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.