Dispatches from the Alps, 6
This morning we start our second visit to public site-specific art installations by meeting with Jean-Maurice Verone, the organizer of two public art programs in the Valais. Jean-Maurice is a Swiss designer working in Milan, and we gather in his jam-packed work space in a contemporary high-tech business park in Martigny.
Jean-Maurice started R&ART in 2008, an annual and juried site-specific commissioning program in the nearby town of Vercorin. Each year he selects an artist to create interventions using the entire scale of the town so that the art becomes part of the place itself. The first work in 2009 was by Felice Varini, a Swiss artist living in Paris, who is well known for making geometrical perspective paintings in rooms and on buildings. In Vercorin he painted what looked like more than a hundred separate arcs on almost as many buildings; once you assumed the single privileged point of view chosen by the artist, however, the anamorphic artwork snapped into focus as a series of circles unifying the old part of the town.
In 2010 the Swiss-American team Lang-Baumann made one of their signature street paintings emanating from the central town square that alluded to traffic patterns and maps. A virtue of Vercorin for Jean-Maurice is the fact you can see the town from so many angles, including an aerial one from a ski tram passing overhead. Another is the compact topography of the town that allows artists to make unifying gestures. Riccardo Blumer took advantage of both aspects when he stretched a cable across the town in 2011, a line wrapped in LEDs so that it traced a highly visible aerial line at night as well as by day.
For the final project in the first series of four, Jean-Maurice commissioned the Capuisat brothers from Geneva to execute a project with a house condemned for a resort. Their seemingly random construction of lumber enveloping the outside of the house and roof was in actuality an organic but functional structure in which they lived for two months while working on it. They invited in community members for conversation and coffee, thus creating a social practice work. Titling the work “La résidence secondaire” was a comment on the rapid proliferation of holiday homes in the Valais, a development that is completely changing the character of the region’s picturesque small villages—both for better and for worse.
You can see an arc of evolution in the first series of the R&Art program as Jean-Maurice goes from selecting easily assimilated and handsome gestures done in a traditional medium such as street art in the first two works, then a more modern 3D work with LEDs to one that is based at least in part on process. Vercorin is a traditional town of only 500 year-round residents, but one that expands to 5,000 in winter for skiing. Jean-Maurice planned R&Art from the beginning to start by installing easily understood works until the town developed both trust in and knowledge about contemporary art, then to move into more challenging works as time went on. But it is in his other program, AIR&Art, that he has made the boldest move so far.
Dispatches from the Alps, 3
The eastern end of the Valais hosts the headwaters of the Rhône that originate from a glacier of the same name. The famous body of ice which once rested as far down as the valley floor has retreated during the last 150 years up an enormous cliff, the icefall leaving behind a series of waterfalls. Now the glacier itself is hidden behind a bench of polished granite high above us. Two historical passes branch off from this end of the valley: the Grimsel Pass headed north into central Switzerland, and the narrow Furka Pass road, which is closed for eight months out of the year due to snow. Built atop Furka in the late 1800s were two hotels.
The older hotel, built at top of the road’s arc, was where Queen Victoria spent time in 1868 making watercolors of what was by then an established destination in the Alps. The second and more modest structure, was a ten-room traveller’s chalet built in 1892 just east and down the pass a few hundred yards. In 1902 a large cube of 27 additional rooms was added, which included a wood paneled, square dining room. The pass and its two hotels were at first an exotic destination for European and British travelers come to experience the sublime, a term in large part created to describe the beauty and terror of the vertiginous alpine environment of Switzerland. But, as rail and then automobiles came to the area early in the 20th century, the pass became more of a transit area and a viewpoint stopped at only briefly for a coffee and a photograph. As we near the top, we can look back and see the Matterhorn and Weisshorn, which are visible intermittently through the gathering clouds.
The first hotel was eventually condemned and then torn down by the military as a demolition exercise. By the late 1970s the second hotel was also closed, but in 1983 Swiss gallerist Marc Hostettler started an artists retreat in the smaller hotel. James Lee Byars was first to arrive, followed by Marina Abramovic, Hamish Fulton, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jenny Holzer, Richard Long and dozens of others, all leaving site-specific works either in the landscape, or on and in the hotel.
By the time we finish winding our way up steep horseshoe turns and reach the top it’s almost one p.m. and the weather is closing in. But we stop to examine the work designed by Max Bill in 1994, the year of his death, four granite plinths surrounding a small fire pit. Nearby is a chimney-like stack of un-mortared bricks that is taller than a person and split vertically with a narrow fissure through which the inside can be viewed. Built by Per Kirkeby in 1986 using materials from the older hotel, it is a delicate, even fragile reminder of the past. Joseph Kosuth’s quote of Goethe is nearby, as are many other works hidden in the fog, so we continue down to the second hotel.
As we drive up we can see the distinctly stripped shutters painted by Daniel Buren from 1986-1988, the latter the year that Rem Koolhaus finished work on the chalet part of the hotel. Koolhaus made a number of very clean modernist interventions on what is still his only project built in Switzerland, a cafe carved out of the bottom floors of the early structure, and rooms above to house hotel staff. Now the entire south wall has been opened to provide a panoramic view of—well, this afternoon, the clouds and sleet that is starting to fall. But the cafe is inviting, open, and a great setting for a conversation.
Hostettler ended his involvement with what was known as Furk’art in 2003, and the hotel cube next door as a residency facility turned into a house museum and archive. Now it is managed by Janis Osolin, who acts as curator, archivist, and in some ways as an installation artist in his own right, although he is a modest man and I believe would probably deny the last role as presumptuous. We sat down for lunch with Janis and then a tour of the property.
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.