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by Heike Biechteler

The Zuoz Case

The 7th Engadin Art Talks took place in the Upper Engadin region, in a village called Zuoz, on the weekend of January 27-28, 2018. The public art and architecture forum aimed to provide a prestigious line-up.

The E.A.T./Engadin Art Talks were founded by Cristina Bechtler and led by Daniel Baumann (Director of the Kunsthalle Zurich), Bice Curiger (Director of the Fondation Van Gogh in Arles), Hans Ulrich Obrist (Artistic Director at the Serpentine Galleries in London) and Philip Ursprung (Professor at gta/ETH Zurich).

Furthermore, the E.A.T./Engadin Art Talks sought to offer a “unique opportunity for the exchange of knowledge and experience between the invited artists, architects, creatives, curators, and art and culture enthusiasts in an informal and intimate setting. The intention [was] to perpetuate the tradition of the Engadin region as a place of creativity while simultaneously debating current trends in art and culture.”

The theme of the E.A.T./Engadin Art Talks, “SIDE COUNTRY SIDE,” focused on the rural environment. The 2018 participants included Aric Chen, Kashef Chowdhury, Claudia Comte, Bice Curiger, Rem Koolhaas, Niklas Maak, Mai-Thu Perret, Emily Segal, Pacôme Thiellement, Adrián Villar Rojas, and others.

The event was financed through various partners and sponsors, and the price for the registered public was a minimum of CHF 100.  Students tickets were free.

The Engadin Art Talks were overbooked.[1]

The comparison to an Agatha Christie crime story with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot as the main detectives is reasonable. Yet, in Zuoz, the venue of the 7th Engadin Art Talks, entitled “Side Country Side,” no one has been murdered nor has any jewelry or famous art been stolen.

Nonetheless, the snowy, picturesque Engadin mountain village, with its air of exclusivity, is a suitable setting for a plot to unfold. One finds Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot obsessively investigating the connections between the cast of characters and their possible connection to the mystery. With an illustrious cast of participants and guests, the scene is set for suspense and entertainment.

In the Zuoz case, the unsolved mystery starts with the countryside itself.

What is perceived as ‘countryside’ has recently undergone many changes. The countryside is no longer a place with a specific landscape.

The countryside as an idea does not simply refer to a specific landscape subject that might be painted on an easel, nor does it merely serve nationalistic territorial ideology, as it has historically. Countryside, as this conference revealed, is a patchwork[2] of many different phenomena, such as ‘Fiction’ or ‘mysticism,’ where the French writer and filmmaker Pacôme Thiellement imagined David Lynch`s Twin Peaks taking place.[3]

Unlike the fictive approaches, the countryside is also a place of many different political systems, which manifest themselves through the built environment, like infrastructural and building projects, whether they be digital, data, or distribution centers.

At this art venue, the patchwork metaphor also makes sense just by watching and listening to the different speakers invited, who represent different professions and come from different cultures and therefore have different perceptions of the countryside.

Rem Koolhaas considered the countryside’s relevance regarding the two intertwining phenomena of ‘digitalization’ and ’globalization.’

Koolhaas’ countryside collage consists of images that illuminate the breadth of changes the countryside has undergone. A 100-year-old Russian image of three women wearing their traditional costumes was compared to a similar image, taken 100 years later in Switzerland, showing a different population—housekeepers from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Koolhaas then drew a comparison between Land Art and major manufacturing site projects, such as the Tesla battery factory in Nevada. This and Michael Heizer’s City (artwork), which is also situated in the desert of Nevada, have clearly similar ambitions beyond their scale.[4] Both projects became monumental icons on their own. Begun in 1972 and still unfinished, the City project is one of the largest monumental architectural earthwork sculptures ever created, roughly 2.4 km by 0.5km made entirely of dirt, rocks, and concrete and constructed with heavy machinery. The work is located on private land, owned by the artist and not yet accessible to the public.

Back in Zuoz, it became clear that not only was Rem Koolhaas driven to decipher the countryside phenomena. Why else did 200+ global journalists, architects, collectors, artists, curators,  and art enthusiasts descend on the decentralized place of Zuoz? 

The story of the Engadin Art Talks in Zuoz began in 2010 when it was founded and initiated by Christina Bechtler, an art collector and publisher. It must have been a mixture of both her vision but also her economic and cultural network  that made it possible to convert a geographically remote village into a cultural hub.

Zuoz is the typical example of a wealthy Engadin village. Its recent transformation lies in its identity as a locale for secondary private residences. The result is typical for many alpine villages: towns like Zuoz and others lie empty for long periods of the year, rendered into ghost towns.[5] Besides that, Zuoz became exceptional for its transformation into an art village. This was basically generated through the renovation of the Hotel Castell into an art hotel in 2004 by the owner, Ruedi Bechtler, who is the brother of Thomas Bechtler, Christina Bechtler’s husband. Both brothers are descendants of a family of industrialists and art collectors. Among others, the Hotel Castell exhibits contemporary work by the artist duo Fischli/Weiss, and site-specific art by James Turrell and the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata.[6] Those works have been extremely significant for the transformation in Zuoz, since they have laid the foundation for “Art Public Plaiv,” a project of contemporary art in public spaces in the Upper Engadin, to which Zuoz also belongs.[7]

The Engadin Art Talks are the natural consequence of Zuoz’s development as a cultural hotspot in Switzerland’s countryside. E.A.T.’s press release sums up the concept of providinga unique opportunity for the exchange of knowledge and experience between the invited artists, architects, creatives, curators, and art and culture enthusiasts in an informal and intimate setting. The intention is to perpetuate the tradition of the Engadin region as a place of creativity while simultaneously debating current trends in art and culture.”[8]

The line-up of E.A.T.’s main partners and sponsors, such as Gübelin Jewellery and the Swiss luxury watch brand Constantin Vacheron or the family foundation Bechtler Stiftung, just to name a few, makes one aware of the high expenses of the event.[9]

Besides Rem Koolhaas, the other guests, and their sponsors, the high-profile curatorial mix contributed significantly to the success of the Engadin Art Talks and its global attendance.

Zuoz itself was the new phenomena of the countryside.

Apart from Zuoz, the countryside remained a rather undefined phenomenon . Instead, what the countryside is not was clarified: definitely not something urban, nor found in the jungle or desert, but everything that is decentralized or remote.

The countryside can be real but also unreal.  The countryside is nostalgia and utopia at the same time. It is the place where the human meets the non-human,[10] but also where reality and fiction overlap. We all know about the existence of Robert Smithson’s [1970] Land Art piece Spiral Jetty. We have read about it, and we have seen it in photographs. This doesn’t mean that the experience of it would be the same. In Philipp Ursprung’s case, he never saw the Spiral Jetty the way it is described or depicted in images, because when he was physically there, the Spiral Jetty was flooded. His personal experience and his narrative stands beyond and in opposition to the familiar story and the generally known facts of the artwork.

Mai-Thu Perret’s art is defined by a story she invented. Her starting point and the motivation behind her work is the present political and economic status quo in a Western neoliberal society: in her narrative, a group of young women decided to leave a big unnamed Western city to create an autonomous community in the desert of New Mexico.

Here, the artist`s work is a direct reference to the ideas of William Morris, who himself imagined a utopian future, away from the horrors of industrialization and a mechanized society. Monte Verità was another movement where people met at the beginning of the 20th century in the mountains in Ticino to try and create a space of freedom from the perceived brutality of modernity. Both references relate to Mai-Thu`s overall question—the question of autonomy, an autonomy that oscillates between retreat and engagement—to concentrate and to be away from all the existing bullshit as well as to strive, to be in the world, to fight, to demonstrate, to be involved, and to be part of the collective.[11]

Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas explained his view of the countryside through his own experience of his birthplace and home, Rosario. Here, countryside means the hyperproduction of millions of tons of soy every year, which is then mostly exported to China. For as long as Argentina was a colonial state, belonging to the Spanish Empire until 1810, it was positioned by the economic colonial and neo-colonial structures as a countryside region. Its purpose is to provide primary materials to First-World economies, but what they receive in return are manufactured goods from other big countries, which demonstrates the hard reality of geopolitical inequality, where economic capital is the trigger for the production of agricultural countryside. [12]

As a  future curator of the Design Museum+ in Hong Kong, Aric Chen presented the countryside as a place where massive new infrastructural projects are being built in China`s remote countryside: power lines, dams, bridges, train lines, roads, and tunnels. These projects follow a regional political and economic agenda—on the one hand to increase the balance between the wealthy and not wealthy China but also China`s geopolitical interest in being linked with Europe through Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

This primarily built, hard infrastructure only functions in combination with the soft infrastructure of the Internet. China’s “Taobao” is the biggest e-commerce platform in the world and has been able to connect small Chinese villages and towns with the broader Chinese and global economy by equipping rural parcel drop-off service centers. 

One consequence of this is that it has been possible to reverse migration and to make people move back to the countryside, where they have begun to repopulate villages, transforming their economies in the process.

What else did we learn from the “Zuoz Case” besides those different fictional and factual perceptions of the countryside, including the village of Zuoz?

Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot would have probably figured out that the unsolved mystery in this case was not the countryside as subject of the talks, but the setting and structure of the event in the countryside of Zuoz.

The rather formal setting and structure of the conference—divided into front and back, speaker and spectator—combined with the limited time of 30 minutes per statement, excluding the summary and some single questions, contributed more to the character of a show than to an exchange of knowledge despite the very elaborated curated event.

Both detectives would have noted a substantial gap between the socially relevant claim of the conference and its actual reality—that the countryside matter was claimed within an exclusive and intimate setting and hence  stayed within its own enclosed circle inside the village of Zuoz.

The solution could be simple: to foster better interaction among the guests—speakers, spectators, and the village itself.

The claim of debating current trends in art and culture through informality and intimacy could have also been an opportunity to expand the idea of the exchange of knowledge in an intimate setting.

Prestigious and successful artists, intellectuals, architects, and art collectors, of course, create and even demand a special, aesthetic, and economic setting , which is to meet within one’s own tribe.

The clash between the hyper-exclusivity and a hyper-relevant topic, present in each single, sophisticated but disconnected statement, failed to create a genuine intersection of ideas.

Where was the connection to the audience? What exact intention stood behind the sophisticated curated talks and speakers? What essence did the different statements leave behind—also in regard to the local village of Zuoz and the Engadin region and the overall intention of  “perpetuating the tradition of the Engadin region as a place of creativity,” as stated in the press release?[13] Was it only Rem Koolhaas’ comparison of the old and new inhabitants or Mai-Thu Perret’s fictive narrative about creating an autonomous commune, this time not taking place in the desert of New Mexico but in Zuoz? But if this was the case, some further (inter)action was missing.

One also could consider sharing this event within a more diverse and yet intimate circle, for instance, with the politicians and economists who were attending the World Economic Forum nearby in Davos or with a good mixture of established and non-established artists, architects, theorists, and curators.

It could be that then  this talk would have been truly relevant and would have left something more than a beautiful memory of a sophisticated, self-serving, intellectual, entertaining event.

Or to put it in other words: Zuoz is real but also unreal. Nostalgia and utopia at the same time. It is the place where the human meets the non-human, but also where reality and fiction overlap.

Heike Biechteler (*1973) is an architect and scientific researcher at the Institute of Architecture at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts Engineering and Architecture. Among others she started a conference format, which aims to generate a swiss-wide, cross-institutional discourse on the pedagogy in architecture education. The second documentation – a glossary on the relevance of schools of architecture for the society, has been published this spring together with Park Books. Presently she is investigating in the tradition of representation in architecture exhibitions by displaying a building of architecture as a discipline by many steakholders and perspectives - besides the architect itself.


[1] Press Release,  E.A.T./ENGADIN ART TALKS, January 27-28, 2018 in Zuoz, “SIDE COUNTRY SIDE,” accessed Mar. 26, .2018, http://www.engadin-art-talks.ch/medienmitteilung.en.html.

[2] Rem Koolhaas, “Ever Countryside,” Engadin Art Talks 2018,Rem Koolhaas, Emily Segal and Niklas Maak in Conversation, accessed Jan. 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyI6LUGtCpo&list=PLOTSzxU0ijuhSo9ELb_WZThkTXchy5tK3&index=12.

[3] Pacôme Thiellement, “A bit of nostalgia for the old folks: You can't go home again (Twin Peaks, Mani, Nature),” Engadin Art Talks 2018, accessed Feb. 26, 2018,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6cq-5fu9hA&list=PLOTSzxU0ijuhSo9ELb_WZThkTXchy5tK3&index=7.

[4] Rem Koolhaas, “Ever Countryside.”

[5] Philip Ursprung, “Earth Art: Between the Human and the Non-human,” Engadin Art Talks 2018, accessed Feb. 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhRJVUp1md8&list=PLOTSzxU0ijuhSo9ELb_WZThkTXchy5tK3&index=6.

[6] Feli Schindler, “Nach dem Kraftakt auf der Loipe ein Espresso aus der Bar von Pipilotti Rist,” Tagesanzeiger, Jan. 19, 2011, accessed Mar. 25, 2017, https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/kultur/diverses/Nach-dem-Kraftakt-auf-der-Loipe-ein-Espresso-aus-der-Bar-von-Pipilotti-Rist-/story/23757838.

[7] Hotel Castell website, accessed Mar. 25, 2017, http://www.hotelcastell.ch/en/art-architecture/art-public-plaiv/.

[8] Press Release,  E.A.T./ENGADIN ART TALKS.

[9] E.A.T website, accessed Mar. 26, .2018,  http://www.engadin-art-talks.ch/partners-2018.en.html.

[10] Philip Ursprung, “Earth Art: Between the Human and the Non-human.”    

[11] Mai-Thu Perret, “No more city,” Engadin Art Talks 2018, accessed Feb. 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9-XUs09hYk&index=4&list=PLOTSzxU0ijuhSo9ELb_WZThkTXchy5tK3.

[12] Adrián Villar Rojas, “The Battle for Intimacy,” Engadin Art Talks 2018, accessed Feb. 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GXN9tXbOGY&index=11&list=PLOTSzxU0ijuhSo9ELb_WZThkTXchy5tK3.

[13] Press Release,  E.A.T./ENGADIN ART TALKS. 

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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti