07/08/2011 02:28 PM

'Unbelievably Poetic'

Dragging a Boat over the Alps in the Name of Art


Two Munich-based artists hauled a red boat over a mountain in the Alps as part of their contribution to the Venice Biennale this year. At times harrowing, their epic journey evokes scenes from German filmmaker Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo".

The Protestant church in central Venice is a venerable, Renaissance-era building. The German pastor speaks of hubris and the self-importance of our times. Then, outside in the sunlight, a procession begins, ten men carrying a bright red fishing boat toward the nearest canal. A growing group of tourists follow in their wake and by the time the men reach the canal's edge, the crowd has swelled to about 300. Curious onlookers peer out from palazzo windows as the boat is lowered into the water. But the vessel doesn't appear particularly seaworthy. In fact, it looks more like an oversized toy, and has already sustained a few scratches and cracks.

Leading the parade are two Munich-based artists, Wolfgang Aichner and Thomas Huber. They've dressed up for the occasion in kindergarten-chic, with white pants, white shirts, blue caps and green sneakers. The duo built the 5.2-meter (17-foot) boat, and they're the sailors who now make up its crew.

The whole thing seems like some kind of joke, and it is, in part. There are certainly ironic intentions behind this grand finale to an unusual and perhaps even megalomaniac art project. But despite the costumes and strange theatricality, the artists themselves don't look like jokers. They are haggard figures, their expressions grown tired in recent days.

Aichner and Huber just finished hauling their boat over the Alps by themselves. They set off in late May from Schlegeis Reservoir in Zillertal, Austria, dragging the boat over the main ridge of the Alps and into the Italian province of South Tyrol on the other side.

A boat in the Alps is a wonderful, absurd idea, and one that took a lot of work to realize.

'Unbelievably Poetic'

First, it rained a lot. Then, once they reached the Schlegeis Glacier, the artists had to dig the boat out of fresh snow, their clothes constantly wet and hands numb from the cold. They downed pain pills for their aching backs and shoulders, and sometimes rewarded themselves with vodka. They had less fun than they expected.

At one point Huber's life was in danger. They'd had to rappel the boat 70 meters (230 feet) down a steep rock face, the most difficult part of the journey, carried out at an elevation of 3,029 meters (9,938 feet). If the boat had swung into the cliff, it would have been smashed, but everything went well. After 16 hours of hard work, Huber had only to climb down the rock face. He nearly fell, then panicked, and had to calm himself down, refastening his carabiner. Still, both men emphasize, they weren't out seeking danger. "This wasn't some suicide mission," Huber says.

But the journey took a toll. Huber says he's had to cinch his belt five notches tighter. Aichner, even gaunter, lights a cigarette and says nothing.

Several times they came close to calling off the experiment. They'd stressed from the beginning that the adventure could fail, and that this would also be an acceptable outcome. But in the end, they were too excited "by the image we created, by this symbolism" and by "the settings we could present the boat in," Huber explains. "It was unbelievably poetic."

They admired their red boat against piles of gray scree, in white snow and hanging vertically between cliffs. Even in thick fog, it produced a certain serene, surreal effect.

The idea was to introduce a foreign object into the solemn world of the mountains, which is why the boat was made to look like a comical cutter ship. The artists built the boat themselves, making an old-fashioned mold out of soil, but then laminating it in polyester resin. The completed product is heavier than it looks at some 150 kilograms (330 pounds), though it weighed about 200 kilograms (440 pounds) when they used it to transport gear.

Little Red Diva

A boat in the mountains, of course, is a useless object, even a burden. But works of art, its creators say, are not meant to be useful.

Even as they descended the final few meters from the Alps, they continued to discover just how intractable it could be. It jerked to the right, tilted to the left and generally moved only a few centimeters at a time in what Huber calls "minimalist steps." But then it would suddenly slide a couple of meters all at once. It was difficult to navigate, but the men got used to the boat itself influencing the choreography. Their little red diva, meant to stand out from its surroundings, turned out to fit in with the general unpredictability of the mountains.

The project evokes Werner Herzog's 1982 film "Fitzcarraldo," in which Klaus Kinski plays an adventurer who, hoping to tap into the profitable rubber trade in the Peruvian jungle circa 1900, gets hundreds of local indigenous people to haul a steamship over a mountain. The character is based on a real man, who was obsessed with music and wanted to earn enough money to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle. Herzog and Kinski, too, were obsessive in their pursuit.

In the case of Aichner and Huber, both 46, there were just two of them, and they had no goal but to arrive intact. The journey itself was the destination. They called their project "passage2011," which according to its subtitle was also an "actionistic, transalpine drama." The artists toiled for the sake of their ideas about art, for a grand metaphor about obsession and idealism.

Hannibal crossed the Alps too, as did Dürer on his way to Italy, the painter's paradise. But hardly any others have made the trip quite so difficult on themselves as these two artists. For them, art is an extreme experience, Huber says. Art from a sterile studio isn't his thing, Aichner agrees, smoking his cigarette.

Rewarded with Venice

Every morning, the two tramped their way from either their tent or a mountain hut to the boat, fastened ropes to rocks and pulled, or sometimes pushed, the boat in small increments. At night, they worked on their blog entries. There was never time to rest. Their real and virtual journeys were both a form of protest march, directed at all those who allow art to be comfortable.

This is why the boat had to travel to the Venice Biennale, a contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years. Here, all three of them are foreign objects.

The Alpine project was in fact part of the official program of supporting events for the exhibition, and is certainly one of the best and most profound contributions to the entire Biennale. Yet the artists deliberately missed the exhibition's opening week in early June, when the big names in the art world were there.

It was "beautifully subversive, coming too late," Huber comments with a laugh. The exhibition's opening parties felt very far away -- further even than the couple hundred kilometers that separate the Alps and the Biennale -- as the two artists gnawed on dried mangos in the mountains.

Huber and Aichner don't fit in here, in a way many of their colleagues probably also wish they didn't fit in either. The two manage to elude the ceremonies of the art world and the laws of the market. Normally, works similar to those shown in Venice can also be seen briefly at the Art Basel exhibition in Switzerland, but with price tags on them. But when Art Basel opened this year, Huber and Aichner still had a glacier to climb.

The last step of the project was to transport the boat to Venice by car. The city was the reward, the joyous final chord.

Doing Something Meaningless

Aichner and Huber are well attuned to one another, having worked together on many projects. A couple years ago, they nearly got lost in Lapland, while marking a stretch of the Arctic Circle with oversized desk lamps during the polar night. More than 20 years ago, the two of them ended up in an ice storm during a hike across Iceland's largest glacier. Sitting in their tent, they say, they made peace with death. That they made it out alive was considered a miracle. After that, they became artists.

This time, they didn't have to go hungry as they did in Iceland and, perhaps more importantly, they weren't always alone, since a cameraman met up with them at frequent intervals to document the boat's trip. Near the end, a sculptor from South Tyrol also joined them and offered his help. Without him, the artists say, they wouldn't have managed to get the boat down into the valley. The physical challenges of this project were the most extreme they'd ever faced, they say.

The project was many things -- a masochistic performance, a Dadaist adventure, a road movie, land art. They aren't Greenpeace, Aichner and Huber say, and they were doing art, not environmental activism. But, Aichner admits, they also couldn't help reflecting on human hubris along the way. Another insight Aichner gained was "that it can be more fulfilling to do something meaningless than to try to load your life up with meaning."

Their boat is a metaphor, an image. It doesn't need to be seaworthy too. In Venice, no longer in their hiking clothes but dressed all in white, Aichner and Huber climb aboard their boat and paddle off toward the Rialto Bridge. After just a few minutes, they sink, precisely what they expected and wanted.

The boat is retrieved from the water and a funeral procession carries it back to the church, where it will lie in state until the end of the Biennale in November. The collectors, museum directors and arts writers, always in a hurry, always on the lookout for the next thing, don't come by these days. But they've missed something by always being too early and not taking enough time. They themselves are to blame.

Find out more about passage2011 here .

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


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