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.