GSTAAD, Switzerland — Why travel to the Swiss Alps, if not for the benefits of breathing some rareified air? Elevation 1049 is a biennial now in its third iteration, produced by the Luma Foundation, and seeks to gather art world glitterati in the mountain town of Gstaad for a singular art festival experience — this year around the theme “Frequencies.” Whether exclusivity is the explicit agenda of Elevation 1049, the setting ensures that attendees will be either highly curated or independently wealthy, or just very dedicated hikers.
Previous iterations of the festival — co-curated, as in previous years, by Neville Wakefield and Gstaad native Olympia Scarry, who is unquestionably the impetus for staging Elevation in this exotic setting — presented a combination of experiential and semi-permanent sculpture and installation works, including a Sarah Morris special edition of the train that connects Zweissman and Montreaux (and by which Gstaad is accessible), that continues to run through the landscape. But for Gstaad 2019, organizers took a bold and risky tack, with the bulk of festival programming comprised of 10 works of performance art, taking place over the course of opening weekend (February 1–3), anchored by only one ongoing installation: Mirage Gstaad by Doug Aitken.
Like the festival, Mirage is now in its third installment, having debuted at Desert X two years ago (also curated by Wakefield, which is presumably how Aitken came to be at Elevation), and last year was presented in a second iteration in Detroit. Mirage is one of those extraordinarily clever ideas that seems so obvious, once seen, that it is difficult to remember one hasn’t seen it before — at least not in a fine art context. It is, of course, a kind of expanded, highbrow version of the “house of mirrors” carnival attraction, which invites viewers to navigate a maze of reflective surfaces, designed to beguile the viewer. Aitken’s Mirage achieves the same kind of chimera effect, but pushes the illusion to the exterior surfaces as well, creating a structure that blends unsettlingly into the landscape, by virtue of reflecting its surroundings.
Naturally, then, the surroundings matter very much. For Desert X, Aitken positioned his work in the liminal space between fringe suburbia and open desert, creating a version of the nearby ranch-style houses that extended and disappeared into the desert. In Detroit, the concept of a vanishing house is far more intensely loaded — Palm Springs has seen nothing but development encroaching on nature, while Detroit is famously a city whose population decline has enabled nature to encroach on human settlement. Mirage Detroit is an interior installation, taking up the vacant space within a bank building that has stood empty in downtown Detroit for decades. No natural light was permitted in the space — of the three Mirages, this is the one that Aitken sought the most to control, and the only natural element is a stony field of local river rock that creates an artificial landscape surrounding the house. In Gstaad, where the work will remain installed for the next two years, Mirage currently blends right into a wintery landscape, with the wall reflecting white, untouched snow and trees from surrounding mountains, even mimicking the isosceles peaks of adjacent snow chalets, all built according to strict regulation in the interest of maintaining the powerful and irresistible Bavarian charm that is the signature of these tourism-dependent mountain villages.
Like his work, Aitken is a polished artist, generally easygoing in his role as poster boy for a festival facilitated by people like Wakefield and Luma Foundation founder Maja Hoffmann, who prefer to stay out of the spotlight. His frequency is so strong and signal boosted so steadfastly by the event organizers, it’s easy to overlook that the weekend’s active programming is entirely the product of women artists — though it should surprise no one that, in an event featuring 90% women contributors, the bulk of spotlight, resources, and permanence is the purview of the only man. What, then, of these ephemeral beauties, these muses, these snow flowers destined to bloom only for a single weekend?
Overall, performances were greatly informed and impacted by the surroundings, which worked to the advantage of some, and very much to the detriment of others. Gstaad is a place designed for centuries-old dairy farming, skiing, wellness spas, mountain hiking, chocolate, and fondue — it does not contain that many facilities suitable for performance.
For Marie Karlberg’s performance piece, The Artist Will Be In Attendance, viewers were packed standing in a tiny gallery space, with Karlberg visible only to those immediately adjacent to her performance area. Her performance, generally received as hilarious, was a send-up of art-world trivialities — the pretentiousness of artists talking about their stupid work, the idiocy of gallerists and curators asking questions far wide of the point, the strange voyeurism of art world spectators trying to learn something about the artist rather than focusing on the art. Ultimately, though, Karlberg presented nothing more than an art world ouroboros, making art of her art world experiences, in a way that everyone could laugh about without seeing themselves implicated. A piece by Zhana Ivanova also suffered the same kind of spectator obstruction, taking place in the lobby bar of the Alpina Gstaad, and visible only to those immediately surrounding a barroom tableau played out between three performers, interacting solely based on verbal direction by the artist.
But later, in the Greengo bar of the Palace Hotel, a concert by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster in collaboration with Julian Perez, “Exotourisme,” was hypnotic, transportative, and complete, greatly enhanced by the surreal paleo-futuristic decor that gave the entire experience the feel of a shoot for Bladerunner B-roll. Indeed, the musical performances were among the strongest of the festival overall, with an ambitious and at times awkward three-woman concert, Barricades, orchestrated by Naama Tsabar in Hangar #3 of the Gstaad Saanen Airport — a well-appointed space within a facility designed to accommodate small personal planes and their owners — and an absolutely blockbuster performance by electronica pioneer Suzanne Ciani, which took place in a small 16th century church in the neighboring village of Lauenen.
Ciani seems to work, at times, by building on a base noise presented by her environment — for example, ocean noise, as the basis for her 1982 album, Seven Waves. After an introductory moment in which Ciani established her opening auditory cue as the whoosh, whoosh of a ski-slalom (which she mimed endearingly, not to put too fine a point on it) she turned her back to the audience to attend to the workings of her classic Buchla 200 — an incredibly rare modular synthesizer that was a lesser-run competitor to Moog in the 1970s. The performance Improvisation on Five Sequences showcased an artist in absolute tune with her tools, her inspiration, and her muse. The presence of Ciani and her equipment in the church’s vestibule, backed by a projection screen that presented shifting visualizations of her tonal experiments, with frequencies occasionally pitching to vaguely resemble little Alps in a sphere, should have been in stark contrast to the centuries-old church — her Buchla faced down by a balcony hosting an equally impressive and rare pipe organ. But rather, it demonstrated the resounding power of art as a vehicle of worship and transformation, perhaps not as old as the surrounding mountains, but as old as human civilization within them.
Ultimately, I find myself ill-equipped to evaluate Elevation 1049 as someone who tends to categorically prioritize the confluence of art and real life, rather than the conflation of art and extreme wealth. That is to say: I have little to which I might compare my experience of this festival in the Swiss Alps, which puts me in the precarious position of liking or not-liking something — in my practice, the weakest possible metric for the evaluation of art. There are moments that will stay with me a week later, and forever. Marianne Vitale’s Burned Bridge being literally burned atop a ski slope accessible only by gondola; Isabel Lewis’s Poolside Pastoral, which played out every single art world orgy fantasy through 10 naked performers reciting snippets of classic poetry and romping around an indoor pool grotto with a view of the Gstaad valley. More than that, I cannot demand of performance, and as a consummate inaugural experience in the Swiss Alps, one could not do better than the splendor of Elevation 1049. How much of that is attributable to the power of the art, and how much to the power of wealth is difficult to decide. I find myself thinking again about chimera, ouroboros, the electronic music priestess in the church, and a host of water nymphs, and think that, much like Aitken’s Mirage, art can only be as good as what is there to be reflected in the first place.
The performance portion of Elevation 1049 took place on the weekend of February 1–3, 2019. Doug Aitken’s Mirage Gstaad will remain on display through 2021, accessible from the Gruben or Schönried train station by foot, via hiking trail — GPS coordinates 46º29’53.4”N 7º17’11.1”E. The author’s accommodations and a portion of her travel expenses were paid by the Luma Foundation. The biennial is curated by Neville Wakefield and Olympia Scarry.