The Rarefied Resident.
Diary of an Artist in Residence.
I have just completed a remarkable Sculpture Residency delivered by the 3-D Foundation. It was located high in the Alps in the ski resort of Verbier in Switzerland. The atmosphere is truly rarified and the light and space staggering. In a formal sense one is struck by the traditional Artistic values the residency offers, a fantastic change of environment, a change of air and a seclusion that befits the idea of finding space to work. It feels reminiscent of Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain' a place of re cooperation and a return to health, a place to climb and turn to survey grand vistas, stirring the Nietschean moment in our souls.
The Artist in residence is not a new phenomena, it dates back to the 1900's. This is a modern residency with an expectation of ambition from the Artists involved and features curatorial input in its selection process and a running critique that passes a light hand over the works. This curation is supplied by Paul Goodwin, a man of great experience and calm assurance.
There was an international range to those involved including, me, from England, Onyedika Chuke, a Nigerian born Artist based in NewYork, Julien Marolf, a Swiss Artist based in Lausanne, Elly Cho, a video Artist from Korea based in New York and Sabine Zaalene a Video/performance Artist from Switzerland. Two other Artists were not resident but were providing new works for the sculpture foundation; Josette Taramarcaz and Edouard Faro.
Upon my arrival in Verbier after a wonderful journey traversing Lake Geneve I am introduced to the organiser and founder member of the residency, Kiki Thompson, who's easy going manner immediately makes me feel comfortable.
In order to start work we must go up the mountain. We disembark from the thrilling cable car ride and walk around an escarpment and stand looking across an enormous valley that stretches away for miles, mountain peaks rise on either side of us as we begin to walk the route through the sculpture park.
'Where would you like to put your piece on the mountain?' I am asked. At this point I really don't have an answer. "It usually takes three trips to decide', Kiki says as we make our way back down.
This evening we have some visitors to the studio. Wine is served and some local history is served up. Stories of Saracens in the Alps and villages only accessible by ladders that are drawn up at night.... Stories of fighting cows on which large sums of money are wagered.... The vineyards in micro-climates created by enormous rocks that soak up the heat of the sun in the summer.... and so it goes on, Switzerland really is an interesting place.
Refreshed the next morning I set about my task with relish.
The work ethic of the Artist is an interesting one. The public perception of artists lying in their studio gently studying their work, or perhaps a nude model is an outmoded one. Artists have to work very hard, their life being a mixture of studio practice, application writing and ruthless networking. Art does not exist without an audience and the only way to get it into the public arena is through the process of convincing the Galleries and Museums that they need our work, indeed the public needs our work. An artist without a laptop and considerable writing skills will not go far.
If Sculpture had a patron saint they would be a fickle mistress. A sculptor can never relax or assume anything will run smoothly because it doesn't! Although I am startled by my own progress and things were going very well. I wanted to check that my plan to protect my tower from lightning strikes was acceptable to the local powers that be. Jacques the electrician comes to see my piece in the car park. He seems to enjoy it and shakes my hand warmly as he murmurs, 'c'est comme le tour Eiffel...' As Jacques draws a diagram on a pad of what has to be done my heart sinks. At two corners I need to attach ten metre long strips of copper, the really bad news is that they have to be buried a foot deep in the ground. A lot of digging, especially at two miles altitude in the park.
The most remarkable thing about the mountains is their ability to change. There has not been one morning when they look the same. The light here is simply magical, it illuminates and shadows, dapples and caresses the slopes... its progress interrupted by an equally varied range of cloud. This morning everything is shrouded in thick fog that dampens every sound and creates an atmosphere of calm. The cable car journey is a strangely quiet one, I am lost in a cloud, literally, and struggle to estimate how long my journey is lasting. Suddenly the car rises out of the cloud and sits above it in a blaze of sunlight.
After five weeks I am ready to finish installing my work and watch as an enormous tipper truck begins to tip and dump the stones I need for the job, I am joined by 'Ludo' our video man, he records our every move. He always flashes his broad disarming smile and then aims his camera. Today he is a godsend. The truck is still reversing away from its load of stones. There is supposed to be one cubic tonne here. As the orange truck disappears down the track Ludo and I stand in front of four tons of stones, which also now block the road.
The stones need to be carried up a twelve foot bank and then placed at the foot of my sculpture. Ludo puts down his camera and we smile at each other and then begin the process of transporting the stones to where they need to be. Two hours later I wave goodbye to Ludo, he has other Artists to frame in his viewfinder. The road is no longer blocked with stones, but I have a wall to build.
In England we call it 'dry stone walling', I don't know if they have a name for it in Switzerland, I have a name for it and it isn't pretty. This is torture! I have no fingerprints left, my back is bent double and my arms are aching. My feet are stuck to my socks which are in turn now welded to my steel toe capped boots.
So the morning of the Vernissage arrives, it coincides with the 'Inalp', this is the arrival of the fighting cows on the mountain. There is a perfect irony about this, the local history and community coming together with the Artists and their individual agendas.
There is an unparalleled thrill watching people approach one's Artwork. I love to see people react and investigate, they tip their head to get a better look or crouch down, some are brave enough to touch the Aluminium and give it a gentle stroke. This is what Art is about for me, it is nothing without an audience. Watching people 'looking' is wonderful thing, we don't often work at looking but when we do the rewards are enormous.
We make our way along the path that bisects the sculpture park and watch as people admire Josette's fabulous boat piece, a work that seems about to cast off and float away down the valley, despite it being cast from five tonnes of cement. Julien's inverted aquarium with writhing cement fondu fish overhangs the path and has a small gang of children clambering up the slope, they try to touch the fish but they are out of reach. The last big obstacle is to climb up to Onyedika's piece that is in a derelict cable car building some 200 feet above the path, the heat makes this difficult but it is well worth the effort. He has fabricated a large dome like structure with quasi stained glass windows in it, these cast a colour light onto the walls and floor below while his wooden 'double Nymph' piece diagonally cuts across the space like a lurching hyphen.
We take the cable car back to the town for the final act of partying.
So the residency is over but this is ironically where the next period of hard work starts, I have to market the work, get it publicised and try to show it to as many people as possible. If I want to get another opportunity like this one I need to advertise myself. There is an added twist in Verbier of course that once the snow is laid down in the winter the works are completely re invented.
A glorious reason to ask to be invited back to have another look, I certainly would be happy to do it all again.
The unabridged article can be read at www.jonathanhwright.com under 'Current Projects'.