‘Was it a mistake to leave my home and stride out into the world expectantly?’ The question is scribbled in a pocket-sized artist book, Will Happiness Find Me? (2002), by Peter Fischli & David Weiss. This doubt, so succinctly expressed, could anticipate Olympia Scarry and Neville Wakefield’s ‘Elevation 1049’, which assembled the work of 25 Swiss artists – including Fischli & Weiss – in the jet-set Alpine town of Gstaad. Organized around Swiss identity and location, the exhibition provided an occasion for the artists to meditate on their personal histories as well as the culture and terrain of their native country.
Drawing on an extensive history of discontent with the institutional constraints of the museum, Scarry and Wakefield proposed an alternative to the museum-kunsthalle model, trading white walls for white slopes, and high ceilings and skylights for the majestic frame and depth of a mountain range. Expanding upon the agenda of land art, the exhibition prized both site-specificity and inaccessibility. Artists like Michael Heizer or Walter De Maria created projects far removed from the locus of the institution, making the journey to the venue an essential part of the work. ‘Elevation 1049’ could not be divorced from the experience of arriving in Gstaad via a train ride through the Alps. It should not be underestimated what altitude, the lull of a puttering engine and the vast landscape can do to one’s sensibility.
The exhibition itself, conceived with the support of Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA& Foundation, was a constellation of projects varying in size and ambition, sprinkled between the boutiques of the sleepy après-ski main street, across the ascending cable cars, as well as on the mountains, lakes and at the peak of the glacier itself, which rises 3,000 metres above sea level. The town centre featured works by John Armleder, Alexandra Bachzetsis, Claudia Comte, Urs Fischer, Sylvie Fleury, Mai-Thu Perret, Ugo Rondinone, Pamela Rosenkranz and more. Notable among these more domesticated pieces was Pipilotti Rist’s contribution at the Olden Hotel: a miniature rear-projection within an empty bottle behind the bar. The gem-like video, titled Sugarplums (2014), is a pastoral abstraction featuring closely cropped footage of the soft, pale figure of a nude young woman surrounded by green grass and vibrant flowers.
On the outskirts of the neighbouring township of Saanan, Fischli & Weiss’s handcrafted polyurethane objects, Eine Ansammlung von Gegenständen (A Collection of Objects, 1984–2013), filled the interior of a roadside shed. Visible only through the window, the cast-offs from previous installations, clustered together, achieved a quiet poignancy in the abandoned outbuilding. And in the town of Lanaenen, Thomas Hirschhorn built Mürrischer Schnee (Cranky Snow, 2014), a small village of igloos in a clearing that typically serves as both bus stop and snow depot. Inspired by David Hammons’s legendary 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale, for the first time Hirschhorn worked with snow, a material that characterized the first 20 years of his life growing up in the mountain town of Davos. He filled the dwellings with books and web printouts on subjects ranging from nuclear proliferation to climate change, suggesting that the home might be a shelter for reality, rather than a place from which to escape it. Both projects were among the highlights of the exhibition.
During my visit, an unexpected storm halted cable cars and closed entry to the glacier. Among the inaccessible projects were Christian Marclay’s video Bollywood goes to Gstaad (2013); Olaf Breuning’s Snow Drawing (2014), which used the snow as a massive canvas for explosions of pigment; and Gianni Jetzer’s Milky Way (2014), a satellite exhibition that could only be reached by a three-hour hike up a mountain to a remote cabin. Like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), which recedes or emerges depending on environmental conditions, this exhibition also proved to be governed by the natural order of things.
In the internet age of global communication, a return to place, as a hypothetical idea and an impractical reality, feels both radical and necessary. Despite the uneven nature of the projects, the acoustic vacuum created by the snowscape and the restrained pace enforced by the setting were only advantages. In the wake of ambitious statement shows, such as Documenta 13 and the 55th Venice Biennale, ‘Elevation 1049’ felt more like an artist’s project in its simplicity and lack of dogmatic organizing principles. It did not attempt to bend time or evoke the metaphysical, but commanded the increasingly rare phenomena of presence and attention.