Johannes Willi (b. Basel, 1983) is a conceptual artist. Willi studied at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel. He cofounded the independent Hinterhof Offspace in Basel and, with collaborators, initiated the I Never Read Art Book Fair in Basel, which debuted in 2012 and which he continues to direct. With his fellow artists Olivier Rossel and Marcel Freymond, he is also a member of the collective Juice & Rispetta.
Johannes Willi’s artistic practice may be described as a form of «professional dilettantism», an application of specific artistic and artisanal techniques the artist imitates without actually having mastered them. The implementation of his plans and the outcome are an experiment in which failure is regarded as a reinterpretation and enhancement of the object being imitated. This practice was exemplified by the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as part of the «Soundzz.z.zzz…z» Lucerne Festival at Kunstmuseum Luzern in 2015. Willi equipped the musicians of the Lucerne Festival Academy with home-built instruments he had constructed out of staples from the home improvement store by following the instructions in Wikipedia entries. The performance involved the orchestra as well as the audience in an experiment that produced an unpredictable acoustic environment; what they experienced was more reminiscent of a rhythm section or a music school rehearsal than of Beethoven’s well-known melody.
The networking principle is another cornerstone of Willi’s art: he frequently establishes platforms on which others are invited to stage their work. The synergies that result from such collaborations between artists, writers, or musicians form the basis for Willi’s own art. One example of this approach was Free Willi, an installation he presented during Regionale 16 at Kunsthalle Basel in 2015. He invited artist friends to contribute one piece each on the theme of «Freedom.» He then hired art students to hang the compiled works, sidestepping the imperative of creative production. As the recipient of the 2016 Manor Art Award, Willi will now realize a new project titled Free Willi 2—Freedom in Danger that will take an international perspective. Embedded in a site-specific installation at the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart, it will raise questions concerning the artist’s distinctive personal style and the paradigm of the Western conception of art.