When Contemporary Art Lands In A Highway Rest Stop
In Switzerland, a provocatively mundane location for top avant-garde art. But can you find something more important than a full tank of gas?
MARTIGNY — There may be no location seemingly less appropriate for an art exhibition than a highway rest stop. Visitors are often in a hurry and far from the state of mind that an encounter with works of art requires. As for the spaces themselves, they're a long way from the large and enclosed white cubes we usually find in museums.
And yet, the decision to organize the fourth edition of the Valais contemporary art exhibition La Triennale at the rest stop Saint-Bernard, is far from absurd. First of all because the gas station has long been an object of interest for artists, since the 1960s. Second, because the American mythology around roads has a particular echo in the Swiss canton of Valais. And finally, because a rest stop is an excellent metaphor for a cultural world that's increasingly in pursuit of events such as biennials, triennials and the like, which wind up visited at the speed of light.
The Triennale commissioners were particularly clever to use the entire site. Some 30 works of art, from Swiss as well as international artists, have been installed inside the rest stop and its immediate surroundings. Well-known among the locals, the site offers an unusual, and curiously photogenic landscape with its two ponds, surrounding mountains, a cable car, power towers, a wind turbine, orchards, an industrial poultry farm, and even a military fort. "You have the whole Valais region inside one square kilometer," says Simon Lamunière, one of the three commissioners.
Spending more than 20 minutes is uncommon
The location brings together so many of the themes of a changing society, and especially that which regards our relationship to entertainment, nature, trade and tourism. What place can art have in these transformations? Should it be more "event-driven"? More commercial? Can it touch everybody?
By way of answer, a series of works offer an ironic vision of the "high-speed tourism" society. On the car park, Laurent Faulon's burnt and glossed Mitsubishi takes center stage amid functioning cars, while a series of tents installed by Jérôme Leuba offer a dystopian fiction.
Inside the station's shop, visitors will find a Jaguar that François Curlet turned into a hearse. It's the same car used in the 1971 movie Harold and Maude, in which a young suicidal man falls in love with an 80-year-old woman.
It's easy to appreciate the sweet paradox of using a space normally devoted to consumption for an exhibition, but we must also admit that the rest stop's daily activity often interferes with the access to the works on exhibit, and which aren't always highlighted, or even visible. The most convincing works are really the ones visitors can find outside.
Organized like a paper chase, the exhibition takes the visitors along the pond, where they can see Lang and Baumann's floating structure, then to the orchard until the natural reserve where the rivers Dranse and Rhône meet. There are also works the evoke the absence of body, like Delphine Reist's empty boots or Fabrice Gygi's Autoportrait, which seems to be resting away from prying eyes.
Spending more than 20 minutes in a rest stop is uncommon. But the experience the site offers is worth it. Even if the background noise from the highway is always present, it somehow also helps to progressively move us away from civilization.