Dispatches from the Alps, 8
Sunday morning sees a few clouds wandering about the peaks, but it’s mostly fair and Benoît has made arrangements for us to visit the triennial sculpture exhibition that’s being held down the road in a hillside park. It’s very confusing, therefore, when we wind our way through the town of Bex to end instead at a grass-strip aerodrome. It turns out that he is surprising us with an aerial tour of the Valais, and we happily pile into two small planes for the flight. The aerodrome is a classic, even sporting a yellow biplane bounding along the strip before taking off between the adjacent cornfields. Sara and I are in a 180-horsepower Robin, a stubby but strong four-seater that is a bit like a flying minivan with large windows for sightseeing.
We climb steadily out of the valley and bank right to cross a ridge and the inevitable updraft, bear left of the glaciers on the north slopes of the peaks outside Gstaad, then wend our way south through the peak to cross over the Valais, all the time gaining altitude. The Valais, when it appears, is by contrast a broad swatch of continuous human habitation, the vineyards a grid of cultivation mostly facing south to catch as much sun as possible.
On the other side of the valley tower the Weisshorn, the four-faced pyramid of the Dent Blanche, the great tooth of the Matterhorn, and the massive glaciers of the Gran Combin. I’ve hiked and climbed in mountains over much of the world, but the Alps remain for me the most exciting of all the ranges because they rise so steeply from such a low elevation, thus host glaciers in relatively close proximity to green pastures and towns. Both your eyes and your imagination are constantly flipping from one environmental extreme to the other.
Our outbound flight stops just short of the Mount Blanc Massif and all too soon we bank to begin our descent. We’ve climbed to more than 4,000 meters, and have to spiral down steeply to land, the scale of the mountains much more apparent during the quick descent than it was during the slow climb at the beginning.
Over lunch afterwards at the aerodrome we watch single engine aircraft coming and going every couple of minutes, and I’m reminded how aerial a country is Switzerland. You’re either driving a precipitous road hanging thousands of feet above a valley, riding a telepherique to hike or ski in the mountains, or you’re one of the disproportionately large percentage of people here who fly their own aircraft.
Lunch being finished, we do, indeed, visit the sculpture exhibition held in the parc de Szilassy. The work ranges from abstract works planted on grassy lawns to the sod itself being cut and levered up to form walls of a geometrical structure. Many of the works are variations on familiar tropes, but only a few of them work successfully within the grand scenery, which includes the glaciers of Mt. Blanc in the distance. It’s a competitive setting for art, and one that demonstrates how the Heizer sculpture seen yesterday manages successfully to leverage meaning within its mountainous surroundings.
Dispatches from the Alps, 7
One of the most important reasons for us to visit the Valais in southwestern Switzerland is to see Michael Heizer’s recent sculpture, Tangential Circular Negative Line (1968-2012), which Jean-Maurice Verone commissioned as the first project for his AIR & Art Foundation, an organization he started in 2010 as a companion to R&Art. The sculpture’s title refers to the fact that the series of three circles—situated at 1950 meters and just below the enormous Mauvoisin hydroelectric dam—is based on desert drawings that Heizer made on Mirage Dry Lake in 1968—the 80-foot diameter strewn earth Circular Surface Drawing—and then in 1970 Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing on Jean Dry Lake outside Las Vegas. Circular Surface Planar Displacement was a 900 x 500-foot drawing made by riding on a motorcycle in circles after creating a template with string anchored to the five central points of the linked figures.
The current work was fabricated in spring of 2012 using 26 tons of large Core-ten weathering steel to make half-circles that were transported carefully up the winding road and placed on a leveled site near the Mauvoisin Hotel. The arcs created three shallow trenches topped with gravel left over from the dam’s construction. This new work is in a series with the early drawings, but not identical in form to any of them.
After talking with Verone about the Heizer sculpture and future plans for the AIR & Art Foundation—who emphasized that the works commissioned by the Foundation would be large-scale and permanent, versus the ephemeral works made for the R&Art program—we pile into the art school van and drive to the work itself. Jean-Maurice plans to commission one work in iconic sites for each of the thirteen subregions of the Valais. The Director of the Art School, Sibylle Omlin, who sits on the board of Verone’s foundation, comes with us to add her perspective.
We enter the Mauvoisin site through tall vertical frosted panels bearing labels about the artist and work, walk downhill through a small grassy copse, then out onto the gravel bed of the work. The Core-ten steel already has a rusted patina, the nested and tangential circles a playful temptation to enter the work itself. Peaks tower 2,000 meters above, while the 250-meter tall dam (820 feet high) dominates the valley behind us. The steep and narrow valley is a total rock-and-ice avalanche zone, the site was chosen in part to keep it out of harm’s way.
Julian Myers-Szupinska, who is admirer of Heizer’s work and has written extensively about it, questions what it means to translate a gesture made in the Nevada desert more than forty years ago into a work in the Swiss Alps, a work that has no site-specific relationship to its setting. Sibylle calls it a “Swiss Heizer,” in that it seems to fall within the tradition of modernist Swiss steel sculptures. Benoît Antille thinks that this is, in part, a quote or re-enactment of the earlier works. One thing we all agree on is that it belongs to a larger effort to brand the Valais with art, a strategy aimed at international tourism.
We spend some time talking about the mountain surveys that Heizer started making as early as 1970 in Switzerland, then later in Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada, all in search of a place where he could lower a huge granite slab down a very steep slope to create a “vertical displacement” work. These gravity sculptures would have been then, and would remain now, unparalleled and important land art. Sadly, Heizer could never find a site with the characteristics necessary to realize the work.
I know why we’re having a discussion about the problematics of this particular work, but it is also geometrically intelligent, relevant to the method of the dam’s construction, and an elegant horizontal riposte to the vertical mass of the concrete face. Jean-Maurice has a plan for AIR & Art that bears a procedural resemblance to that of his R&Art program: start with works by well-known artists that can be easily assimilated by the audience and then commission more challenging work over time.
The sun is slipping lower and we head over to the hotel to have a fondue as a snack. I take the opportunity afterwards to sneak back to the sculpture by myself just as the sun sets behind the peaks. A woman with a backpack is kneeling in the center of the work. Several mushrooms have spring up there, and she harvests them with a pocketknife. I ask her if they are good, and she replies yes, as long as they are harvested when young—when they mature, they become poisonous. I’ve never seen anyone foraging on a sculpture before, yet another variation on the deepening relationship between art and nature.
Dispatches from the Alps, 6
This morning we start our second visit to public site-specific art installations by meeting with Jean-Maurice Verone, the organizer of two public art programs in the Valais. Jean-Maurice is a Swiss designer working in Milan, and we gather in his jam-packed work space in a contemporary high-tech business park in Martigny.
Jean-Maurice started R&ART in 2008, an annual and juried site-specific commissioning program in the nearby town of Vercorin. Each year he selects an artist to create interventions using the entire scale of the town so that the art becomes part of the place itself. The first work in 2009 was by Felice Varini, a Swiss artist living in Paris, who is well known for making geometrical perspective paintings in rooms and on buildings. In Vercorin he painted what looked like more than a hundred separate arcs on almost as many buildings; once you assumed the single privileged point of view chosen by the artist, however, the anamorphic artwork snapped into focus as a series of circles unifying the old part of the town.
In 2010 the Swiss-American team Lang-Baumann made one of their signature street paintings emanating from the central town square that alluded to traffic patterns and maps. A virtue of Vercorin for Jean-Maurice is the fact you can see the town from so many angles, including an aerial one from a ski tram passing overhead. Another is the compact topography of the town that allows artists to make unifying gestures. Riccardo Blumer took advantage of both aspects when he stretched a cable across the town in 2011, a line wrapped in LEDs so that it traced a highly visible aerial line at night as well as by day.
For the final project in the first series of four, Jean-Maurice commissioned the Capuisat brothers from Geneva to execute a project with a house condemned for a resort. Their seemingly random construction of lumber enveloping the outside of the house and roof was in actuality an organic but functional structure in which they lived for two months while working on it. They invited in community members for conversation and coffee, thus creating a social practice work. Titling the work “La résidence secondaire” was a comment on the rapid proliferation of holiday homes in the Valais, a development that is completely changing the character of the region’s picturesque small villages—both for better and for worse.
You can see an arc of evolution in the first series of the R&Art program as Jean-Maurice goes from selecting easily assimilated and handsome gestures done in a traditional medium such as street art in the first two works, then a more modern 3D work with LEDs to one that is based at least in part on process. Vercorin is a traditional town of only 500 year-round residents, but one that expands to 5,000 in winter for skiing. Jean-Maurice planned R&Art from the beginning to start by installing easily understood works until the town developed both trust in and knowledge about contemporary art, then to move into more challenging works as time went on. But it is in his other program, AIR&Art, that he has made the boldest move so far.