Chalet, You Stay

Gstaad, Switzerland

Left: Curator Neville Wakefield. (Photo: Rachel Chandler) Right: Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf with Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)

OMGSTAAD! What else is there to say in the presence of the storied Swiss ski resort’s grandiose scenery—the Alps, the chalets, the people who can afford to enjoy them? This past weekend, a caravan made its way into the mountains for the opening events of “Elevation 1049,” an exhibition of public art sited in Gstaad and surrounding villages curated by Olympia Scarry and Neville Wakefield.

I decamped Friday morning from Zurich, where a crew of artists, writers, and dealers were assembling at the Hauptbahnhof. “Everybody will be there! There’s nobody who is not coming,” claimed Karma International’s Karolina Dankow. But despite the buzz, none of us could guess precisely who “everbody” might entail, apart from the twenty-eight Swiss artists participating in the show and their life and business partners.

Curator Gianni Jetzer breezed onto the platform moments before the train’s scheduled departure. “I’ve got the show in my suitcase,” he said. Moonlighting as an artist (an artist whose medium is curation), Jetzer was participating in “Elevation” by contributing a group show—named “Milky Way” after the chalet where Roman Polanski served his house arrest—staged in a hunting lodge accessible only by snowshoe. A Sunday expedition there was scrapped after both options of an arduous trek uphill and mass transportation by helicopter lost steam. So the show is consigned to mythology, a story that very few will ever know firsthand.

Left: Artists Christian Marclay and Olivier Mosset. (Photo: Rachel Chandler) Right: Curator Niels Olsen and Karma International's Marina Leuenberger. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)

This could be a metonym for “Elevation.” The show is ostensibly open to the public, though Gstaad itself is “a gated community surrounded by invisible financial walls,” as it was put to me by a local reporter who was working on a trend piece about remote mountain art festivals. That said, the village is still a village, and many of the artworks, rather than being swallowed by a metropolis as urban decoration, actually galvanize the region. The exhibition becomes a kind of pop-up, an alpine Inhotim or over-the-top art theme park liberated, for better or worse, from the confines of mundane reality as most of the world knows it.

But all this came later. First, from Zurich, it was three hours and four trains to our lofty winter destination. “Welcome to Switzerland!” proclaimed curator Niels Olsen. “This is the chalet, the most barbarian architecture!” At once simple and ornate, the chalet reigns supreme here. “Elevation”-branded BMWs whisked everyone to the base of the Eggli ski slope to see Roman Signer’s anti-chalet, so to speak, fly into action. In a gesture of cartoonish grace, a boxy, unadorned house slid down the mountain and skidded to a stop. Like an Olympic torchbearer, it seemed to announce, “Let the ceremonies begin!”

As night fell, guests bundled up for a celebratory dinner hosted by Stanley Buchthal and Maja Hoffmann, whose LUMA& Foundation produced “Elevation 1049.” Like a scene out of an episode of The Bachelor, the buses dropped people off not at a restaurant or residence but at a ski lift distributing wool blankets and cups of vodka-spiked chicken soup. After shuttling through darkness along a cable strung several stories high in the frigid air, we were deposited mid-mountain, where we commenced a candlelit walk leading to a lodge, a building pervaded by the aroma of kitsch: fondue.

Left: Swiss Institute chairwoman Fabienne Abrecht with Swiss Institute director Simon Castets and Kunsthalle Basel president Martin Hatebur on a chairlift. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: Artist Olympia Scarry. (Photo: Rachel Chandler)

By early morning the sky was bright blue and expeditions set off in all directions to take in as much art as possible during daylight hours. My first stop was atop Glacier 3000, where one of Olivier Mosset’s ice-carved “Toblerones” crowned the show’s highest point: 2,964.4 meters. One hundred and some steps and two gondola rides down, in Saanen, lies the nadir, a parking garage recorded at 1,010.9 meters, “Elevation”’s lowest elevation.

Many of the works in the show allude to tropes and symbols of Swissness. Hence the Toblerone, not only a quintessential chocolate but also a term of endearment for the similarly shaped impediments built in the 1940s to protect Switzerland from tank invasions. Then there’s Bollywood Goes to Gstaad, Christian Marclay’s film that loops on one of the Glacier 3000 gondolas. It’s a fastidiously edited megamix of Swiss-themed clips from ’80s and ’90s Indian films: ingťnues and their handsome lovers twirling in lush summer hills, caressing in fresh snow, shopping for sweets on the main street, or gazing out the window from a coveted seat on the SBB. It’s a wink to one of Switzerland’s many dualities, as a stalwart of exclusive tradition that simultaneously trades as the locus of a globalized, luxury-driven fantasy that is always for sale.

The other significant moving-image work in “Elevation” fills its most evocative location. In a labyrinthine, forlorn nuclear bunker, curator Matthias Brunner has installed a dozen or so projections of scenes from Daniel Schmid films that capture a distinctly Alpine nostalgia. The tunnel walls alternate between blasted, scaly stone and rudimentary concrete forms that refer to classic architectural details of villages like the one aboveground.

Left: Philosopher Tobias Huber and artist Pamela Rosenkranz. Right: Curator Piper Marshall and Karma International's Karolina Dankow. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)

Cocurator Olympia Scarry also made a piece that is immediately recognizable on home turf and inscrutable elsewhere: tall posts that indicate a forthcoming construction site (“so people can air their rights and call their lawyers,” a bystander explained), cast in gold instead of the customary wood. Seeing this one required the most epic trek of the weekend. Midday Saturday, an infantry of horse-drawn sleds waited outside the town of Lauenen to bring everyone to the lake. There, Scarry’s sculpture sits outside the exotically remote lakeside restaurant where FOSI—the Friends of the Swiss Institute—hosted lunch.

Sensing an acute shortage of horses, I leapt into the only open seat, in a carriage occupied by Princess Alia al-Senussi of Libya and her friends, who were not missing the grade-A selfie and groupie opportunities provided by the tree-lined path to the Lauenensee. New Swiss Institute director Simon Castets and his chairwoman Fabienne Albrecht lavished the hungry masses with, of course, cheese, and their reassurance that the long schlep, whether equestrian or pedestrian (many walked over an hour to get there!), would preempt FOSI FOMO, a specialized hashtag if ever there were one.

That night there were reports of elves hauling armfuls of Dior bags across the winter landscape. Credible enough, as indeed the French fashion house hosted a small dinner for Wakefield and Scarry in Rossiniere at the chalet of Balthus, whose wife and daughter showed guests around the house and nearby studio. The studio itself is an uncanny, transporting sight which has been left largely untouched since the artist’s final days there. Back in Saanen, a livelier party—with tacos!—was brewing at the home of Vera Michalski. Can the Swiss do tacos? No. But tequila is hard to get wrong.

At its best, “Elevation 1049” is an extravagantly whimsical undertaking. The setting is more Disney than Disney, every pine bough and pitched roof dusted in powder. “It must be about the white snow as white cube,” mused artist Lorenzo Bernet back in Zurich. The art ranges from subtle, cute interventions—a John Armleder Christmas tree in a grove of ordinary ones, Pipilotti Rist’s video in a bottle shelved at the bar of the Hotel Olden—to immersive and proportionally entertaining ones like Thomas Hirschhorn’s menagerie of igloos and snow-packed idols. Others can’t overcome the natural splendor and unnatural opulence that make Gstaad so famous. But across the board there’s a sublime freedom for artists to play, and freedom, or so seems the case here, is expensive.

Kevin McGarry

Left: Artist This Brunner. (Photo: Rachel Chandler) Right: Horse-drawn sledges to Olympia Scarry installation at Lauenensee. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)