Dispatches from the Alps, 2
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.
Dispatches from the Alps, 1
Flying this morning into low clouds over Lake Geneva, the Swiss Alps were hidden save for the 4,810 meter (15,781 ft.) Mt. Blanc, which stands above all of Europe. When I was last here more than forty years ago, Geneva was tightly clustered around the lakeshore, and driving up into Switzerland’s southern alps in the canton of Valais was a journey on a two-lane road from one picturesque farming town to another. Now the trip is taken on a four-lane highway along an almost continuous urban strip. It’s still beautiful despite the yellow construction cranes everywhere, but things are morphing fast.
The mountainous Valais was for centuries one of the poorest regions in the country, but that began to change in the nineteenth century with the advent of British and then increasingly Continental and American tourism. Valais hosts famous peaks, such as the Matterhorn, and world class skiing. The site of the Medieval town where we are staying for ten days, Sierre, was inhabited as early as 515 AD and is still only 14,500 or so people—but it has its own BMW dealership.
A dozen artists and scholars have been convened by art historian Benoît Antille from the l’Ecole cantonale d’art du Valais to examine site-specific public art projects in the Alps, and then to have a conversation about their importance to community life and tourism, and their relationship to local politics and the international art world. One of the more important works for us to see will be a Michael Heizer sculpture installed near a hydroelectric dam. In the meantime, now settled in Sierre, we’re gazing out from a wooden balcony over vineyards dense with ripe grapes. Only three of us are here so far: myself, CA+E Archivist/Librarian Sara Frantz, and art historian Julian Myers-Szupinska.
The traditional three-story house we’re housed in hosts an artists residency program administered by Benoît for the Ecole, and it’s a good setting. Visible up the valley to the south is the Dent Blanche, at 4,356 meters (14,291 ft) also one of the tallest peaks in the Alps. Across the narrow valley from us a thick black water pipe plunges down the mountainside, part of the extensive hydropower plumbing installed in the Alps since I was last here. 556 hydroelectric plants produce about 56% of the country’s energy needs, a contrast with the nuclear power facilities in France visible from the air as Sara and I flew from London to Geneva. The visible juxtaposition of energy infrastructure with public art and tourism is a rich combination for discussion and one that will be constantly apparent over the next few days.
The Norwegian government has established eighteen national tourist routes that traverse some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. Each of them host place-specific architecture and art interventions that reveal aspects of nature and culture which might otherwise remain unnoticed. In Vardø, at the end of the northernmost of the routes, is the Steilneset Memorial designed by Swiss architect and Pritzer Prize winner Peter Zumthor, who worked with the late French-American artist Louis Bourgeouis on her last sculpture. The site memorializes the seventeenth century burning at the stake of91 men and women suspected of being witches in the state of Finnmark.
One enters the first part of the memorial by walking up a long ramp and entering a treated canvas bladder suspended from an enlarged version of a traditional wooden fish drying rack. Inside, you proceed down a dimly lit corridor with an oak floor, the entire 410-foot-long structure responding both to the wind gusts outside and your own passage. Asymmetrically placed windows, light bulbs, and individual plaques commemorate each of the victims.
Passing back outside through another door at the far end, you descend another ramp that deposits you by the open entrance of a smoked-glass and metal frame cube whose sides stop short of reaching the ground, allowing wind and snow and cold to penetrate during winter, but also to cool the interior during summer. Inside is the installation by Bourgeois, The Damned, The Possessed, The Beloved—a steel chair inside a concrete cone, the seat of which is penetrated by four large gas jet flame.
As the Future North researchers and I completed our transect of Vardø, measuring the changes wrought by depopulation of the fishing village during the last few decades, the memorial provided a powerful and eerie reminder of how art and architecture can use history to shape our sense of place. It was astonishing to find a memorial with this level of sophistication funded as a tourist amenity in a town of roughly 2,100 people that sits north of Murmansk across the border in neighboring Russia.
Two of the three leading partners in the Future North endeavor will be working at the Center for Art + Environment this October after attending our third Art + Environment Conference. I’m looking forward to hearing from Janike Larsen and Peter Hammersam about how they perceive the changing landscapes of Nevada. If you’re interested in learning more about the Future North project, the website is here: http://www.oculs.no/projects/future-north/news/.
The Examined Life
The artists Linda Fleming and Michael Moore have shared houses, studios, dogs, cooking, cars, and life in general over three properties in as many states for several decades. The main house, if there is one, is a converted bar/restaurant in the bayside town of Benicia, California; another is a house built by them in the legendary Colorado commune of Libre on the slopes of the mountains in southwestern Colorado; the third is a complex of structures and ponds around springs on the western edge of the Smoke Creek Desert. The last is one mountain range over from the Black Rock playa of Burning Man fame. Mike and Linda have shared work for decades, an evolving condition made manifest in a superb mid-career retrospective at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe.
We’ve exhibited Linda’s work twice at the Museum, both her intricate and massive geometrical steel sculptures and the delicate wooden maquettes through which she tests her ideas. I’ve watched her mathematics grow more complex over time, as well as the recent addition of multiple colors to the work, which adds another dimension. Mike’s paintings include daily renderings of the vista over the Smoke Creek playa when he’s in residence, one of the most disciplined and enchanting renderings of a single landscape over time of which I’m aware.
The exhibition includes some of Linda’s photography and graphics, as well as the sculptures and models, and Mike is represented by an enormous grid of the Smoke Creek watercolors, oil paintings throughout his career, and the complete autobiographical journal he’s kept since the 1970s, basically narrated through the many modestly eccentric vehicles he’s owned. The series will appear a book later this year, which will include 89 “Auto Biographies” plus 22 drawings of “Every House I Ever Lived in from Memory.” Artifacts in cases, a projection using slides loaded into 27 carousels (for those who remember the technology), Linda’s recorded descriptions of all her houses, and a homemade video of the three properties accompanied by a haunting soundtrack from Linda’s son Luz Fleming complete the portrait of their lives. The show is dense with information, yet given enough space to feel rich instead of merely crowded.
CCA curator Erin Elder bills the show as “a new commission, a 3D instruction manual, and an intimate examination of what it takes to develop at art-driven life.” She laughs as we walk through the 6,000 square-foot gallery (formerly a stable for the Santa Fe Armory, then a tank maintenance facility). “Students are awed by a commitment to art that’s three times longer than they’ve been alive!” Plato, quoting the speech that Socrates gave at his trial, famously recorded the adage “An unexamined life is not worth living.” If that be so, then Michael Moore and Linda Fleming’s life is worth a fortune to themselves and those lucky enough to see the exhibition.
Frederic Church’s Olana: Home as Performance Space
I’ve always wanted to visit Olana, the home of 19th century painter Frederic Church, since Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, flew me over it in his Cessna several years ago. Church, the great Hudson River School landscape painter who worked everywhere from Labrador to Ecuador, is one of my heroes, and Olana one of the greatest artist homes in the world. It’s an early example of a space meant as much to display a life as to be lived in.
This week I’m in New York, both mid-state and in the city, and it’s the first time I’ve been near Olana when it’s not been closed for renovation, repair, restoration, reclamation or some other rehabilitation. Although it was pouring this morning, and the Taconic Parkway closed here and there due to cars hydroplaning into one another, it turned out to be a sublime day. As we arrived at Olana, just outside of the town of Hudson and on a hill high above the river, the rain backed off, the clouds retreated, and there was the Hudson far below, a gray and silver inlay among the deep green hills. Above the front door in gold Arabic script was the symbol for Al’ana, “our home on high,” which was transliterated into Olana.
The house, by deliberate contrast with the 250 wooded acres sculpted by Church with more than 5,000 trees, is a towering Moorish folly done up in red, orange and tan hues of brick, slate, and polychromed tiles. Designed by Church himself and covered with elaborate Persian-inspired patterns, it’s as if the spirt of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain had been translated into a pan-exotic domicile. If the arched windows and interior walls evoke the Middle East, the artifacts inside from Japan, China, Mexico, Central America serve to broaden the fantasy.
Church was renowned worldwide for travel to exotic locales and combining what was seen from various vantage points into a compelling, unified, and encyclopedic vision that wasn’t exactly real, but nonetheless created a unified and accurate picture of an exotic landscape. His home accomplishes something similar with the built environment. Hanging in a small room just off the entryway is a small oil-on-paper study for his famous painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Heart of the Andes. It’s a painting about which I’ve written many times, a fictional scene that serves to catalog a South American environment, and is a nice allusion of Church’s penchant for the mashup in art, as well as in architecture.
Throughout the house hang dozens of paintings by Church, his mentor Thomas Cole, and others. They are joined this summer by a small and revealing show of paintings created from his vacations in Maine, where he also owned property on Desert Island. Perusing his pencil sketches and oil studies, it is obvious what an acute eye Church possessed, and how firmly his vision was linked to his hand. He could start and finish a small study of a sunset before the light was completely gone from the sky, a painting you might think it took days to create.
Showing in the coach house nearby was a tidy collection of works by various contemporary artists made in response to, or inspired by, Olana and Church’s paintings. One of Annie Liebowitz’s large color photos of Niagara Falls done in 2009, seemingly made from a vantage point almost impossible to believe at the lip of the falls, is a terrific soul-mate to Church’s painting at the same location in 1857. A map piece by our friend Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, letters out the latitude and longitude of Olana, a fitting homage to an artist who traveled the world in quest of paintings that not only glorified the sublime, but also acknowledged the mathematical tiling of cartography across the planet in the very design of his house.
Visiting Brisbane Part 2 of 2
After stopping in Brisbane to visit the Asia Pacific Triennial, CA+E Archivist Sara Frantz and I flew to Melbourne for meetings with Guy Abrahams of Climarte, a nonprofit that uses art to address climate change, as well as to see Linda Williams and Leon von Schaik at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology schools of Art and Architecture, respectively. We then toured the Heide Museum of Modern Art grounds and archives with director Jason Smith to discuss possible collaborations with Climarte. In between everything else, we worked in a visit with artist Mandy Martin and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge at their pastoral property, Pennyroyal, where Mandy has a large studio and Guy runs a large network that connects organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Bush Heritage with cattle ranchers and Aboriginal groups.
Visiting Guy and Mandy was prelude to our flight to Alice Springs, at 55,000 people the largest city in the Australian interior. Imagine a country the size of the United States with one paved road connecting the south coast–let’s say New Orleans–with the north coast–that would be Canada in U.S. terms. And along the way the only center of any size is a single town. That would be Alice. It’s there, at the Araluen Arts Centre, that the Paruku Project opened this spring.
If you look at the map, you’ll see in the upper left of the country a blue patch called Lake Gregory (not to scale, obviously). That lake is the central feature of the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area, where a remarkable project was created by Mandy and Guy, along with artist/writer Kim Mahood, CA+E Research Fellow John Carty, and others. The Paruku Project has helped a local Aboriginal art center expand and produced a conservation plan.
I visited Paruku in summer of 2011, and have been working with everyone involved since then to bring back to the CA+E a large archive and body of art produced by both the visiting artists and scientists, and the local people. You can find a longer description of the project on my blogs from fall of 2011. The reason Sara and I were in Australia was to attend the opening of the exhibition at Araluen, and to arrange for that archive and collection to be shipped to Nevada, where it would join other art & science projects from around the world.
The work and archives have now arrived and will be exhibited in the summer and fall of 2014, part of our Art + Environment season timed to coincide with the third A+E Conference, more about which later this year. The Paruku Project is the first Aboriginal art exhibition by the Museum with more to follow in subsequent years. The painting above is one of the related artworks produced by Mandy Martin that was shown at Araluen.
Visiting Brisbane, Part 1 of 2
After the sunless days in Tromsø this last January, it was positively antipodal to fly into Australia during February with CA+E Archivist and Librarian Sara Frantz. We were there to help open the exhibition of the Paruku Project in Alice Springs, which we’ve been working on for two years. Alice would be about 90ºF warmer than Tromsø–but more about that in the following blog. First, let me tell you about visiting Brisbane and the seventh Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT).
Most of Australia’s population is concentrated in the three largest cities of its East Coast: Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Founded in the state of Queensland around 1825, Brisbane is the youngest of the three, but its conurbation now runs to three million people perched around the serpentine spine of the city’s perpetually flooding river. Global warming every year brings closer the possibility that saltwater crocodiles from up north will be documented in downtown Brisbane waters.
We flew out of Los Angeles and crossed the international date line to arrive in Brisbane fourteen hours and a day later. With a long layover, we decided to take the train into the city so we could visit the APT, which was at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. The APT is the museum’s signature contemporary art event. It focuses on Asia, the Pacific region, and Australia, and is unique among biennials by virtue of commissioning and collecting significant portions of what it shows.
Once inside the museum, we were greeted by Huang Yong Ping’s Ressort, a fifty-foot-long aluminum snake reminiscent of a dragon stripped bare by the artist that connects sky and water. If Ping’s sculpture is a metaphorical totem for the deconstruction of traditional Chinese symbols, then the large-scale commissioning of a facade akin to those found on a Papua New Guinea men’s spirit house was a more literal recreation of totemic architecture. These two works set up a dialogue that would be carried throughout the exhibition between old and new, original and appropriated themes, the minimal and the maximal.
One of our favorite works was Takahiro Iwasaki’s cedar model based on the Byodo-in, a tenth-century temple outside Kyoto. This elaborate miniaturized structure, suspended from the ceiling to hang in front of viewers, was so elaborate it seemed more like a hologram than a solid object. The play in scale between Ping’s snake and Iawasaki’s temple was yet another oppositional strategy in the exhibition.
Perhaps the most striking concatenation of old and new was the translation by Aboriginal painter Daniel Boyd of his dot paintings into a multimedia experience. Luminescent dots coalesced, broke apart and reformed constantly in a darkened gallery bringing alive the duration and experiential nature of Dreamtime.
APT7 mounted more than 200 works by 75 artists from 27 countries. Its contents ranged from works that would once have been considered ethnographic objects more fit for an anthropology museum than an art venue, to multimedia works that would rest seamlessly in the Venice Biennale. Its very strength, in fact, rests upon the diversity of the region, which was reflected almost–but not quite–to a fault in the massive exhibition. Urbanization, industrialization, the overthrow of traditional icons, the creation of cultures neither Eastern nor Western–overall we found it exhilarating. Then it was back on the train to the airport and a flight to Melbourne and the interior.
Saami, Part 3 of 3
While in Tromsø I’ve been fortunate enough to meet two artists with Saami roots. Hans Ragnar-Mathisen was born in 1945 and trained at the National College of Art and Design and the National Art Academy , and paints with watercolors that veer from delicate somewhat abstract landscapes to his most famous works, maps that reinforce the identity of his people. His cartography of Sami language, SÁBMI (the territory of the Saami) published in 1975, ignores national boundaries from northwestern Norway to the Kola Peninsula of Russia in order to highlight the nomadic territories over which the reindeer herders have traditionally roamed. It’s a region that coheres through the shared Uralic languages and culture of the Sami as much as geography.
I have the feeling that the Saami are less hindered today in their movements by national borders than by the increasing presence of mines, roads, and tracks for motorized recreation in the winter, all of which hamper or outright break herding patterns. The Sami are among the least legally protected indigenous peoples in the world, according to the Saami human rights attorney Mattias Åhren, who spoke during the Contested Landscapes–Lost Ecologies conference I’ve been attending. Åhren also made the point that the title of the marine ecology conference of which our event is a part, Arctic Frontiers, is a bit ironic. To the Saami, the Arctic is not a frontier to be explored, but a homeland.
The other artist I met with is Aslaug Juliussen, who was born in 1953, educated along more contemporary lines, and is one of Norway’s most honored artists. She spent 25 years herding reindeer with her former husband, and now creates sculptures and installations from the the parts of reindeer not used by the meat industry: hooves, antlers, fur, bones. She laughs when we talk in her studio about how her work is received. “Outsiders think I’m an ambassador for the Saami culture–but the Saami don’t think I am, because I don’t use reindeer in the traditional ways!” Instead, she uses reindeer to tell new stories about contemporary life.
The Saami have occupied about 150,000 square miles in the north for more than 5,000 years, fishing and reindeer herding being their primary resource basis. Today perhaps 2,500 still practice herding, and most Saami are urbanised. Their homelands are threatened by logging, mining, radioactive waste leakage, and simply the expanding population from the south that moves every northward as temperatures rise in the Arctic. Although Ragnar-Mathisen and Juliussen work in very different ways, their concerns are not so very far apart.
Oslo– Part 2 of 3
After working in Tromsø, I’ve flown south to Oslo, which is equidistant between Tromsø and Rome. Norway truly is a long country! Oddly enough, it’s much colder here than up north, where the Gulf Stream moderates the temperatures. The Oslo fjord is frozen over and people are crossing-country skiing on it. The ex-pat British artist Stuart Ian Frost, who lives in the deep forest south of Oslo, has volunteered to show me around a couple of museums. Stuart, a sculptor and environmental artist, installs site-specific pieces around the world and has materials in the CA+E Archive Collections.
We visited two private museums here, each remarkable for their vision. Iceskater Sonia Henie (1912-1969) was a three-time Olympic champion and film star–but also an avid art collector. After she married shipping magnate Niels Onstad, she collected early to mid-20th century modernism. The curved and slightly futuristic Henie-Onstad Art Centre sits atop a low knoll on a headland that projects out into the fjord about six miles south of Oslo. But the most amazing set of objects were by the early 20th-century collage artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whose work presages installation art.
Schwitters was a German painter who by 1920 was constructing collages and assemblages from found materials; his work was the major influence on Robert Rauschenberg, hence installation art as we know it. Scwhitters came to a small town in Norway for vacation starting in 1930, returned in 1932, and spent every summer there until 1939. During that time he collaged the interior of the structure, creating one of his famous Merzbau works. The hut has decayed badly, but the interiors were salvaged, consolidated, meticulously duplicated and are currently on display at the Henie.
This is an important and state-of-the-art work of conservation that makes available one of the most profound transformations of a built environment in the history of art.
The other museum couldn’t be more different. Built by a group of Norwegian industrialists, and devoted to contemporary art, the new Astrup Fearnley Museet by renowned architect Renzo Piano sit on reclaimed land in the center of downtown Oslo. The roof lines decline toward the water, and although the building only opened a few weeks ago, the natural wood exteriors are already beginning to show traces of the handsome weathering they will undergo over time.
Inside the two main museum buildings 2,000 individually unique panes of glass let in what little exterior light is available during January, which is augmented by massive numbers of lights. The collection is steeped in blue chip contemporary artworks by Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Cindy Sherman, Odd Nerdrum, Cai Guo-Qiang and many more, as well as by younger artists, such as my friend Nate Lowman.
But my favorite piece is by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, a large earthenware recreation of the Colosseum in Rome. The eye-level sculpture is filled with potted plants that range from ferns and palms to cacti that turns the bloody arena into a potted planter. The survival of plants from such widely divergent climate conditions under the artificial lights of winter in Norway is predestined to failure, and provides is a sharp comment on the decline of empire through the lens of crossed environments. I can’t help but think that Schwitters, who worked along the fringes of Dadism almost a hundred years earlier, would have approved.
Tromsø– Part 1 of 3
I’m blogging from Tromsø this week, the largest city in northern Norway, and the second largest city above the Arctic Circle after Murmansk in Russia. Tromsø is mostly dark or in twilight at this time of year–during January it receives only a few minutes of direct sunlight during the entire month–and candles burn all day in the restaurants and hotel lobbies. This is one of the world’s most renowned places from which to see the Northern Lights, but the tourists here have been disappointed, as it’s been snowing all week. Each day I walk by a three-meter Sun of Tromsø installed late last year by artists Lisa Pacini and Christine Istad above the front door of the Tromsø Kunstforening. It’s due to come down as soon as the real sun returns to the city.
Many of the city’s 70,000 residents are students attending the University of Tromsø, where I’ve come at the invitation of Janike Larsen and her colleagues to the newly-formed Tromsø Academy of Landscape Studies. The Academy is designed to train people to understand and influence the future of urban planning, ecosystems, infrastructure and more in what is one of the fastest changing regions in the world. The melting out of the Northeast Passage above Siberia, the discovery of enormous natural gas fields, and China’s endless appetite for iron and other raw materials have every city in the circumpolar north scrambling to become an industrial hub. The intense resource extraction coupled with climate change is erasing old landscapes and memories even as it creates new ones, which is always fertile ground for landscape studies.
Each year Tromsø hosts the Arctic Frontiers Conference. The title is a dead giveaway to the tilt of the conversations, which are both about marine ecology and the geopolitics of the developing north. The Academy puts together a side conference to discuss the “lost ecologies” created by the regional changes. The speakers range from artists and filmmakers, to geographers and historians such as Michael Bravo from the Scott Polar Research Institute, to representatives from the Saami, the native rein-herders of northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia.
The Academy will move into a newly refurbished brewery built in downtown Tromsø in 1870. It will join interdisiciplinary field programs such as the Land Arts of the American West, John Reid’s Art & Ecology operation at the Australia National University, and Liam Young’s Unknown Fields Division at the Architecture Association School of Architecture in London. Increasingly, the demand for quick and intelligent responses to the challenges of global change require the collaboration of artists, architects, and designers–which, in turn, breaks down traditional barriers between those disciplines. All these organizations are partners of the Center for Art + Environment precisely for that reason.