Last Resort

Kristian Vistrup Madsen at the Verbier Art Summit

Jessica Morgan and Joan Jonas. © Alpimages.

TO GET TO THE ALPINE VILLAGE OF VERBIER, I cabbed to the airport at five in the morning, flew to Geneva, and from there took the train two hours along the north side of Lac Léman. Then I transferred to a smaller train for another half hour before catching a ski lift into the clouds. This trek was thrilling at first—magical, really—and, finally, somewhat absurd, given that this year’s Verbier Art Summit is titled “Resource Hungry: On Our Cultured Landscape and Its Ecological Impact.” I had come solely to attend this event—for which the Dia Foundation’s Jessica Morgan had asked an array of artists, architects, designers, and academics to talk art, social issues, and environmental collapse—but since I wasn’t invited to the morning seminar, I sat at the hotel and looked at my computer. The standard-issue Apple desktop background shows light streaming onto the tip of a mountainous island that changes with the time of day. My home office in Berlin looks out onto a brown concrete building, so usually I’m completely enthralled by this glorious motif, but the W Hotel in Verbier offered spectacular views of the Alps, right there on the other side of my cappuccino. It was even warm enough to sit on the balcony, suspended from the ceiling, cocooned inside a Perspex egg. How bleak my attachment to the desktop island suddenly seemed; how tragic my relation to nature, reduced to the consumption of an image, a specter. Gazing out at the white peaks, I wondered if I had finally come home.

Dia Foundation’s Jessica Morgan. © Alpimages.

Speaking of photographs, in their charming mess of a presentation for the opening panel of the summit, the design duo El Último Grito showed a clip from the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses in which a man brings his old broom along to the pub and proudly proclaims that it has had seventeen new heads, and fourteen new handles. “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?” asks his mate, to which the broom owner answers: “Here’s a picture of it, what more proof do you need?” El Último Grito spun this riff on Theseus’s ship onto the natural world in recalling the cloning of sheep—Theseus’s sheep, of course. When nature can be manufactured artificially, the whole idea of the original is called into question—just as the concept of art, as a type of cultural production obsessed with both stylization and authenticity, contradicts itself. In the end, can the picture of a broom serve as evidence of anything?

Adrian Lahoud’s lecture about a painting made by Australia’s Indigenous Ngurrara people, and accepted by the court as proof of their title to the land, really captured the hearts of the Verbier audience, a triumphant confirmation that “art can change the world”—a sentiment that had somewhat fogged up the ski resort. Amid the heartwarming thrill of it all, no one asked exactly how the painting constituted evidence, though my understanding was that it had to do with a notion of deep culture (like deep time, or the deep state): to see the broom, in both a highly abstract and completely self-evident way, as a testament to centuries of broom history. Or, in the case of the Ngurrara painting, that such an intricate representation of a landscape could not possibly have come into being if knowledge of it hadn’t been passed down through generations.

Kiki Thompson and Madeleine Paternot of Verbier 3-D Art Foundation. Photo: Kristian Vistrup Madsen.

Meanwhile, on the slopes, I met a fantastic Saint Bernard. Her head was truly enormous, and her job, to my astonishment, was not to rescue people with shots of herbal liquor (which remains an urgent task around these parts) but to pose for photographs. Being press, I got to take one for free, but still suffered from a brutal encounter with the Alpine simulacrum. Of course, Verbier is as much of an image as Apple’s island. It’s just that you pay extra for the more immersive experience, and extra, still, to be photographed with the Saint Bernard. Sometimes it seems as if photographs especially, but also artworks more generally, speak to the flattening of things, as a reminder of what has been lost rather than of their existence. As Lahoud reminded us, the land won back by the Ngurrara people is now up in flames.

The architect Philippe Rahm affected me similarly as he presented the Climatorium that his office designed for Taichung Central Park, in Taiwan. A Climatorium is like a zoo or a museum, but for the climate. Rahm’s contains three spaces: one replicating the conditions of the nearby Jade Mountain (a courtesy, not unlike my desktop background, to those who aren’t able to visit); one in which it is perpetually November 21; and, finally, as a kind of “uchronia,” Taichung as it would have been if it were untouched by industrial pollution and climate change. To my sentimental mind, a both moving and dystopian setup.

Designers Rosario Hurtado and Roberto Feo of El Último Grito. Photo: Kristian Vistrup Madsen.

In her contribution to the summit, German art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann argued that the modern concept of art mirrors the logic of extractive capitalism in its detaching objects from their native contexts, such as paintings from a church in a museum. The twentieth century’s white cube, she said, is the epitome of this isolated, individualized type of consumption. By the end of day two, life inside nature’s rocky white cube had begun to feel somewhat similar. Even I, who with such jouissance had tied an Escada cravat around my roll-neck in honor of the dress code (“mountain smart casual”), was lightly suffocating in our opulent state of exile. “Tell your children not to read too much Kant,” von Hantelmann advised. Thanks?

Meta Knol, director at Museum De Lakenhal. Photo: Kristian Vistrup Madsen.

Late Friday night, Andrea Lissoni presented a lineup of three strong video works that bode well for his upcoming directorship at Munich’s Haus Der Kunst. Among them was the exceedingly charming Argentine director Eduardo Williams’s short film Parsi, 2018, scored by a long poem by Mariano Blatt: “Seems like a trashy MySpace kid / Seems like the way home / Seems like he’s more high than me / Seems like he’s got a big dick / Seems like he doesn’t know how to use it.” Blatt’s words drum on endlessly as the camera follows different groups of young people around the streets of Bissau on the West African coast. To add to this sequence of speculatives—and given the fact that, as Cristina Davies of the UN Refugee Agency had told us earlier, even refugees are cutting emissions by producing mud bricks to save on plastic tents—it seems like the lady sitting next to me at dinner might reconsider whether her third home in the Côte d’Azur is necessary. I, for one, should have definitely drawn the line before getting on that private jet to Monaco last Gallery Weekend. As Stefan Kaegi from the Rimini Protokoll theater collective so relevantly asked, Can the art world learn from theater’s ways with staging and artifice to create more sustainable ways of ideological exchange? Or, more to the point: Do we really need to be here? I say, probably not.