ZÜRICH’S KLOTEN AIRPORT WAS VERY BUSY during the last week of January. The snow was unusually abundant, as was the number of security guards deployed to protect the roster of international leaders—including France’s president Emmanuel Macron, President Donald J. Trump of the United States, and the United Kingdom’s prime minister Theresa May—arriving for the World Economic Forum in Davos. But in the village of Klosters, the heartland of British royalty, we boarded trains for Lower Engadin, in the direction of the village of Zuoz, for another illustrious (yet far more artistic) summit called the Engadin Art Talks, or EAT.
EAT was founded in 2010 by Zurich collector and publisher Cristina Bechtler, a strong force in the area, with Daniel Baumann, director of the Kunsthalle Zürich; Bice Curiger, the artistic director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles; Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of Serpentine Galleries, London; and Philip Ursprung, professor of art and architectural history at ETH Zürich, a STEM university. EAT was inspired by a group called the Crystal Chain, a visionary body led by urban planner and architect Bruno Taut that was made up of twelve architects and one artist. From 1919 to 1920, they worked on the creation of a chain letter full of utopian ideas.
Engadin’s engagement with the arts and architecture is unique. It also has a prosperous collector base. Many cultural notables have lived there, too, from Alberto Giacometti to Friedrich Nietzsche. Through the support of long-standing foundations, such Walter A. Bechtler’s, the region features permanent site-specific installations by artists including Fischli and Weiss, Tadashi Kawamata, and Ken Lum.
The small red train of the Rhaetian Railway that drove slowly through the enchanted Swiss valleys stopped first at the Muzeum Susch, where the Polish collector and philanthropist Grażyna Kulczyk is erecting a museum and organizing an artist residency in an old monastery partially built into the mountains. A gigantic Monika Sosnovska sculpture is installed in the building’s atrium. The train then stopped in S-Chanf. I went to a great boutique hotel there, the Villa Flor, for a drink. The hotel, owned by Ladina Fiorineth, had a show of drawings by David Shrigley.
When I finally got to Zuoz, I went to Galleria Monica de Cardenas. It was hosting “Reinventing the Figure,” a group exhibition of paintings and drawings by artists including Katherine Bernhardt, Mira Dancy, and Grace Weaver. I also visited Galerie Tschudi, which was showing Andrea Büttner and Kimsooja, in addition to site-specific works by Richard Long and Niele Toroni. Zuoz’s Hotel Castell is also a marvelous exhibition space, owned by collector Rüdi Bechtler. Every floor features works by artists such as Martin Kippenberger and Wade Guyton. There’s even an impressive outdoor “Sky Space” by James Turrell that, at the time, was buried under snow.
On the morning of January 27, Zuoz’s mayor, Flurin Wieser, opened the EAT talks in Romantsch—one the four official languages spoken in Switzerland—with a discussion that covered everything from legendary Land art projects and “mega structures” to “urban agglomerations” and museums in remote regions. The gymnasium where the conference took place was packed. Kashef Chowdhury, an architect from Bangladesh (who was accompanied by his wife, Sarod, playing a sitar) talked about his project for the Samdani Foundation. Swiss artist Claudia Comte chatted with us about her childhood, much of which unfolded in a Grancy chalet. Aric Chen, the design curator at M+ in Hong Kong, gave a lecture on the anthropocene.
I skipped the scheduled lunch break and went back to visit S-Chanf, where Galerie von Bartha was showing works by Landon Metz. The gallery 107 S-Chanf, founded by Dino Zevi and Rafael Jablonka, had on view a fantastic show of Michael Heizer’s sculptures. When I came back to Zuoz, I missed Adrián Villar Rojas’s talk but heard Bice Curiger’s presentation, titled “The Eventful Awakening Based on the Example of Arles,” about the new LUMA Foundation outpost in the French city.
I also heard French philosopher Pacôme Thiellement’s presentation—it was recondite and difficult to follow. Artist Mai-Thu Perret also gave a clever talk titled “No More City,” and Hans Ulrich Obrist was signing his new book published by JRP Ringier, Somewhere Totally Else, a compilation of his writings from Das Magazin, the weekly supplement of the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.
Come Sunday morning, the conference space was mobbed—popular starchitect Rem Koolhaas gave a lecture with the very Obristian title, “Ever Countryside.” He introduced the think-tank project he’s organizing with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which will turn into an exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2019.
When EAT ended (after waves and waves of applause), I went to the neighboring village of Madulain, where collector Willi Leimer owns a sublime barn that functions as a gallery for site-specific works, called Galerie Stalla. A show by local artist and international art hero Not Vital was on view, curated by Gian Tumash Appenzeller and the architect Jasper Schmidlin. The artist was there, and the center of attention. Not Vital also took us to his new property: Schloss Tarasp, a medieval castle that once belonged to the aristocratic Von Hessen family. Ever the entertainer, he welcomed us with organ music. His mountaintop edifice felt very Club Dracula—not the members-only establishment in St. Moritz—but something a little cooler, stranger, crazier. The place is filled with Basquiats and Warhols, after all.