Portrait Cristina Bechtler
The publisher CRISTINA BECHTLER is an
“enabler”. For ten years, she has been bringing
creative and clever minds together in the Engadin, Switzerland, to discuss art, fairness and morality
Cristina Bechtler describes herself as a patron and human rights
activist. She brings ethics, morals and art together in a way that is relevant to today’s society
queue of people has formed outside the plywood pavil- ion, the walls of which are covered in white paper paint- ed with irregular, vertical blue stripes. Bice Curiger,
artistic director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, emerges from the structure, beaming. A sticker on the lapel of her red jacket reads “Breathe with me”. This is the name of the interac- tive performance project by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein, which is currently touring the world as part of the United Nations’ sustain- ability campaign “Art 2030”. Here in the Graubünden high valley, in front of the Dorta restaurant in Zuoz, it is proving to be a hit, too, with the gathered international art elite. With his eyes closed, as the artist intends, Hein’s gallery owner Johann König paints a wavy line whilst slowly breathing out and holding his young daughter. Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Gal- leries, paints his blue line energetically – as one of four organising curators, he needs to make sure he is back on time in the hall on the Plazzet, the venue for the Engadin Art Talks.
It’s E.A.T. time in Zuoz, just as it has been nine times before. This year, on the last weekend in January, the event is celebrating its tenth anniversary, with illustrious participants from a diverse range of disciplines and over 300 invited guests. So far, more than 150 speakers presented their ideas and visions for the respective topic. In her charming Swiss lilt, Cristina Bechtler explains the theme for this year’s talks: “We’ve chosen the anagram silent-lis- ten. When you’re listening, you are also silent. And vice versa – one is a result of the other. And this creates space for innovative thinking.”
Together with her team of curators, which besides Curiger and Obrist includes Daniel Baumann, director of the Kunsthalle Zurich, and Philip Ursprung, a professor of architecture and art history at ETH Zurich, Bechtler has succeeded in turning the Engadin into a think-tank over the last ten years. “Have you heard of Bruno Taut’s ‘Glass Chain’?,” she asks. Wasn’t that a sort of secret correspon- dence in 1919-20, in which architects and artists came up with rad- ical visions for an architecture made of glass and merging with na- ture? “Yes. We wanted to symbolically add a new link to this chain each year.”
And she has done just that. The list of participating artists, exhi- bition organisers, architects, academics, entrepreneurs, collectors, film producers and other creatives runs from architect Elizabeth Diller to brain researcher Wolf Singer, and from artist Sylvie Fleury to composer Chris Watson, who goes on expeditions to record the sounds of rare birds and wild animals. Their discussions are equal- ly intense whether they be on spirits and demons, the future of cities, gravity and floating, or the fundamental right to water. “We’re looking for substance. There’s more to our valley than high society and winter sports”, Bechtler says, making reference to nearby St Moritz with a twinkle in her eyes. She admits that she does enjoy skiing. “But I like the sea even more than the mountains.”
Zuoz has in fact managed to preserve its historic core, whilst the centre of St Moritz is largely made up of designer shops. This is why gallery owners such as Ruedi Tschudi and Monica de Cardenas opted for Zuoz where their work is displayed in houses restored by local architect Hans-Jörg Ruch. (Tschudi died in 2019) “He has re- vived the architecture of the Engadin by preserving the structure of local buildings and fusing this with contemporary elements.”
Zuoz has Bechtler’s brother-in-law Ruedi Bechtler to thank for its emergence as an artistic centre. A mechanical engineer by trade, he is a passionate collector, just like Cristina and Thomas – and is also a successful artist himself. In 1996, he and his partners acquired the Hotel Castell, designed in 1912/13 by St Moritz archi- tect Nicolaus Hartmann. He had the building renovated and equipped by renowned architects. Most importantly, he integrated a part of his art collection into the hotel, and invited international artists to install works that would help to define the hotel’s aes- thetic. For example, video virtuoso Pipilotti Rist designed the
panoramic Red Bar. This was added to by Japanese sculptor Tadashi Kawamata, who created a springy wooden terrace facing the land- scape, and constructed a nearby rock pool, where visitors can med- itate or use the sauna. Artworks also adorn the hotel’s rooms and corridors, including work by stars such as the Belgian-born, Mexi- co-based artist Francis Alÿs and the Austrian Erwin Wurm.
“Ruedi was the first to bring visual art to the region. He set in motion the Engadin’s art boom, sparking a development that has gathered momentum, gradually transforming the Engadin into the art mecca it is today,” Cristina Bechtler explains over dinner on the hotel terrace. The Bechtler foundation has also arranged for a number of sculptures to be installed in public spaces – by James Turrell, Martin Kippenberger, Ken Lum, Janet Cardiff, Roman Sign- er, Tadashi Kawamata and Lawrence Weiner, to name a few. This means that guests can start their crash course in contemporary art inside, before setting off on a walk that takes in both landscapes and works of art. The tour starts directly in front of the hotel with the “Skyspace Piz Uter”. From this cylindrical tower designed by the American light artist James Turrell, you can look at the sky as if through a magnifying glass. Another highlight is Martin Kippen- berger’s surreal readymade, a transportable entrance to an under- ground station, which is located three kilometres away at Madulain station.
There were plans to install the legendary “The 2000 Sculpture” by the minimalist Walter de Maria here too, but the Bechtlers weren’t able to get planning permission for the work, which mea- sures 50 by 10 metres. They have now built a hangar to house this unique piece in the small town of Uster, near Zurich, where the family holding company Hesta is based. This is also where Thomas and Ruedi Bechtler have developed the Zellweger Park – a superla-
tive public sculpture park. Featuring works such as the five-metre- high tower of moss-covered tuff rock by Fischli/Weiss, the park is the highlight of an area that connects architecture, art and nature, living and working. An example is the eight-storey apartment block by Herzog & de Meuron beside the idyllic Herterweiher pond, a project realised by Cristina Bechtler. “It was a dream of mine to work with Jacques and Pierre.”
Does she collect art together with her husband? “Yes, we have very similar tastes. And yet each of us has their own favourites. We both value art that has an ethical, moral stance, and at the same time captures the zeitgeist.” Her own favourites include the socially critical works of the subversive, political artist Thomas Hirschhorn, and the works of Julian Charrière, who examines how images shape our relationship to nature and culture. She recently donated a large glass sculpture by the American artist Sarah Mor- ris to the Kunsthaus Zürich – in memory of her daughter Johanna, who died in a tragic accident.
Cristina Bechtler has a deep commitment to society, the envi- ronment, nature and culture. As joint chair of the Zurich Human Rights Watch Committee founded by her husband in 2006, she works tirelessly for the global network. She describes herself as a “human rights activist and patron”, and says – in English, since German lacks the words to adequately express this – “I am an en- abler, not a follower”. She certainly is. An enabler.
Text: Eva Karcher
PHotos: Maurice Haas
A Swiss native, Bechtler founded the art pub- lishers Ink Tree Editions, which specialises in books, portfolios and special publications for the contemporary art world. She is involved in the MoMA International Council and is a founding member of Human Rights Watch Zurich. Her husband, Thomas Bechtler, is vice president of the Board of Directors of Hesta AG. To mark the tenth anniversary of E.A.T, there is an anthology entitled “Thinking in Thin Air”; the next event, “Cultureholic – Art, Shopping and Enter- tainment in the Digital Age”, takes place during the Zurich Art Weekend on June 13 and 14.
We want substance. There’s more to our valley than high society and winter sports
We value art that has an ethical, moral stance, and at the same time captures the zeitgeist