Winter Ridge and Summer Lake: A Writing Residency at Playa

The Playa residency program for artists, writers, and scientists sits just above the shoreline of seasonal lake encountered by John C. Frémont in 1843 when he first entered what he would soon thereafter describe as the Great Basin. Riding eastward from the Cascades, he stopped at the edge of high snowy ridge. Below a large and green-fringed lake beckoned. He named his frigid viewpoint Winter Ridge, and the water below Summer Lake.

This part of southeastern Oregon, a five hour drive north-northeast of Reno, is volcanic rim country, each basin separated by mountains and lava palisades. Rock art and lithic scatter, among other evidence, show that humans have been here for more than 14,000 years, and important archaeological sites dot the area. Playa is a former hunting lodge with a dozen or so buildings ringing the grassy core of the 55-acre property. Most of the cabins are perched two over large ponds that are hemmed in by reeds, grasses, and brush. Beyond that is the ever-changing slate of the playa, water coming and going with the storms.

The red-topped buildings of Playa are scattered around a grassy sward, the land well-watered by local springs. Photo by Philip Zimmermann.

The red-topped buildings of Playa are scattered around a grassy sward, the land well-watered by local springs. Photo by Philip Zimmermann.

Since opening as a residency program in 2011, more than 150 people have worked here on poems, essays, paintings, photographs and more. Because it sits on the edge of what in spring becomes a very large blank slate, ephemeral installations appear and disappear along with more permanent gestures left on the property. I’m finishing up a ten-day visit during which I’ve mostly worked on poems, something I seldom get to do these days. I watch the muskrats and ducks and grebes swim below, the geese and swans and cranes fly overhead. And I watch the changing light on the hundreds of basaltic rocks arranged by Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay into “Black Diamond” on the edge of the playa. The rocks are spaced and sorted by size so that the work shifts in color, shape, and size relative to the time of day, the angle of light.

Roger Asay & Rebecca Davis, “Black Diamond,” 2014. Basaltic stones on alkali lakebed. Photo courtesy of Bob Keefer.

Roger Asay & Rebecca Davis, “Black Diamond,” 2014. Basaltic stones on alkali lakebed. Photo courtesy of Bob Keefer.

Deborah Ford, the photographer who directs Playa, and who formerly managed the Ucross residency program, shows me images of other recent works. Paul Catanese, a media artist from Chicago, made a series of drone flights in order to photograph his test targets for a thought experiment: how large would an artwork on Earth have to be to be visible from the Moon? The Great Wall of China wouldn’t cut it—the lines would have to be sixty miles wide. His ultra-high resolution panoramic aerials, which feature test targets next to local buildings and landmarks, being to redefine what we mean by space on the desert.

Paul Catanase, from the series “Visible from Space,” 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Paul Catanase, from the series “Visible from Space,” 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

I’m also impressed with the large paintings by Montana artist Sandra Dal Poggetto, who worked on her canvases stretched out on the playa, versus in the studio. The works incorporate materials found on site, as much part of the landscape as a picture of and from it.

Sandra Dal Poggetto, from the “American Fork” Photograph by Deborah Ford.

Sandra Dal Poggetto, from the “American Fork” Photograph by Deborah Ford.

If I had time, I’d go out looking for the elegant little handheld copper boxes made by Joseph McShane from Prescott Arizona, and placed outside around the valley in 2014 for anyone to find. The work is titled “The Presence of Absence,” the total dimension of the series comprising the circumference of the lake basin.

The variety of works made here—including poems by CA+E Research Fellows David Abel and Charles Hood—is typical of residency programs around the country. These nonprofits offer time to “work away from work” for many of us, but they’ve also have become de facto post-graduate research opportunities for many artists who have recently earned MFAs. What makes Playa stand out is not just the unique circumstance of an intermittently dry lakebed and isolation, but also the inclusion of working field scientists who need time to write, as well as conduct research on the local ecosystem.

Anyone interested in finding out more should visit: www.www.playasummerlake.org

And with that, it’s time for me to pack and drive back to Reno in time to catch a plane to Melbourne, where I’ll be keynoting Climarte, a huge event of multiple lectures, seminars, and exhibitions about the role art and artists play in understanding and coping with global change. More from Australia soon!

Dispatches from the Alps, 10

The embroidered tapestry Zeitdokumnet (or Time Document) by Marie Ceppi, approximately 11.3 x 18.1 ft., 2002-2006. Photo by Sara Frantz.

The embroidered tapestry Zeitdokumnet (or Time Document) by Marie Ceppi, approximately 11.3 x 18.1 ft., 2002-2006. Photo by Sara Frantz.

I’ll end this series about public art in the Swiss Alps by looking at a singular work of art we found, by contrast, hanging on a museum wall. Our visits to Furka Pass, the Micheal Heizer sculpture by the Maivoisin Dam, the Verbier 3-D Sculpture Park produced a rich conversation about the use of art in branding the region for tourism—as well as how art can subvert that commodification at the same time—but we came to no real conclusion. What was left was the pleasure in seeing good art that was new to us, and Marie Ceppi’s heroic tapestry was a work that captured so much of what we had seen.

Sion is the capital of Canton Valais, a town of 33,000 that is so picturesque as to defy cynicism. It’s been occupied for more than 8,000 years, was a Neolithic farming community, and is littered with large burial stoneworks such as carved stelae, menhir, and dolmen—exactly, in fact, the sorts of prehistoric structures that Lucy Lippard links to the contemporary impulse to make earthworks. Churches and castles and ruins stand handsomely atop the twin scarped hills that are the town’s defining geographical features. Vineyards terrace the hillsides, although they are being diminished almost weekly by construction projects. Goethe wrote admiringly of the town, its buildings, and vineyards when he passed through on his way to Furka Pass in 1779.

The Valais Art Museum is in a handsome turreted stone building at the foot of the hills, and we’re met there by its new director, Dr. Celine Eidenbenz, who takes us up and down and through the maze of the old church buildings that now house the artworks. Juxtaposed with a fine collection of regional landscape painting and modernist works are selected contemporary works, the most arresting of which is the monumental embroidered tapestry Zeitdokumnet (or Time Document) by Marie Ceppi. The artist was born in Visp just up the valley, and earned her Masters of Public Art at Benoit’s school in 2006. From 2002 through 2006 she employed forty or so people from the region to translate a digitally processed aerial photograph into a forty-panel tapestry measuring 345 x 552 cm (approx. 11.3 x 18.1 feet). The image is of the construction site near Visp of the south portal of the new 35-kilometer Lötschberg railway tunnels that were opened in 2007 to connect the north and the south of Europe. The tunnels bore through the mountains to connect the Simplon railway coming from Italy to Bern on the other side of the Alps, thence to Germany.

In the middle of the image is the tunnel-boring machine aimed toward the upper left corner; below is the conveyor belt extending down and left over the Rhône, bearing away blasted rock and debris. Both endeavors, the tunnel and the tapestry, are heroic in scale, the traditional women’s hand work corollary to the machine-based construction. As I wander through the collections, I return again and again to the tapestry, drawn by its intricacy as well as the incongruity of soft textiles being used to depict hard-rock tunneling.

The tapestry is a time document because of many reasons. It shows a landscape of production being replaced over decades by one of consumption—the agriculture of the vineyards giving way to the tunnel that increase tourism in the Valais, and expedite the global flow of goods between northern and southern Europe. And it’s about the very act of tunneling, of digging through the strata of the past in order to construct the future, which is not such a bad metaphor for art history itself, and this trip.

We want to thank again Benoît Antille and his university, the l’Ecole cantonale d’art du Valais, for sponsoring the Ars Contemporaenus Alpinus project that brought us together to examine the strata of culture in the Valais. And most especially a round of applause for the artist Eric Philippoz who drove us repeatedly up and down the mountains so that we might see for ourselves how art and nature can frame one another.

Dispatches from the Alps, 9

This is a longer than usual post about our final day of fieldwork in the Swiss Alps this last September—and it’s the next to the last one in this long series!

For our final driving excursion, we drove in mid-afternoon via a back road into the fabled ski resort town of Verbier. This was by far the scariest drive of the entire trip; it wasn’t just narrow and steep, but hung over the valley in places with our wheels on the edge—and then the road turned to dirt. The young artist Eric Philipoz, a Valais native and Benoît’s assistant, had done all the driving during our trip, and he managed the track with aplomb. But even he was swearing by the time we reached the outskirts of one of the wealthiest towns in the country.

Verbier, which was developed first as a French ski resort in the 1950s, is now one of the wealthiest resorts in Switzerland, a haunt of British and European royalty and Russian oligarchs. The architecture is determinedly traditional Swiss chalet. Fitting contemporary art into this context is a challenge. The art is an urban amenity for some sophisticated travelers and second- or fourth-home owners, but a total disconnect for most permanent residents.

Image from http://www.newlyswissed.com/snow-n-rail-skiing-verbier/

Image from http://www.newlyswissed.com/snow-n-rail-skiing-verbier/

As quickly as we could we located Kiki Thompson and Madeleine Paternot, the co-founders of the Verbier Sculpture Park & Residency, which mounted its first season of works in 2011. Kiki and Madeleine, both Verbier locals, went to New York to further their art careers. Kiki had previously worked with Christo and Jean-Claude on their Umbrellas project in California, and when the two returned to Verbier, they brought back to Switzerland a sense that monumental artworks could be redefined to sit within the sublime landscape of the Alps, versus trying to compete with it.

The original idea for siting works at Verbier was to use the structural pads of dismantled ski lifts, but eventually Kiki was persuaded to place the works along one of the high altitude access roads at just above 2300 meters—putting the sculpture park at almost the same elevation as Furka Pass, where we had started our fieldwork three days earlier. We claimed a couple of gondolas on the tramway and up the mountain we went. The day had stayed relatively clear, despite a weather report that threatened rain, and we gazed across the Valais to the Gran Combin and the Mt. Blanc Massif, the summit of the latter already wreathed in clouds. This was by far the sculpture park with the best view in the world, a daunting prospect for any artist.

Donna Dodson, Baby Bringer, 2011. Photo by Donna Dodson.

Donna Dodson, Baby Bringer, 2011. Photo by Donna Dodson.

We had about an hour to run through the outdoor exhibition, and the first work we encountered, (and the first piece commissioned for the park) was a huge styrofoam-and-cement sculpture in red, white, and black by American Donna Dodson. Titled Baby Bringer, it was a 4-meter tall sculpture of an endangered Swiss white stork. Dodson’s work is meant to celebrate, in her own words “the mystical relationship between human beings and the animal kingdom. Baby Bringer, according to the artist’s website, was made to evoke fertility and motherhood while subverting “the popular myth that storks bring babies in a diaper clasped in their beaks.” We admired the impulse, but in the mountainous context the work seemed almost cartoonish.

Andrea Hasler, Perishable Goods, 2014. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

Andrea Hasler, Perishable Goods, 2014. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum was Perishable Goods by Andrea Hasler made earlier in 2014. Hasler, a Zurich artist now based in London, is known for making sculptures of luxury goods out of wax and resin that look remarkably like bled out internal organs and meat. A pallet bearing approximately a cubic meter of compressed “flesh” had been installed on a path several feet above the road. The cube of Pepto Bismal pink was wrapped in gold chains as if the flesh of tourists were prepared for sale, while the pallet alluded to emergency aid packages dropped by relief agencies in disaster areas. It’s meant to be a trenchant commentary on the contrast between the lifestyles of the ultra rich “1 %” tourists and the rest of humanity, but it doesn’t have the same visceral effect as when she used the same technique previously to portray a camp tent erected at a nuclear testing protest.

Bureau A: Antoine, 2014. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

Bureau A: Antoine, 2014. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

But two works do work for most of us, one a concrete shelter by Bureau A, a Swiss architecture partnership that built an inhabitable emergency shelter fashioned to look from a distance like a boulder about to roll downhill. The work fit into the landscape—indeed, almost sought anonymity in it—and referred to military installations as well as ski area survival huts. The other work was by another Swiss, Tarik Hayward, whose large stack of cement bags is meant to suffer degradation by wind and water, eventually ossifying into a pile of set concrete retaining the form of its bags, the paper eroding away. The work alluded to the use of concrete in the region, the extraction of local materials, and contemporary ruins.

Tarik Hayward, Unity Temple, 2014. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

Tarik Hayward, Unity Temple, 2014. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

The sculptures are created in a Verbier workshop during residencies by the artists, who are given time to orient themselves to the region, the town and its dynamics, and the specific sites available in the ski area. The overall strategy deployed is similar to that of Jean-Maurice Verone: start with sculptures that people can relate to, then slowly curate in more daring works. As we walked along the dirt road, Kiki said that the plan had worked, townspeople and visitors coming over time to enjoy the sculptures. Both government funding and private sponsorship support the effort, and the ski resort is itself keen about the use of art to increase its leverage as a tourist destination.

The 3-D Foundation’s artist residency. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

The 3-D Foundation’s artist residency. Photo courtesy 3-D Foundation.

It seemed as if both Kiki and Jean-Maurice Verone have brought back to their birthplace a desire to increase the cultural sophistication of the surroundings, to match the allure of the visual culture of the large cities where they have been working. Benoît had noted earlier, in fact, that the mountains are increasingly serving as leisure parks for people who live in the cities, a process of gentrification.

The conundrum is that people have traditionally come to the mountains to experience an authentic rural experience that is free from the social tensions, strictures, crime, and pollution of cities. The art they expect to see is folk art true to the history of the place. But the people who live in the mountains don’t live in a history museum and their own tastes and desires evolve over time. So, when people who have grown up in the Alps leave and then return bearing a different set of aesthetics, and when they propose using art to increase tourism in a post-industrial economy—well, you can see the inherent contradictions.

We had walked at a fast pace but nonetheless barely made it back to the lift to take the last car of the day back to Verbier, thankful that we were not going to spend the evening stumbling down the service roads of the ski resort in the dark. Once debouched from the cable car, we took time to sit in a small plaza at the base of the lifts. I watched tall and improbably slender young blondes with high cheekbones walking small dogs, and the somewhat well-fed middle-aged men with Russian accents accompanying them into boutiques, and wondered what they made of the art as they took day hikes above the town.

Dispatches from the Alps, 8

The north face of the Weisshorn seen from above the Valais at 3,500 meters. Photo by Sara Frantz.

The north face of the Weisshorn seen from above the Valais at 3,500 meters. Photo by Sara Frantz.

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.

In contrast to the peaks and glaciers, the valley of Canton Valais is an intensely managed landscape. Photo by Sara Frantz.

In contrast to the peaks and glaciers, the valley of Canton Valais is an intensely managed landscape. Photo by Sara Frantz.

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.

CA+E Archivist Sara Frantz on duty above the Alps. Photo by Bill Fox.

CA+E Archivist Sara Frantz on duty above the Alps. Photo by Bill Fox.

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.

A sculptural version of lightning in the triennial Bex exhibition. Photo by Sara Frantz.

A sculptural version of lightning in the triennial Bex exhibition. Photo by Sara Frantz.

 

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.

Core-ten steel arcs being prepared for the Heizer sculpture.

Core-ten steel arcs being prepared for the Heizer sculpture.

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.

Steel arcs being transported over the one-lane bridge below the Mauvoisin Dam, the eighth largest dam in Europe.

Steel arcs being transported over the one-lane bridge below the Mauvoisin Dam, the eighth largest dam in Europe.

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.

The sculpture being installed.

The sculpture being installed.

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.

Michael Heizer, Tangential Circular Negative Line (1968-2012). All images by Robert Hofer, courtesy of AIR & Art Foundation.

Michael Heizer, Tangential Circular Negative Line (1968-2012). All images by Robert Hofer, courtesy of AIR & Art Foundation.

Dispatches from the Alps, 6

Felice Varini, Cercle et suite d’éclats, 2009. All images by Robert Hofer, courtesy of R&ART.

Felice Varini, Cercle et suite d’éclats, 2009. All images by Robert Hofer, courtesy of R&ART.

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.

de Lang/Baumann, Street Painting #5, 2010.

de Lang/Baumann, Street Painting #5, 2010.

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.

Riccardo Blumer, Progettare il limite, 2011.

Riccardo Blumer, Progettare il limite, 2011.

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.

Des Frères Chapuisat, La résidence secondaire, 2012.

Des Frères Chapuisat, La résidence secondaire, 2012.

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.

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.

Reflective blankets on the Rhône Glacier create a patterned field of sun cups. The entrance to the grotto is visible near the lower lefthand corner. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Reflective blankets on the Rhône Glacier create a patterned field of sun cups. The entrance to the grotto is visible near the lower lefthand corner. Photo by Sara Frantz.

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.

Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Coast done on the shoreline south of Sydney, Australia in 1968-69. Photo courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude website.

Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Coast done on the shoreline south of Sydney, Australia in 1968-69. Photo courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude website.

 

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.”

From left to right, Benîot Antille, Julian Myers-Szupinska, myself, and Janis Osolin talking in the Furka Hotel café. Photo by Sara Frantz.

From left to right, Benîot Antille, Julian Myers-Szupinska, myself, and Janis Osolin talking in the Furka Hotel café. Photo by Sara Frantz.

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.

Fog closing in on the Furka Blick Hotel after lunch. The Furka Pass sits high in one of the snowiest regions of the Alps, and the pass will close in a few weeks. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Fog closing in on the Furka Blick Hotel after lunch. The Furka Pass sits high in one of the snowiest regions of the Alps, and the pass will close in a few weeks. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Dispatches from the Alps, 3

The Rhône Glacier as painted by Johann Heinrich Wüest circa 1795. Note the artist painting in the foreground.

The Rhône Glacier as painted by Johann Heinrich Wüest circa 1795. Note the artist painting in the foreground.

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.

Richard Long’s “Wind Line over the Furka Pass,” 1989, the wall of the annex building atop the pass now also embellished with graffiti. Photo by Sara Frantz

Richard Long’s “Wind Line over the Furka Pass,” 1989, the wall of the annex building atop the pass now also embellished with graffiti. Photo by Sara Frantz.

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.

Atop Furka Pass with Benîot Antille at the Per Kirkeby work, Furkapasshoehe, 1986.

Atop Furka Pass with Benîot Antille at the Per Kirkeby work, Furkapasshoehe, 1986. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Daniel Buren’s shutters painted from 1986-88. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Daniel Buren’s shutters painted from 1986-88. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Dispatches from the Alps, 2

Zebra Roundabout, on the way to Furka Pass. Photo by Sara Frantz.

Zebra Roundabout, on the way to Furka Pass. Photo by Sara Frantz.

This morning the skies over southwestern Switzerland are clear as we drive east and along the Rhône River. The Canton Valais is a corridor for traffic to and from Italy south and over the mountains to our right. A 48-inch diameter pipeline transferring gas from the Netherlands to Italy is on our left, as are the train tracks. Gravel pits and cement factories mark our entrance into every town, evidence of the dam and highway construction that’s been constant since the 1970s. After an hour of slugging it out with semi-trucks on the narrow town streets that bottleneck the highway, we pass the turnoff for the Simplon Pass and the traffic lightens considerably.

Switzerland has a regulation governing the construction of the ubiquitous traffic roundabouts that requires you should not be able to meet the eyes of a driver across the reach of the circle. This has meant each roundabout’s center has to be planted with something, a great excuse for public art. An art collector in the town of Martigny, Léonard Gianadda, started a trend when he ran out of space for his collection of sculptures by major Swiss artists, and donated works for multiple traffic circles in that town west of Sierre. Now every town seems to have adopted the idea, but using in most cases local artists. The results are mixed, sometimes humorous, sometimes a bit disconcerting, as in the case of two life-sized fiberglass zebras standing in front of a painted version of Kilimanjaro. As hard as Bay Area art historian and expert on Land Art Julian Myers-Szupinska and I try, we can’t figure out the connection between the African mammals to the Valais.

Soon thereafter we ascend up hairpins through a forest and emerge in the eastern and higher part of the Valais. The difference is dramatic. Now the towns are the picturesque discrete rural entities that I remember from the 1960s. Our goal this morning is the fabled yet little known collection of site-specific artworks found on the Furka Pass, a road built in 1866 that tops out at 7975 ft and is open only four months out of the year due to snow. But it has an art history extending back to when Queen Victoria visited in 1868—and it now hosts work by the likes of Richard Long and Per Kirkeby.

In the upper Valais, the Furka Pass road ahead. Photo by Sara Frantz.

In the upper Valais, the Furka Pass road ahead. Photo by Sara Frantz.