Covered by Clouds

A Journey into the Furka Zone

By Alexander Scrimgeour
Photos by Frederik van den Berg

The Urseren valley as seen from the Furka Pass

  • Feb 23, 2024
  • Issue 9

Around half an hour’s walk from Switzerland’s Furka Pass, in a wild Alpine region some 8,000 feet above sea level, the words IMPARA LE COSE DA ZERO have been carved into a boulder near a spumy mountain stream: “Learn things from scratch.” This is one of twelve Jenny Holzer Truisms incised into rocks in 1991 as part of her contribution to Furk’art, an unusual, star-studded, somewhat Delphic project for which artists were invited to engage with the awe-inspiring and often harsh landscape surrounding the country’s third-highest mountain pass, open to traffic for only three to four months each summer.

Between 1983 and 1999, the Swiss gallerist Marc Hostettler invited some sixty artists to participate in Furk’art, among them Marina Abramović and Ulay, Joseph Beuys, Max Bill, Daniel Buren, James Lee Byars, Gretchen Faust, Richard Long, Olivier Mosset, Panamarenko, Steven Parrino and Roman Signer. Some intervened directly in the Hotel Furkablick (Furka View)—the home of the project, where the artists stayed—while others staged performances in the landscape or found other ways to relate to it. None made Land art in the American sense: Only a few made enduring works, and almost all of those that remain are discreet or at least anti-monumental.

More than a century before the project was initiated, the Furka Pass had been visited by an illustrious traveler without whose presence the Hotel Furkablick might never have been built: Queen Victoria, who stayed at its no-longer-extant bigger brother, the Hotel Furka, in the summer of 1868 on her way to see the nearby Rhône glacier. Although she had a wretched time and reported feeling miserably cold, her stay and its resonance in Britain marked a turning point in the history of Swiss tourism: The Alps became fashionable for a demographic far larger than gentlemen mountaineers and British aristocrats on Grand Tours, and numerous hotels were built, some with hundreds of rooms. But the vogue ran its course, and by the middle of the 20th century, the end of an era of high-end, long-stay, short-haul travel meant many of the hotels became unviable and closed. In 1982, the Hotel Furka was given over to the nearby military base for artillery practice. On its site today is nothing but a huge parking lot, hosting travelers overnighting in RVs and a hot-dog stand with a pay-to-go Porta-Potty: one franc for customers, two for guests.

The jay at the top of the stairs in the Hotel Furkablick

View of a section of Mark Luyten, L’orangerie VI, 1990

On the other side of the road stands a seemingly unoccupied building with the word DÉPENDANCE painted on it, the hotel’s former staff quarters. Its gables are decorated with arrows pointing in various directions—Richard Long’s Wind Line Over the Furkapass (1989), a record of the shifting wind during one of his walks. To the southeast, four polished granite blocks sit on the ground, arranged in a square to function as a fire pit—a 1994 work by Max Bill. Across from it rises Per Kirkeby’s Furkapasshöhe (1986), a suburban or utilitarian-seeming ten-foot-high red-brick chimney stack, with a narrow slit through which the wind was swirling above potato-chip packets and a half-crushed beer can on the day I peered into it this past July. There are no labels anywhere proclaiming it as a work of art; some people have mistaken it for a ventilation shaft for an underground tunnel. The every- dayness of the structure and its materials are strikingly at odds with the vista beyond: On a clear summer’s day, you can see for miles down a valley whose steep sides are scratched with the lines of waterfalls and dappled with patches of snow, the Hotel Furkablick nestled conspicuously half a mile away on the side of the pass road.

The hotel, a veritable landmark, has been perched here since 1893. Its distinctive striped shutters, a work by Daniel Buren, were hand-painted on-site between 1986 and 1988, during the project’s early years. The building is also home to the only design by Rem Koolhaas in Switzerland, commissioned by Hostettler after his acquisition of the hotel and completed in 1992. The design’s distinguishing features are an aluminum entrance vestibule and a frequently windy terrace overlooking the valley. A 1997 project portfolio by Koolhaas’s firm OMA ascribes the draw of the site, in part, to “the mixture of tourists and artists— sweaty cyclists and ‘poets.’” While many of the former may be oblivious of the esteem in which the likes of Buren and Koolhaas are held today, even cognoscenti might overlook an artwork nestling against the building’s southern face: Alix Lambert’s Trash Bags with Concrete (1993), which could well outlast everything here. The plastic has almost entirely disintegrated, but the concrete continues to carry its form.

View of Olivier Mosset, 2 août 1987, 1987 (mise en valeur 2011)

View of Günther Förg, Deux reliefs, 1989, and John Nixon, Orange + Black, 1992 © Estate Günther Förg, Suisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2023

This interplay of renown and anonymity, knowledge and ignorance, public and private, runs through the history of the project, which has never sought to become a Swiss Marfa. Aufdi Aufdermauer, who contributed to Furk’art in multiple capacities, especially from 1984 to 1991—and has become the de facto spokesperson for Hostettler, who has long declined to speak publicly about the project—emphasizes that the art world was not nearly as “financialized” then as it is now. Art tourism and the VIP circuit were not the phenomena they would later become. While Furk’art made overtures to the public, Hostettler typically focused more on the artists than on the audience, once describing the project as offering “the opportunity to confront creative people from the city with an extreme, hard and very interesting landscape. The point of Furk’art is to let such people work up here for a certain span of time in confrontation with this environment and in connection with other artists.”

While geography was among the factors that lent the project both a literal and metaphorical distance from the expanding significance of art as a middle-class leisure activity, Furk’art was, as well, always entwined with its own mythopoesis. This was apparent even in the moment of its birth, courtesy of the gold-loving mystic James Lee Byars, whose 1983 mountainside performance A Drop of Black Perfume ended when a sudden storm forced all the spectators and the artist himself to run for cover.

Objects arranged on a table in the basement of the Hotel Furkablick

Many of the artists made temporary or ephemeral works or staged performances that left few if any of what Hostettler called “sediments.” Dorothee von Windheim’s Furkapass-Aktion (1991) consisted of the artist taking a walk with the audience and playing Brahms’s Piano Sonata no. 1 before announcing, “Here is a blue flower I wanted to show you,” and brutally stamping on this object of Romantic admiration. In 1984, for Nightsea Crossing, Abramović and Ulay sat across from each other for seven hours in the Hotel Furkablick’s wonderfully preserved Belle Époque dining room as summer snow started to fall outside. Six years later Mark Luyten applied words by Paul Celan to the windows in this elegant space and in several bedrooms. Among other artists who intervened in the Hotel Furkablick itself was Lawrence Weiner, who added the words COVERED BY CLOUDS to the circular room-key rings.

In 2004, some five years after the project ended, hastened by unforgiving economics, the Alfred Richterich Foundation—whose wealth derives from Ricola herbal lozenges—took responsibility for the legacy of Furk’art, with the intention, Richterich told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung at the time, of allowing the hotel and restaurant to “become an artwork, by means of their normal functioning, much in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp.” The successor to Furk’art and the keeper of its archives, the Furkablick Institute, headed by Janis Osolin, indeed functions with a kind Duchampian inscrutability; part-readymade, part bachelor machine, part riddle. Although the restaurant remains operational, the hotel is not readily accessible to the public and no longer has rooms for paying guests. (In the early years, because the hotel was open to anyone who booked a room, unsuspecting guests would often fall into conversation with artists over dinner.) Now, the hotel is primarily devoted to archiving and preservation and hosts a limited residency program. Most rooms are in various states of time-capsule-like preservation or archival-work-in-progress; the wainscoted dining room is more full than when Abramović and Ulay had it emptied for their performance but is otherwise unchanged.

View of Royden Rabinowitch, Three rolled conic surfaces applied to a region of curvature maintaining local and somatic descriptions, 1987

View of Max Bill, vier gleichgrosse quader, 1994. Wassen granite. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ProLitteris, Zurich

Osolin developed a strategy he calls “mise en valeur” for the curatorial handling of almost everything. The term, literally “brought into value,” refers to various ways “to give respect and dignity” to the objects in question. One example is a presentation of Olivier Mosset’s 2 août 1987 that puts the interlinked pink crosses of one of Mosset’s Furk’art canvases in dialogue with the extravagantly floral patterning of a Victorian wallpapered room. Illuminating the thinking behind such an approach, Osolin says: “It’s all about context.”

Many activities of the institute challenge aesthetic hierarchies entirely: One room is filled with the bowls and jugs used, given the paucity of plumbing, in place of sinks; another contains heaped mattresses; another displays a few small sculptures by Kim Jones on a sideboard along with a book about his work. Elsewhere, an unopened packet of mothballs is kept for a future generation for whom, Osolin speculates, their smell will likely no longer invoke a madeleine moment. Among a handful of discreet interventions of Osolin’s own is the gold leaf applied to the metalwork of one of the balcony balustrades in 2021 as a twinkling tip of the hat to Byars and the artist’s love of all things golden.

Aufdermauer emphasizes that the Furkablick Institute is a different kind of project than Furk’art, with its own distinct agenda. He remembers the Furk’art era as more isolated than glamorous. A single telephone line connected the hotel to the outside world, and there were no regular newspaper deliveries. Especially when the weather closed in and the place was enveloped in clouds, he says, “A lot of people found it hard.” Some artists—they were mostly men, he notes, acknowledging one of the project’s shortcomings—were invited for extended stays; some accepted and developed work during their visit; others mailed instructions. Surprise guests dropped in from time to time. Aufdermauer recalled one late-night knock at the window by Jan Hoet, who had been recently announced as the curator of Documenta 9, leading to an all-night conversation.

Facade of the Hotel Furkablick, featuring Daniel Buren, Sans titre, 1987–89 (mise en valeur 2013)

Currently occupying the Hotel Furkablick’s own dépendance is a project that seems to echo the site’s unconventional art history. Begun by Jan de Vylder of the ETH architecture school in Zurich and run by David Moser and Alessia Bertini, it is called in:dépendance, a bare-bones residency program. At any given time, about a dozen people can be found living on site, working on projects and sharing ideas over impromptu dinners, getting by without heat or hot showers (as Queen Victoria knew, one must suffer in the Alps). I arrived this past summer at the same time as Georges Descombes, a charismatic landscape architect from Geneva who was briefly passing through to talk to De Vylder about an exhibition he was planning about glaciers, scheduled to open in 2025. Descombes ranted about the Disneyfied ice grotto that has been constructed on the Rhône Glacier every winter since the 1870s. At present, the glacier is rapidly receding and the grotto is covered with white cloth that slows the melt above it while also polluting the Rhône with microplastics. For his exhibition, Descombes plans to include sketches of the future ruins of the grotto’s welcome center.

The profit-oriented, mass-tourist spectacle of the grotto functions as something of an antithesis to the history of Furk’art and the present character of both the Furkablick Institute and in:dépendance. The institute and the residency program are invested in different ways of negotiating hermeticism and accessibility; both have something monastic about them, although the former is largely based in processes, materials and a deep engagement with the site itself, and the latter is a temporary site of sociability, community and experimentation. De Vylder likes that the dépendance was long overlooked as a functional, peripheral building, and that it exists on a pass: a transitory, in-between space allowing for a nonhierarchical exchange of ideas. As he puts it: “Ping-pong happens horizontally. We never ping-pong vertically.”

After a good night’s sleep under thick Swiss blankets bequeathed by the Hotel Furka, I meet Osolin as he is installing a light bulb in a space housing Stefan Sulzer’s Requiem Aeternam (2009), one of a handful of full-fledged contemporary artworks that the Furkablick Institute has added to those from the Furk’art era. He unlocks the door to a long, window-less shed—once a storeroom for the military, whose former barracks are nearby. Inside the shed, a twelve-track sound piece is installed, featuring a funeral requiem sung by monks from the Einsiedeln monastery in central Switzerland. “The finiteness of life, the proximity of death in the Furka Zone, is the reason that all of this exists here,” Osolin observes. People often die in the mountains, in avalanches or in accidents, most often on the roads. “It’s not quite true,” he adds, “but every year somebody dies up here.”

View of Per Kirkeby, Furkapasshöhe, 1986

View of Mario Merz, Passo della Furka, 1994

The light bulb takes some time to install, and the timer triggering the requiem needs to be reset after a recent power outage. While elucidating various details of the space and the work within it, Osolin shares his annoyance about what he describes as the instrumentalization of art and the proliferation of Alpine art biennials; I think again of the glacier grotto, which I’d never seen and now won’t. Osolin emphasizes that the Furka Institute is not a museum but a place primarily invested in the curatorial activity of care (curare), rejecting the all-too-common justification of art through footfall—the history of tourism offers ample evidence that more is not merrier. There are no signs, for example, showing you how to get to the Jenny Holzer Truisms; to do so, you must talk to a living person and ask for a map of the works in the landscape. Along with a chronological checklist, the map features several quotations, including one from Proust: “Les choses ont autant de vie que les hommes” (“Things have as much life as people”).

In the spirit of this motto, the institute engages in painstaking research into the material histories and conservation needs of the works on the site. Which paint is most appropriate for renovating the Buren stripes? What kind of ink was used to apply Celan’s words on glass? But with almost equal dedication, it questions its own function. What does it mean to preserve a legacy and work with an archive in a place like this? What is the value of site-specificity and the relationship between art, context and setting?

The institute’s work is organizational, taxonomic and bureaucratic, but also sometimes Pynchonesque. The cataloguing system includes not only the works in and around the hotel and the ephemera associated with them but also, at least theoretically, all of the objects that are also here with and near them. The storeroom may contain a model of Rem Koolhaas’s extension and a flat file holds several of Kim Jones’s War Drawings, but the tablecloths and bed linens have been logged and preserved just as carefully. Downstairs is a vitrine— Cristina Consuegra’s at · tend · ing (2018)—filled with handmade cheeses decomposing extremely slowly due to the high-Alpine climate. On adjacent tables are door handles and spoons from the old Hotel Furka, as well as a single shoe, found nearby, labeled, tongue-in-cheek, “Victoria’s shoe,” and a block of asphalt once salvaged from repair works on the street outside. Everything has, or might one day have, some kind of value.

All of this labor toward saving, preserving and recording is, however, pervaded by the sense of an ending—and not just because of the climate of doom in which we live. “Furka has a long history of failure,” Osolin says, adding, of the ambitious projects that the pass has been home to, “All approaches and attempts in the Furka Zone lead somewhere, but never to the intended goal.” The specter of death, but also its deferral, even its abeyance, infuses the remnants and remainders frozen in time around the hotel and the landscape. At lunch in the Furkablick restaurant with Liliana Sánchez, an artist who has returned to the hotel numerous times to make work, Osolin briefly disappears and returns with a glass jar containing the remains of a roadkill fox from 2019; what is left of it—a few bones, some fur—has been catalogued and labeled according to the same system as everything else at the site.

Dinner at the in:dépendance residency program

The future of the Furkablick archive, site and legacy is unclear. Richterich’s heirs would like to sell it and the accompanying dépendance soon. Osolin takes this prospect philosophically. He has been working to assemble a commission that would include representatives of the two cantons connected by the Furka Pass and others with an interest in protecting all that is encompassed by his notion of the Furka Zone. The moniker keeps returning me to the “zone” in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and its parallels to the intense experiences of questioning, unlearning and recalibration that here come with remoteness, history, geology and altitude.

The desire that brought me to the pass—to see some great art by big names and shout home about it—begins to feel hokey as my mind adjusts to the Furka Zone’s conditions. Rather than writing about the zone, I find myself wanting a first-person voice in order to write from it, in a way that allows for naivete, for feeling the effects of objects, remnants, weather and geology, for an openness to whatever might or might not fill the space left by all the stuff that doesn’t really matter: city stuff, lowland projections, fantasies. In the Furka Zone, questions are framed repeatedly by memento mori. I think about Anna Tsing’s 2015 book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On The Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins and about what forms of living-with can flourish in the ruins we have made. One evening, leaning out into the night air, I feel the mountains and my life spill into another dimension.

The institute has established a cemetery on the pass that Osolin and Sánchez tell me is a sort of navel, fulcrum or pivot within the zone. On its grounds is a memorial plaque to the curator Leigh Markopoulos (1968–2017) that reads: ONLY (TRY TO) CONNECT . . . IN LIFE IT’S ALL ABOUT OBSERVING, EVEN WHEN PARTICIPATING. By this point, I’ve been on the pass long enough that I receive the words as a kind of revelation. Observing—a reward of growing older—is often a larger, harder task than taking part.

The next morning is departure day—to Zurich, downhill all the way. Osolin comes over with some parting words before I’m back in flatland. As I remember it, he said, “When you asked me yesterday how much it is my life’s work, how attached I am to the Furka Zone, to the Hotel Furkablick, I went and thought some more about it, and I wanted to add that even if in the coming years it is abandoned and falling down and I maybe drive past once a year, I’m fine with that. It’s all about observing—whatever happens.” He adds, to the photographer Frederik van den Berg, whose work appears in these pages, “You saw the bird, right? You got a picture of that?” At the top of the staircase in the hotel hangs a jay—a beautiful Eichelhäher—found dead among the rocks and now suspended from the topmost ceiling by a piece of string, refusing to decay.

The author would like to thank Aufdi Aufdermauer, Alessia Bertini, Georges Descombes, David Moser, Janis Osolin, Liliana Sánchez and Jan de Vylder for their time, openness and generosity in sharing ideas and opinions for this article, and to acknowledge a debt to Jürgen Grath’s invaluable book Furk’art: Spuren des Ephemeren (Munich: Utz Verlag, 2012).

Alexander Scrimgeour is an editor at Hauser & Wirth Publishers in Zurich. Previously, he was a Berlin-based freelancer editing books for MoMA; ICA Miami; the George Economou Collection, Athens and Kunsthalle Wien. Before that, he spent several years working for Spike Art Magazine and Artforum.