Center for Art + Environment Blog

January 13, 2015   |   William L. Fox

Dispatches from the Alps, 8

Swiss Alps

Flying with Benoit Antille and colleagues over the Alps. Photo by Sara Frantz.

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.