“La succès? La rigeur et la justesse de l’œuvre dans son contexte. C’est la seule chose que je peux faire, moi.” / Success? The rigour and the appropriateness of the work in its context. That’s the only thing that I can do.
Jean Maurice Varone is the John Kaldor of the Swiss canton of Valais. As well as presenting an annual series of temporary public projects in the small alpine village of Vercorin, Jean Maurice also directs a foundation which will present a permanent artwork for each of Valais’ thirteen sub-districts, with the first work being Michael Heizer’s magnificent Tangential Circular Negative Line (2012). Right now, the fifth Vercorin project is underway with a month to go: Arrêt Sur Images by Eric Hattan and Severin Kuhn makes the leap from sited public work to distributed work, casting the viewer across a new network spanning the village’s familiar and unfamiliar spaces.
There is an invigorating strength of purpose to the way Jean Maurice approaches his work. Success is not about visitation, and tourism is only ever a plus. “Le plus important c’est que ça fonctionne,” he exclaims. The most important thing is that it works. Over dinner one night we’re in furious agreement that what makes minimalism so compelling is the force of its compositional elements, the power of bold juxtaposition to animate the mind into a new dialogue with the land in the case of land art. When artworks create a tension, an energy emanates. In the picturesque alps, the rugged beauty can all too easily be taken for granted. The most lightweight intervention can generate the most powerful of effects.
In Vercorin, it’s cultural mediation and cultural difference that interests Jean Maurice, and this is where Marie-Françoise Perruchoud-Massy comes in. Partners in life and creative work, and based in Vercorin, Jean Maurice and Marie-Françoise have become community leaders without ever having had that intention. It helps that Marie-Françoise was the daughter of the postman, regularly traversing Vercorin’s every space as a little girl, and getting to know her neighbours intimately. “If you had told me as a little girl that the people of my village would’ve taken such an interest in contemporary art, I would never have believed you! Many of us in the village have never ever set foot in a museum – and probably never would.” Together they’ve held some of Vercorin’s only ever town meetings to propose the artworks, and at each meeting there are more and more people.
Marie-Françoise is professor of economics and tourism at the local university – but it’s best not to use the words “economic impact” in front of Jean Maurice. “C’est la totalitarisme des chiffres!” Like in the UK, there’s a lotteries fund that supports the arts in Switzerland (amazingly, 80% of its revenues must go to cultural purposes), with annual submissions required, as well as a dollar-match component. The charismatic and articulate Jean Maurice attracts a range of cash and inkind sponsors to present the projects, while the equally charismatic and articulate Marie-Françoise maintains strong local relationships to facilitate annual negotiations with property owners. They approach these negotiations with an intelligence that doesn’t look for a lowest common denominator, yet such is the local character that an intellectual and cultural argument will readily be influential.
As with many other Swiss villages, the Vercorin architecture is protected, and the wooden structures stand the test of time. Many bear charming textual inscriptions or images depicting the era or the conditions of their construction, with the owners’ names, the year, and one or two words about how proud and happy they are to have created a home among this community. These date back hundreds of years, and emphasise the figure-ground typology which I’ve only ever experienced before on Greek islands: you can quite easily wander into the private space surrounding a home, as you stroll through the village among regularly formed pitch-roofed wooden houses scattered neatly and without obvious front or rear land space. Everyone greets everyone with an animated “Bonjour!” across the 500-person village – and indeed, across the region. Well-maintained buildings are the mark of the affluence I experienced in the UK’s Lake District, and there is strong local pride which is typical of the Swiss culture. One rainy evening I unexpectedly attended an opening at the aptly named Galerie Miniscule, and was delighted to find myself discussing contemporary sculpture with several local artists who were present.
Born in nearby Sion in 1965, Jean Maurice trained as an industrial designer and still practices, having gained many awards, and working across Switzerland and Italy. In his cluttered office are so many points of departure for his current projects and current thinking, including two works by Christo on the wall, and two of the Les Frères Chapuisat books on the table. The thirteen projects will compel his vision for many years to come, ultimately to become his life’s work. (More on these soon.) That we’re already discussing collaborations is an absolute delight.
Image: Photo of Vercorin by Esther Anatolitis, taken from the same vantage point used by Felice Varini for his Édition Vercorin Cercle et suite d’éclats.