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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?

Some 30 works of art have been installed inside the rest stop
Some 30 works of art have been installed inside the rest stop
Jill Gasparina

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.

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Migrant Lives

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

An orchid rehabilitation project is turning a small Mexican community into a tourist magnet — and attracting far-flung locals back to their hometown.

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

Marcos Aguilar Pérez takes care of orchids rescued from the rainforest in his backyard in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Adriana Alcázar González

MAPASTEPEC — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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