A Magical Place Apart

Travelled even in prehistoric times, the Twingi gorge runs along the length of the Binntal and gives access to the Albrun pass, which became a key alpine transit axis for trade. In the 19th century, the arrival of the English lay ground for tourism as we know it in the valley today; it was the enthusiastic mineral seekers who discovered hidden treasures in the cliffs and came to know the thrill of ascending the Ofenhorn who brought many others to the area. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the one-time mule path up from the Goms was tarred, and only some 30 years later that a long tunnel was built to insure accessibility to the Binn valley’s villages even in snow.

Jumping ahead some 50 years, a half-day hike in the Binn valley was on my own roster earlier today. Along with just a handful of other travellers, I took the small local bus from Ernen right after breakfast. Once in Binn, I sat near the village’s arched stone bridge (1567) long enough for a coffee, then started out towards the Twingi gorge, taking the path beneath the whitewashed parish church in the direction of the town reservoir. I had been told the hike back to Ernen would be a special one, not only because of the majestic views and imposing cliffs, but also because of the art installations that sprinkled the heights where I’d be walking.

For the “Land Art” exhibition’s 10th anniversary year, I learned, twenty portfolios submitted for consideration were pared down by a jury to the 13 projects actually realized. The natural materials and physical presence of the gorge were the artists’ inspiration; inventiveness and ingenuity, their guiding principles. Ambling down the road, I found it a treat to come across the interventions of works such as Barbara Jäggi’s “Hanging Grass – Dripping” (“Hängendes Gras – tropfend), thin metal assemblies that hovered over the path and made a puddle to mirror the piece’s “stalks” and the bright sky above them. Likewise, the work of pupils at two schools in nearby Brig showed took up a variety of natural materials and concepts: Kerstin Zumthurm and Adrienne Arnold’s first graders had fashioned their “Land Art” from driftwood, pine cones, stone slabs, and moss. Their efforts showed great imagination, and brought a whole new perspective to the notion of “outdoor play.”

Anna Schmid’s was an installation in a hollowed-out space on the side of the path, which I might have missed altogether had I not seen its label plaque. “The Secret” ”(“Le secret”) was the most cerebral of pieces, perhaps: a dry wall that fills a deeper space with stacked natural stone slabs, except for a narrow and open vertical crack. It serves both as a refusal “to let go” too much, too fast, and as a metaphor for the secret of female sexuality. That aside, and depending on the viewer, it might well be seen as a home for trolls and elves.

Others of the works are marked by contrasts. Kari Joller’s “Secure − Protect” (“Schützen – Beschützen”) consists of a single sapling with a spindly trunk and outstretched branches that − stripped of all bark − extend out towards the valley like the crooked strings of a harp. Against the dark, rugged rock face behind it, the work speaks of vulnerability, and might be seen as a call to awareness of the complex relationships that hallmark the natural world. Also in contrast to the rock, and perhaps as the most lyrical of the installations, is Barbara Gschwind’s “Umbelliferae,”  (“Doldengewachs”) the ghost-white silhouettes of stemmed starburst-like flowers in the parsley family that the artist painted in proliferation near − and inside − one of the shorter tunnels on the route. The naivety of her work made it close to endearing.

After “Land Art,” the circuitous route back to Ernen took me down to the rushing brook that Roman soldiers had once bridged, through the little hamlet of Ausserbinn, and past views of the great Eggishorn (2926 m) that towered overhead like a seamless argument. One of my last stops was at the site of the “Cheerful Outlook” (“Zur frohen Aussicht”), a now-dilapidated outpost − perhaps once an inn or restaurant − that is only accessible on foot. There’s nothing showy about it, and it would have had little appeal even years ago to people seeking more than just some simple pleasures. Yet it sits on its little rise like a “place apart,” making it easy to conjure up how others, now gone, might once have also found it inviting here. A place apart, indeed. Come to think of it, I could describe Ernen and the whole Binn Valley that way, too.

Saturday, 30 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet

Landschaftspark Binntal