Article by Pierre Naquin, 7 March 2021

“When there is an ever-present urgency, taking the time to reflect is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. What might appear to be an artistic ‘excuse’ is actually not, and in this respect the Verbier Art Summit's mission is unquestionably fulfilled.”


A fifth edition of the Verbier Art Summit took place under Covid restrictions. From a distance and from all four corners of the globe, artists, museum directors and philosophers are reflecting on our world that is ablaze. The verdict is in.


Jean-Paul Felly, Anneliek Sijbrandij and Tom Battin in Verbier, 2021. Photo by 

Melody Sky.


Is it possible that art is only a business? This is certainly not Anneliek Sijbrandij’s vision, who founded and now directs the Verbier Art Summit, the annual forum for reflection that believes that creativity “can play a greater role in our society.” Together with Beatrix Ruf, they have been developing the unique format of the Verbier Art Summit since 2016. Each year a new curator, nominated by the previous year's guest curator, leads the Summit and proposes a social theme that is close to their heart and which will be addressed in depth during the event. In 2020, Jessica Morgan (director of the Dia Art Foundation) organised her Summit around the ecological issue with the theme Resource Hungry. Philip Tinari of the UCCA, Beijing, was to be the next director, but in January 2020, when China was already facing the pandemic, it was decided that there would be no anniversary edition or even a new theme for the 5th Verbier Art Summit. Instead, the previous topic Resource Hungry was continued and this year the online event was organised with three new talks and five debates across five time zones: Beijing, Verbier, New York, São Paulo and London.

The intense discussions during this Summit constantly highlighted the immense gap between environmental responsibility of contemporary creation, artists' projects linked to (or improving) the environment, and the societal contributions of Art (with a capital 'A'). The parallel between art and science has often been acknowledged: scientists have revealed their creative soul, their imaginations, indeed their philosophical understanding of the world, while artists have revealed their technical and scientific knowledge of current ecological issues. Whilst the meeting was enjoyable, the fact remains that the Anthropocene's ecological impact – this geological era in which the planet is no longer shaped by geological or geophysical events, but by human beings – is undeniably catastrophic.


Panel discussion with Djamila Ribeiro, Joan Jonas, El Ultimo Grito and Jessica Morgan at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit. Photo by Alpimages.

Anthropocene Alert

The first talk was by Swiss speaker Claudia Comte (known for her work, NOW I WON, at the entrance to the last Art Basel event). Committed to the preservation of the oceans, she unveiled her project of cactus-shaped sculptures installed underwater, off the coast of Jamaica. In addition to the artistic aspect, the sculpture allows the corals to re-form around it. Collaborating with scientists specialising in ecosystem conservation, she primarily uses wood from sustainable forests near her village to produce her sculptures. For her, “learning how to use wood is a metaphor for life: you can't overlook its complexity, but that doesn't prevent you from always wanting to go further.” An example of contemporary design with a direct ecological impact.

She is followed by her fellow countryman, researcher Tom Battin from the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne, who - beyond his photographic work on transitions - presented his findings on glacier microorganisms and their importance in the regulation of all aspects of life. His work resonates with the slow erosion of geological eras, now superseded by the rapid transformations of the planet due to human activity.

Out-of-the-box debates

The first debate, known as the Beijing Debate, brought together curators and directors of institutions including Beatrix Ruf, Philip Tinari and Daniel Birnbaum (Acute Art, London). During Covid, Beatrix Ruf highlighted the significantly more social role of certain institutions. The Garage in Moscow commissioned a significant number of Russian artists and even set up a canteen for its staff, artists and even local people in need. 

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Daniel Birnbaum and Douglas Coupland at the 2018 Verbier Art Summit. Photo by Frederik Jacobovits.


A large-scale project and “a very interesting exercise when you are forced to think beyond your traditional ways of thinking.” For her, institutions are at their best when they are forced to think out-of-the-box. Philip Tinari agrees: “Now that we've more or less returned to normal in China, I think we're paying much more attention to everything; we may be doing ‘less’ but we're certainly doing ‘better’.” Daniel Birnbaum emphasised the transformation brought about by digital technology. “It was thought that things were likely to change, but with the Covid, they have shifted. Virtual reality allows immersive experiences but - unlike enhanced reality for which a simple telephone is sufficient - it remains difficult to share. All this while recognising that it is not a universal cure: we should not believe that things that happen in the digital world do not have an impact on the environment.” He continued: “Some people have a romantic view of art and would like it to bring new ways of looking at things. Without adhering to this belief, I have to acknowledge the wisdom of some visual artists.” Creating communities of artists and visitors, combining the local and global, re-examining academic and curatorial practices… More than ever the face of current and future crises, the concerns at the crossroads of art, the environment and technology appear inseparable.

The debate in Verbier welcomed very different perspectives with artist (Claudia Comte), scientist (Tom Battin) and two foundation directors (Hedy Graber and Madeleine Schuppli). The latter spoke some unpleasant truths about the art world: its obsession with instantaneous ephemeral new things, the ‘circus’ wanting the same people to go around the world week after week participating in fairs and biennial events. “The pressure on artists to produce more and more is constant,” she asserted. “The art world is obsessed with new pieces, mainly for marketing purposes; galleries and museums alike want to present the latest pieces. This attitude is far from sustainable.” However, Tom Battin pointed out that this is not a problem specific to art: “It is even more nonsensical when it comes to scientists, climate specialists who do exactly the same thing for conferences on climate change.” After a detailed analysis of the damage the Anthropocene is doing to our world, he arrived at the conclusion that science and research know enough. “The only solution is to end our focus on infinite economic growth. We must change from quantity to quality and from quality to sustainability.


The New York debate, led by Jessica Morgan (Dia Art Foundation), is the artists' debate. The American Andrea Bowers conveyed her profound distaste of greenwashing, which is not only a lie, but even has the audacity to make consumers pay more for the same harmful products. Perhaps worse than merely polluting. While Elvira Dyangani Ose (director of The Showroom, London) stressed the urgent need to raise awareness of the political and social role of art institutions, it was Carolina Caycedo, an artist of Colombian origin, who stole the show. With her perfect understanding of all ecological issues, her openness to indigenous cultures, her ability to combine the personal and the global, she allowed herself to explore beyond the confines of her own thoughts, while remaining balanced and positive. Impressive.

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Elvira Dyangani Ose at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit. Photo by Alpimages. 

Rethinking the politics of art
The second day began with a presentation by Brazilian artist and activist, Naine Terena. She spoke about the impact of Covid on the indigenous communities of her country, including her own, the Terena. In particular, she suggested that the online shift of a large proportion of recreational spending has also affected art and allowed smaller communities to make their voices heard. While she focused on the political role of art in her first speech in 2019, this time she presented art as also being a source of healing and solace. A vision of art and ecology resilience is at the heart of the exhibition Véxoa, which presented the works of 23 artists addressing the idea of creation and conservation of the world - not only in its physical form, but also in its spiritual aspect.

While the subject of artists' residencies remains very harmonious, the discussion in São Paulo, led by Jochen Volz of the local Pinacoteca visual arts museum, was far livelier. There was neither complacency nor political cant from Djamila Ribeiro, a Brazilian feminist activist and philosopher, who immediately drew a parallel between the exploitation of the planet and the subjugation of people, particularly in relation to issues of colour, gender or indigenous peoples. The hard-won victories as well as the considerable gap that still needs to be bridged were discussed in a fair and objective way. The cultural hierarchy was explained there. Naine Terena convinced us that art may be “one of the last means of direct communication in a world overwhelmed by fake news where it has become almost impossible to form an opinion not influenced by propaganda and counter-propaganda of one side or another.” She adds: “The body encapsulates all manner of memories, feelings, thoughts, reflections, morals, beliefs. I don't see art as an outcome in itself, but as a way of revealing parts of ourselves.


The day was concluded with the London debate, led by Philippe Rahm, a French architect. He discussed how man is no longer the only genius who decides everything and how the virus and climate have also increasingly come to shape of our way of life. Noting that environmental responsibility lies with each one of us, all the speakers agreed on the fact that they should adopt more restraint in their behaviour and on the need to refocus the issue of the political aspect of art, in order to finally put words into action.

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Philippe Rahm at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit. Photo by Alpimages. 

When there is an ever-present urgency, taking the time to reflect is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. What might appear to be an artistic ‘excuse’ is actually not, and in this respect the Verbier Art Summit's mission is unquestionably fulfilled. There remains this conflict between those who have visibly substantial resources and those who have much more immediate and visible problems which is difficult to ignore. We have to acknowledge the courage not to have ignored it...as many would not hesitate to do so. Bravo!



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