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.