James Capper, AERO CAB Test Run. Photo: Frederik Jacobovits

Can a highly elitist city, frequented mainly by billionaires from the international circuit, where not even the average Swiss citizen has access, to host a contemporary art meeting?

The challenge is faced by the Verbier Art Summit (VAS), which had its third edition held on the 2nd and 3rd of February. The event was created by a group of residents and chalet owners in the small town of three thousand inhabitants. There is no shortage of famous millionaires, such as singer Barbra Streisand, businessman Richard Branson, collector Dakis Joannou and Prince Andrew, from England, who paid no less than R$65 million for a seven-bedroom cabin three years ago. . Exaggeration sets the tone for the place, where a drink can cost BRL 25 at the city's VIP parties.

Since 2017, the VAS, led by Dutch lawyer Anneliek Sijbrandij-Schachtschabel, consists of a two-day meeting organized by an invited curator. The first was Beatrix Ruf, then director of the Stedelijk Museum, last year Daniel Birnbaum, of the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, and now Jochen Volz, director of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto spoke to the audience about humanism and interconnections. Photo: Alpimages Fleur Gerritsen

During two days, in the afternoons, the team chosen by him performed in an auditorium with free admission for subscribers, while in the morning, in the sophisticated wooden chalets of the organizers, selected groups debated with the guests, meetings where journalists were not allowed. Also part of the program was the screening of the film O Vermelho do Meio-Dia, made by the Swiss artist Tobias Madison in São Paulo, in collaboration with Grupo Mexa, which shocked the audience by portraying a very decadent city, and the test of the mobile sculpture by English artist James Capper in the middle of the ski resort.

With the theme We are many. Art, the political and multiple truths and a very radical team, among them the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Souza Santos, the Brazilian indigenous leader Nadine Terena and the South African curator Gabi Ngcobo, Volz repositioned the elitist event of elegant way. “I had complete freedom to organize the tables, I invited people I admire a lot”, said Volz, in Verbier. Some of the selected artists, such as Bruguera, Grada Kilomba and Rirkrit Tiravanija will be part of the Pinacoteca's program, now in 2019. On June 22, the book with all the lectures of the event will be released at the Pinacoteca.

“We need to come down from the mountains to get to the mud”, the German curator based in Brazil said at the opening of the event, still under the impact of the dam burst in Brumadinho, which occurred a few days before the opening of the Summit. It was a poetic and direct speech of how the debate on art should not be restricted to a mere meeting, but deserves to provoke concrete actions.

Following Volz's lead, many of the guests sought to reconfigure the auditorium where the meeting took place, as if to alter power structures. This is what Kilomba did right in the first session, who abandoned the pedestal selected for the speakers, preferring to speak seated, in a more informal way. “Unlearning is also changing spaces”, defined the Portuguese artist, who participated in the 32nd. Bienal de São Paulo, in 2016. She presented scenes from her latest work, Illusions 2, in Switzerland, a deconstruction of the myth of Oedipus, created for the 10th Bienal de Berlin, last year.

The general tone followed in political reflections, as did Terena, who addressed the threats to the 800 Indians who live in Brazil and began her speech by paraphrasing the president of the Sossego samba school: “Art is not for cowards”. For her, “the greatest art of indigenous peoples is to stay alive, it is resistance”.

Jochen Volz with Naine Terena on the left and Anneliek Sijbrandij on the right. Photo: Frederik Jacobovits

Resistance was also the subject of Ngcobo's speech, about experiences of anti-apartheid movements in South Africa in the 1970s, and how young artists currently update the issues of that period.

Santos, on the second day, in a speech that addressed issues related to the defense of human rights, declared that he was participating in movements against the indiscriminate use of pesticides in Brazil. “There are many more people with cancer in the interior of São Paulo because of the poisons spread by agribusiness”, he provoked.

A frequent figure in Verbier, due to a music festival that takes place in the city, the lyrical singer Barbara Hendricks, ambassador of the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) defended art as an empowering element.

Finally, the Thai artist Tiravanija radically rethought the meeting space: he went down to the audience and suggested that everyone change the arrangement of the chairs, so that they were no longer all facing the stage. Under dim light, he asked the audience to observe their own breathing for ten minutes. At the end, he asked each one to say something based on the experiences of the two days in Verbier, generating some tension, after all, he was a speaker who preferred not to speak. There were those who, after such political participation, proposed that the group should take some concrete action, while others, like Gabi Ngcobo, instead of speaking, played the song “We don’t need another hero”, famous in the voice of Tina Turner, which was the title of the Berlin Biennale, organized by it last year.

In this somewhat ironic environment, the silence of an artist like Tiravanija is an attitude very consistent with an event to discuss art in a city like Verbier. Art, indeed, is not for cowards.

*Fabio Cypriano, traveled at the invitation of the Verbier Art Summit

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