It is often the case that violence, perversity or licentiousness can be stomached in an art space, as long as the visitor can sit comfortably while viewing them. Yves Netzhammer’s exhibition The Refuge for Drawbacks offers no such ease. Rather than the anticipated black box, the gallery is half-lit. Light is partially blocked by a grid of curtain rails along which black sheets (featuring a brick pattern on one side) slide to and fro at irregular intervals, opening and closing avenues and spaces within the grid. Semi-utilitarian sculptural objects within the space appear to be parts of a stage set, but the visitor’s enforced proximity to these objects prohibit an overall view. Several motifs are recurrent: boxes akin to aircraft freight containers, shoes, plumbing and conduits, beds and chairs. Swimming pool ladders rise out of tiled baths with no drains or taps.

In the centre of these obstacles is a new video, ‘Dialogic Abrasion’, 2010, one of three animated pieces in the exhibition. There may be a bench to sit on, but Netzhammer’s animations make uncomfortable watching nonetheless. They are populated by expressionless androgynous figures that encounter animals, objects, each other and occasionally grisly fates. Characters alternate between determining agents and collateral damage. They travel in through mutating environments, where gravity and mass are meaningless. Even the surface of their bodies is not sacrosanct as hands are shown delving inside torsos. The animations appear to possess a cold and emotionless surface, punctuated by painful events: an image of paper cutting a tongue can make one wince.

‘Dialogic Abrasion’ depicts a driver whose surreal vehicle switches between secure unit and a diagrammatic scheme of layers of excavation. The vehicle and driver is depicted, at points, to merge into one composite creature that flaps its rear view mirror ears like a calf. Netzhammer turns the domestic into the macabre and back again. In another instance, a marriage proposal becomes a shooting range—one figure is clad in a suicide bomber’s vest, but the frame glides impassively over it. Add images of an oil field and a library to the same work and it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, Bernd Schurer’s accompanying soundtrack is closer to a visceral experience than a musical complement; unidentifiable noises swell and tension mounts to an oppressive level that eventually splinters and evaporates. Netzhammer has called this material a ‘stockpile of conjectures’—they come one after another without a pause for breath. Though his variations are countless, the motions of sound and image are mechanical and repetitive, suggesting a horror of eventualities. The automated curtains opens and shuts around the viewer in the manner of programmed automatons, but are surprisingly stable comforts in comparison with Netzhammer’s projected narratives.

The emotion or lack of it is of course no accident. Although the artist recreates or echoes scenes already in common consciousness (a figure standing in front of a tank, or a prisoner stoned to death, for example), he uses fiction as a source of impossible experiences, continually investigating what sights or sensations make an impact. The neutral characters are avatars through which Netzhammer is able to imagine and isolate moments of provocation, and select the most responsive trigger. Kunstforum International quotes Netzhammer’s definition of his creative strategy in a Swiss context, seeing Switzerland as a regimented and regulated environment that stifles human empathy. Whether this is true or not, his medium and message cannot be divorced from our young media-obsessed era. Netzhammer’s figures are initially off-putting—they look like a 1980s visualisation of the future which today seems gauche and clumsy. It is by virtue of that shock—their unconvincing appearances and bare surfaces—that we can project on to them. The determined inconvenience of the exhibition also brings us up short, forcing us to inspect what we see. The construction of the three films is more symptomatic than critical of the age, being a constant stream of images and scenarios. Netzhammer is being neither glib nor thoughtless, nor is he experimenting aimlessly. But there is a danger that by bombarding his audience, it becomes numbed to his investigative images.

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer based in Zurich