Dispatches from the Alps, 5
We have used up the afternoon of our first day in Switzerland by touring the unique and almost unknown art collection at Furka Pass, but before descending back to the Valais, Janis Osolin leads us on a small detour to view the Rhône Glacier, which now has to be hiked to above the Hotel Belvédère, which was built down a few hairpins from the summit in order originally to look down on the ice. Now the glacier has retreated out of sight from the guests. He leads us to a gated dirt road, raises the barrier for us to pass through, and we park minutes later where the road ends at a massive granite fortification built in the 1890s as part of the National Redoubt. The rounded prow of the fortress gives it the air of submarine from a Jules Verne novel that has backed itself into the mountain.
Fort Galenhutte held several “long guns” that were more akin to naval guns than army artillery, armaments with a limited field of fire meant to control access to the pass against German or Italian forces. As Benoit points out, the Alps are a bit like Swiss cheese, tunneled through and through with civilian and military tunnels and facilities still being created today. Digging a 27-kilometer-long tunnel more than three hundred feet underground during the last decade for the Large Hadron Collider is simply part of a long tradition for the Swiss.
We pass in front and under the prow of the fort, its glowering brow like a set in a James Bond movie. Perhaps it’s because I’m thinking of Sean Connery in his Aston Martin DB5 dueling on the pass with Tilly Masterson’s Mustang, a car chase for Goldfinger that in 1964 established the need for a spectacular car shase in every future Bond. As we round the ridge the melt pond at the snout of the glacier comes into view, and then the heavily creased ice itself, which rises into the clouds and sleet. All thoughts of car chases are erased.
A regular grid of large melted sun cups marks where large white blankets have been placed on the end of the glacier nearest the Hotel Belvédère. They were laid out by the family that owns this part of the glacier (yes, most of the peaks and glaciers in Switzerland are actually in private hands). Each year since 1870 they have tunneled out a 100-meter-long ice grotto for tourists to explore after paying a fee. The ice at the melting end of a glacier tends to be dirty and dark, thus absorbs sunlight and melts even faster than the rest of the glacier. The white blankets, which look very much like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s early Australia wrap installation, reflect sunlight and help keep the ice from disappearing before the end of tourist season in the face of global warming. It’s a technique now being used on glaciers around the world, but more often to protect water sources.
Janis ends our tour by saying how much en enjoys the contrast between the small scale of the art projects and the large scale of the landscape. The art is not in competition with the place, but very much of it.
Dispatches from the Alps, 4
Settling down with Janis Osolin for a lunch of homemade tomato soup, deer salami, bread and local cheeses, I scribble as fast as I can as he relates the history of Furk’Art . Janis is committed to people understanding the pass as more than a scenic climax, but as a site socially constructed through the conjoined histories of tourism, transportation, industrial and military usage, and also as a place where the African and European tectonic plates meet. The Alps, which each year rise anywhere from one millimeter to one centimeter a year—and are eroded almost as quickly!—are static neither geologically nor culturally.
When Hostettler, who owned a gallery in Neuchatel, brought the American performance and installation artist James Lee Byars to Furka Pass in 1983, they initiated a conversation that continued with subsequent guest artists about how to run a unique residency program in such a remote area. One of the tenets was that artists would agree to leave behind whatever they created at Furka. The result is that the work produced over the twenty years while Hostettler ran the program has formed a richly textured place-specific collection that remains mostly unknown to the art world in general, even in Switzerland. The artists would have about two months of working time during the summer, and had to plan carefully beforehand, in particular for the taxing weather that could take apart works of art situated outside. “If you had the wrong screw, it took you three hours to go down to a store and come back.”
In his status as the caretaker of the Furk’Art program, Janis has responsibility for conservation conundrums. For example, the repainting the Buren shutters after they’ve almost weathered away requires choices about paint types, the chemical composition of which have evolved since the works were first created. An extreme example is the set seven boulders painted with white chalk, a work that disappeared with the first snowfall. Should they be re-created?
After lunch Janis takes us on a tour of the hotel itself, which is preserved in a way to present the history of the site, the hotel, and the art. A hat contributed by Joseph Beuys sits in a stairwell vitrine with the twisted stub of a small military rocket resting on top. A pattern painting of pink and white crosses by Olivier Mosset is installed in a room as a visual layer atop the original floral wallpaper. One room contains a sample of every curtain ever hung in the building, as well as sample rugs. No photographs are allowed: Janis wants Furka “to be a place of discovery.”
It’s clear that Janis is not in a hurry to complete his curation of the hotel contents and environs. He wants Furka to offer a “forgotten, relaxed atmosphere” in distinction from “efficient Switzerland.” To that end, and as Benoît puts it, he has stripped away as much typography from the buildings as possible in order to retain signification without signature. That, plus the ban of cameras from the premises, is akin to how land artists such as Walker De Maria and Michael Heizer demand that you experience their works in person and not through a representation.
Dispatches from the Alps, 3
The eastern end of the Valais hosts the headwaters of the Rhône that originate from a glacier of the same name. The famous body of ice which once rested as far down as the valley floor has retreated during the last 150 years up an enormous cliff, the icefall leaving behind a series of waterfalls. Now the glacier itself is hidden behind a bench of polished granite high above us. Two historical passes branch off from this end of the valley: the Grimsel Pass headed north into central Switzerland, and the narrow Furka Pass road, which is closed for eight months out of the year due to snow. Built atop Furka in the late 1800s were two hotels.
The older hotel, built at top of the road’s arc, was where Queen Victoria spent time in 1868 making watercolors of what was by then an established destination in the Alps. The second and more modest structure, was a ten-room traveller’s chalet built in 1892 just east and down the pass a few hundred yards. In 1902 a large cube of 27 additional rooms was added, which included a wood paneled, square dining room. The pass and its two hotels were at first an exotic destination for European and British travelers come to experience the sublime, a term in large part created to describe the beauty and terror of the vertiginous alpine environment of Switzerland. But, as rail and then automobiles came to the area early in the 20th century, the pass became more of a transit area and a viewpoint stopped at only briefly for a coffee and a photograph. As we near the top, we can look back and see the Matterhorn and Weisshorn, which are visible intermittently through the gathering clouds.
The first hotel was eventually condemned and then torn down by the military as a demolition exercise. By the late 1970s the second hotel was also closed, but in 1983 Swiss gallerist Marc Hostettler started an artists retreat in the smaller hotel. James Lee Byars was first to arrive, followed by Marina Abramovic, Hamish Fulton, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jenny Holzer, Richard Long and dozens of others, all leaving site-specific works either in the landscape, or on and in the hotel.
By the time we finish winding our way up steep horseshoe turns and reach the top it’s almost one p.m. and the weather is closing in. But we stop to examine the work designed by Max Bill in 1994, the year of his death, four granite plinths surrounding a small fire pit. Nearby is a chimney-like stack of un-mortared bricks that is taller than a person and split vertically with a narrow fissure through which the inside can be viewed. Built by Per Kirkeby in 1986 using materials from the older hotel, it is a delicate, even fragile reminder of the past. Joseph Kosuth’s quote of Goethe is nearby, as are many other works hidden in the fog, so we continue down to the second hotel.
As we drive up we can see the distinctly stripped shutters painted by Daniel Buren from 1986-1988, the latter the year that Rem Koolhaus finished work on the chalet part of the hotel. Koolhaus made a number of very clean modernist interventions on what is still his only project built in Switzerland, a cafe carved out of the bottom floors of the early structure, and rooms above to house hotel staff. Now the entire south wall has been opened to provide a panoramic view of—well, this afternoon, the clouds and sleet that is starting to fall. But the cafe is inviting, open, and a great setting for a conversation.
Hostettler ended his involvement with what was known as Furk’art in 2003, and the hotel cube next door as a residency facility turned into a house museum and archive. Now it is managed by Janis Osolin, who acts as curator, archivist, and in some ways as an installation artist in his own right, although he is a modest man and I believe would probably deny the last role as presumptuous. We sat down for lunch with Janis and then a tour of the property.