Dispatches from the Alps, 10
I’ll end this series about public art in the Swiss Alps by looking at a singular work of art we found, by contrast, hanging on a museum wall. Our visits to Furka Pass, the Micheal Heizer sculpture by the Maivoisin Dam, the Verbier 3-D Sculpture Park produced a rich conversation about the use of art in branding the region for tourism—as well as how art can subvert that commodification at the same time—but we came to no real conclusion. What was left was the pleasure in seeing good art that was new to us, and Marie Ceppi’s heroic tapestry was a work that captured so much of what we had seen.
Sion is the capital of Canton Valais, a town of 33,000 that is so picturesque as to defy cynicism. It’s been occupied for more than 8,000 years, was a Neolithic farming community, and is littered with large burial stoneworks such as carved stelae, menhir, and dolmen—exactly, in fact, the sorts of prehistoric structures that Lucy Lippard links to the contemporary impulse to make earthworks. Churches and castles and ruins stand handsomely atop the twin scarped hills that are the town’s defining geographical features. Vineyards terrace the hillsides, although they are being diminished almost weekly by construction projects. Goethe wrote admiringly of the town, its buildings, and vineyards when he passed through on his way to Furka Pass in 1779.
The Valais Art Museum is in a handsome turreted stone building at the foot of the hills, and we’re met there by its new director, Dr. Celine Eidenbenz, who takes us up and down and through the maze of the old church buildings that now house the artworks. Juxtaposed with a fine collection of regional landscape painting and modernist works are selected contemporary works, the most arresting of which is the monumental embroidered tapestry Zeitdokumnet (or Time Document) by Marie Ceppi. The artist was born in Visp just up the valley, and earned her Masters of Public Art at Benoit’s school in 2006. From 2002 through 2006 she employed forty or so people from the region to translate a digitally processed aerial photograph into a forty-panel tapestry measuring 345 x 552 cm (approx. 11.3 x 18.1 feet). The image is of the construction site near Visp of the south portal of the new 35-kilometer Lötschberg railway tunnels that were opened in 2007 to connect the north and the south of Europe. The tunnels bore through the mountains to connect the Simplon railway coming from Italy to Bern on the other side of the Alps, thence to Germany.
In the middle of the image is the tunnel-boring machine aimed toward the upper left corner; below is the conveyor belt extending down and left over the Rhône, bearing away blasted rock and debris. Both endeavors, the tunnel and the tapestry, are heroic in scale, the traditional women’s hand work corollary to the machine-based construction. As I wander through the collections, I return again and again to the tapestry, drawn by its intricacy as well as the incongruity of soft textiles being used to depict hard-rock tunneling.
The tapestry is a time document because of many reasons. It shows a landscape of production being replaced over decades by one of consumption—the agriculture of the vineyards giving way to the tunnel that increase tourism in the Valais, and expedite the global flow of goods between northern and southern Europe. And it’s about the very act of tunneling, of digging through the strata of the past in order to construct the future, which is not such a bad metaphor for art history itself, and this trip.
We want to thank again Benoît Antille and his university, the l’Ecole cantonale d’art du Valais, for sponsoring the Ars Contemporaenus Alpinus project that brought us together to examine the strata of culture in the Valais. And most especially a round of applause for the artist Eric Philippoz who drove us repeatedly up and down the mountains so that we might see for ourselves how art and nature can frame one another.