‘The mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other’. The eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke’s description of the sublime could also apply to the experiences explored by the Hong Kong-born, Berlin-based artist Carla Chan. For the Romantic artists and writers, the sublime was epitomised in nature by the Alps: the raw beauty of their ragged peaks and vertiginous chasms, and the sheer, stunning expanse of the landscape.
Chan, too, has described her sense of ‘powerlessness’ and ‘humility’ when first encountering the vastness of wild spaces. During her La Prairie residency, Chan worked in the Swiss Alps, encircled by dramatic and unforgiving glacial terrain. Set at 2,883 metres above sea level, at the rocky foot of the Monte Rosa massif, the angular Monte Rosa Hut was designed as a self-sustaining base by architect Andrea Deplazes of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH Zurich. Driven by the love of the environment of its birthplace and grateful for the inspiration it provides, La Prairie has worked closely with ETH since 2019 in its efforts to preserve the beauty of the Swiss landscape and its majestic glaciers. Overlooking the shifting ice field of the Gorner Glacier, in the shadow of the Matterhorn, the apparently solid landscape the hut surveys is subject to progressive transformations, each unfolding at its own pace: the play of shade and light over the course of a day; the snow cover and ice melt that comes with the changing seasons; the eroding movement of the glacier, and its own accelerated disintegration.
The work Chan created following her residency – Space Between The Light Glows, which will be unveiled at Frieze New York 2021 – is a time-based video work that evokes the theatre of illumination in the high Alps, and in particular the burst of optical warmth preceding sunset. Known as the ‘golden hour’, it’s a phenomenon beloved by photographers and cinematographers and avid alpinist seeking timeless beauty. During the golden hour, the landscape looses sharp shadows and is bathed in a warm glow. In spaces clear of human structures, like the terrain Chan explored during her residency, the light transforms all sense of perspective. It’s an ephemeral, breath-taking phenomenon the artist has described as a ‘magical moment’.
‘The light that I observed during my residency was so spectacular that it naturally imposed itself as the primary source of inspiration’, Chan says. Described as a ‘time-based video work’, Space Between The Light Glows, says La Prairie, will be full of ‘abstract, stylised, digitally enhanced images of mountain landscapes sublimated by golden light, transforming the narrative into a play of shadows and reflections’. Promising to capture the evanescence of the golden hour, evoking the passage of time experienced in the sweeping panorama of a glacial plane Space Between The Light Glows is Chan’s attempt to ‘render the moment when space and time meet abstractly, for a brief instant, yet one that reveals eternity’.
Having grown up in Hong Kong, Chan’s relation to nature was initially somewhat distant (she had a fear of insects, for example). This has since given way to fascination: an encounter with the open spaces of the North of Sweden was revelatory and led to works in a variety of media that explore scale and transformation in geological time and space.
Carla Chan’s works express reality in all its immensity and ambiguity. The environments that she devises project the spectator into a sensorial world where movement predominates. ‘Nature is changing fast,’ says Chan, who suggests her works offer space to reflect on ‘what would be left behind if we no longer existed’. A fitting preoccupation, perhaps, for time spent in Monte Rosa Hut, constructed with sustainability as its core concern within a landscape of sometimes fragile glaciers. Evoking the light and landscape of the world’s wild places, Chan’s dreamlike escapes from city life also come with a subtle but potent caveat; if Space Between The Light Glows aims to offer an experience of a radiant sublime, it also invites reflection on the care demanded for landscape that create it.
90 years ago, Dr. Paul Niehans opened Clinique La Prairie, in Montreux, Switzerland, where he developed his innovative therapies. Niehans’ clientele included political leaders, like Konrad Adenauer and Ibn Saud, and world famous artists including Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were hosted at the clinic, idyllically set between the shores of Lake Geneva and the foothills of the Swiss Alps. The luminous – and no doubt, flattering – phenomenon of the ‘golden hour’ in those Alps is the inspiration for La Prairie’s new Pure Gold collection, designed ‘to revitalise, replenish and enrich the skin, diffusing the grace of the ‘golden hour’. Gold is the DNA of the product: with two different types of gold particles included in the pure gold radiance cream, pure gold radiance eye cream and pure gold radiance concentrate, which have been developed to create three ‘peaks’ of revitalisation, resulting, in theory, in deep hydration, elimination of barrier deficiencies, thickened skin and rebuilt architecture and restoration of radiance. Best of all, the golden hued, vessels that hold the Pure Gold collection are made from recycled glass and intended for zero-waste: insert vials can be replaced, with metal casing and caps kept indefinitely. This step towards sustainability goes hand in hand with La Prairie’s ongoing support of the Glaciology Section of ETH Zurich, which is enabling two major ice monitoring initiatives.
The Swiss Golden Hour which inspired the Pure Gold collection is celebrated by Carla Chan’s new artistic commission, developed on residency in the Swiss Alps and debuting at Frieze New York. La Prairie has long been linked to the world of art, from the effervescent artistic circle who stayed at the Clinique in Montreux, to a pivotal encounter with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. La Prairie has been intrinsically linked to the world of art since its inception and today continues to create new connections with cultural institutions as well as established and emerging artist, such as Julian Charrière and architect Mario Botta to name a few from recent years. Frieze marks a new chapter in this story.
This article appeared in Frieze Week, New York 2021