s rich history of woodblock, or woodcut, printing – a medium that is as deeply personal as it is political. In 2006, Sun Xun opened an animation studio to realise the laborious demands of his productions. The scope of his 2016 Audemars Piguet Art Commission, however, would require that he drastically scale his operations and broaden his scope to encompass the considerable size of his ambition.

Reconstructing the Universe was inspired by Sun Xun’s formative experience spent observing the Audemars Piguet watchmakers at work in Le Brassus. To the artist, the work of the horological artisans and the backdrop against which they worked – the pristine Vallée de Joux – encroached on the transcendent. While at work crafting impossibly crafted complications, the mechanical watchmakers, the artist has said, were comparable to Buddhists pursuant of a 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,” says Sun Xun. “All of this was in my head as I approached the installation.”

The commissioned work itself evades easy classification. In a curvilinear, open-air, S-shaped bamboo pavilion designed by the artist, Sun Xun staged multiple projection-based animation works that engaged with time in both content and form and were screened on surfaces both flat and spherical. The sheer scale of the project required that the artist enlist an extensive team of woodcutters, animators, architects and engineers to construct the site-specific gallery space, which was set back from the shores of Miami Beach.

At the heart of the commission was Time Spy, a 10-minute, non-linear 3D stop-animation work that ruminates on time, cosmology and the personal experience through a surrealist lens. Time Spy employs a cast of hybridised characters and landscapes that conflate the human with the animal, the organic with the artificial, and the terrestrial with the cosmic. If the aesthetic scope of the project wasn’t already broad enough, its technical execution required a much greater collective effort from all involved. An adjacent series of spherical projections that represent the five elements—water, fire, metal, wood, and earth—in Chinese mythology added another element to an installation that further compounded its demands.

To create the frames of his animation, Sun Xun used a process that pushed his practice to its limits and which required that he first illustrate each frame as a drawing. He then applied an ink wash that effectively rendered these drawings as painted works. Those images were then turned into nearly 10,000 hand-cut woodblock prints carved into relief with the assistance of over 100 assistants. Those prints were then filmed at a rate of 18 frames per second to create the astonishing centrepiece, Time Spy.

The resulting film manages to be at once both impossibly precise – its lines decisive, the margin for error slim to none – and painterly, an abstract impression of a time that will never again be repeated.

Lars Jan, Slow Moving Luminaries, 2017
The kinetic, multifaceted work of the American artist Lars Jan seeks to tease out the natural rhythms of our lives in relation to the passage of time and the world around us. The third Audemars Piguet Art Commission, a multilevel installation that challenged the idea of change in both our perception and the environment, is a natural extension of these areas of inquiry.

Unveiled at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December 2017, the commission was overseen by guest curator Kathleen Forde. Titled Slow Moving Luminaries, the artist’s work speaks to a long-held fascination with the hypnotic, almost violent movement of water. A previous work, Holoscenes, tasked individual performers with enacting their daily routines in transparent tanks that were gradually flooded with up to 15 tonnes of water. Their simulated drownings were thrown into stark relief by the mundanity of their actions – sleeping, cleaning, playing a guitar – and quotidian behaviours, drawing parallels between our short-term choices and the longer-term patterns that exacerbate climate change.

Slow Moving Luminaries gives voice to similar concerns held by the Los Angeles-based artist. The commission was born out of Jan’s experience visiting the Audemars Piguet headquarters in Le Brassus. There, he heard of and experienced first-hand the effects of global warming, conjuring within him the image of a see-saw – its oscillating parts reflected in the melting of Swiss glaciers and their natural counterpart in the rising of sea levels. The duality spoke also to an “internal oscillation” the artist said he had been experiencing, between “a desire to contemplate reality on one hand and, to some extent, a desire to scream for help on the other.”

The commission was designed by Jan to facilitate acts of contemplation and contrast; to consider the connection between the natural and built environments; and to interrogate how one sphere of life changes the other at varying speeds. In Slow Moving Luminaries, Jan created a double height structure on the same site as Meier and Sun Xun’s monumental works that contained within it a sprawling labyrinth. The internal path was fringed on either side with dense tropical greenery or translucent scrims nearing five metres in height. Within the scrims were circular and square cut-outs that invoked the windows of Genko-an Temple, a small Zen shrine close to where the artist once lived in Kyoto. The symbols are representative of the windows toward enlightenment and confusion, respectively.

Hidden amidst the greenery of Slow Moving Luminaries were five prismatic, laser cut, aluminium sculptures. Their stark white, grid-like forms recall the nearby apartment complexes of South Beach, Miami, as well as the geometric designs, minimalism and op-art abstraction of the Light and Space movement of 1960s California. The titular sculptures, which were also lit from within, moved vertically throughout the installation space at speeds dictated by the mechanised platforms that held them, which were responding to pre-programmed algorithmic patterns.

At their apex point, the sculptures broke through openings in the ceiling to emerge on the second floor of Jan’s structure: a ‘water roof’ that was breached by Jan’s architectural forms. The water roof itself, however, was made all the more remarkable for the message submerged beneath its surface.

In sunken, white geometric lines, Jan spelled out the letters ‘SOS’ in block form – their lines mirroring the exact path visitors to the installation had just walked underneath. In doing so, the visitors to the installation also became part of the titular group of Slow Moving Luminaries. Above the pool, Jan flew two orange flags printed with black circles and squares, a secondary nod to Kyoto’s Genko-an Zen Buddhist temple, as well as the international maritime signal of distress.

In its gestures toward familiarity and dissonance, the commission allowed space for the viewer to contemplate themselves and their environment, as it vacillated between high-end technology and questions of ecology, philosophy, psychology, history and art history.

Jan intended the installation to be experienced over an extended period of time, and in doing so the inference is that Slow Moving Luminaries is less about the objects themselves as it is a series of evolving situations for its viewer. Along with a manipulation of speed, and thus time, there is a confusion of scale between the maquette-like sculptures and the gargantuan condominiums, as well as the water roof and the limitless stretch of the ocean – with all the uncertainty it entails – that lies beyond.

Tile image and cover image: Courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet