Of borders and bodies

A visit to the Timmelsjoch pass that connects Austria and Italy spurs a meditation on border-specific artworks and their intended viewers.

by Rosalyn D`Mello Published on : Jul 13, 2020

Were we trespassing or were we allowed to be there? We hadn’t carried any documents. We had spent the day trekking in Pfelders, in the Passeier Valley in South Tyrol, an autonomous province in northern Italy, when my father-in-law suggested that we drive up to Timmelsjoch, one of the highest motorable passes of the eastern Alps at an elevation of 2.474 m above sea level. “Is this legal?” I asked my partner when we got out of the car to wander the stretch of no-man’s land between Italy and Austria. Until early June, through the period of the lockdown, the two countries, members of the Schengen Area, had closed off their borders. “If there’s any kind of control, let’s just run back to Italy,” my partner joked. We walked around excitedly, soaking in the spectacular views of the Ӧtztal valley and looking for remnants of border paraphernalia; like a square block that had 1967 inscribed upon it—the year before it was officially opened to the public; and below, a capital I for Italy and Ӧ for Ӧsterreich, the German name for Austria.

Suddenly, I witnessed a pink flamingo-coloured sheen upon several vast patches of snowfall. “Sand from the Sahara,” my father-in-law said. I was blown away. We had flown over Africa to enter Italy on our evacuation flight from India. The Sahara was all the way down South, separated from Italy by a sea. And yet, here were clear traces of it, deposited in the Alps. An excavated brooch dating to 300 BC, attested to the historical significance of the Timmelsjoch as a site through which people crossed over. This information drove home the feeling I always had, that visiting border zones often reveals the futility of these human-made entities. Migration is a law of nature that is hinged on the inter-dependency that links cosmic beings. In constructing divisive entities, humankind further severed its bond with nature.

The structure of the Timmelsjoch Pass Museum seems suspended as if on a boulder on the Austrian side, while the portion facing Italy seems un-supported | Rosalyn D’Mello | STIRworld
The Timmelsjoch Pass Museum pictured from the Italian side Image Credit: Rosalyn D’Mello

On the highest point of the pass is poised a cantilevered tube-like structure that seems to emerge from a boulder resting on the Austrian side, flanking towards the Italian end. Conceived and constructed by Werner Tscholl Architects, it is one of the five structures that dot what was once a mule track that linked the Passeier Valley in South Tyrol with the Ӧtztal valley in North Tyrol. Called the Pass Museum, the ice-cave-reminiscent interior bears trilingual information about the history of the road’s construction, which began in 1955 and was completed within four years, with a total construction period of 17 months, since work was impossible in winter. For me, this whole affair was intriguing, considering South Tyrol was, until its annexation by Italy after World War I, a part of the County of Tyrol, and as such was a part of Austria. The Pass Museum doesn’t overtly acknowledge the post-colonial nature of this history. Another site—Telescope, which we visited on our way back—attests to it more vociferously. Comprising two specular tubular structures, this amazing piece of architecture addresses your gaze towards the bordering Texelgruppe nature reserve—where we had been trekking. A series of mini-displays feature objects that aren’t traditionally found in museums; a goat-rearer’s apron, silver from nearby, defunct mines, and other examples of the shared heritage between the two inhabiting communities on the southern and northern sides of the Alps.

Telescope offers sweeping views of the Texelgruppe nature reserve in South Tyrol, Italy | Rosalyn D’Mello | STIRworld
Telescope and Timmelsjoch Pass Museum are two of the five sculptural structures built along the road leading to the pass from Italy and Austria Image Credit: Rosalyn D’Mello

I perceived the structures as artistic interventions in themselves; they didn’t need to be museums. They had been designed in harmony with the landscape, in fact with a playful nod to the edge-of-the-universe feeling that you are left with as you drive towards the pass and back, especially considering the area is only open during the summer months. The Pass Museum and Telescope are built like elegant invitations extended to you to view what surrounds you through an architectural framework. They are wholly site-specific. Encountering them made me consider the relevance of experiencing a work of art at the site of a border. I have seen a lot of work rooted in a critique of border—much of Shilpa Gupta’s oeuvre comes to mind. But what does it mean to either actually perform at a no man’s land or to materially evoke this shadow region within a work?

In 2014, the Britto Arts Trust (a Dhaka-based artist collective), and the India-based Shelter Promotion Council evolved an art project they titled No Man’s Land between March 21 to 27 through a workshop format that culminated in a series of performances at S.Pillar No: 1242/3.S on the final day, also the anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. With the cooperation of the border forces of both the countries, the artists from India and Bangladesh were able to briefly meet without passports at S. Pillar No: 1242/3.S, between Dhonitila of Monipur Para in Sunamgonj, Bangladesh and Kalibari village in Cherrapunji, India. The Dhaka Tribune reported that a number of community-based projects were made by both contingents and few artworks were exchanged between the correspondents of the two neighbouring countries. Even though most performance art derives its currency from its ephemeral nature, the inability to necessarily repeat the circumstances under which it debuted, I wish there was more written about this project, clearly a pioneering gesture of Indo-Bangladeshi artistic solidarity. The audience consisted of locals inhabiting the titular No Man’s Land, and the footage quite powerfully evokes their curiosities, their excitement with the happenings, their eagerness to absorb reflections of their lived realities. The project’s art historical validation derives from the fact that it located itself at the border, that the site-specific art made and exhibited there wasn’t intended for the consumption of city-based elites or the art market.

19 mins watch ‘No Man’s Land’ called attention to border politics through its community engagement and performances at the Indo-Bangladesh border |Rosalyn D’Mello |STIRworld
No Man’s Land (2014) was a community-based, public-art project that culminated in artists from Bangladesh and India meeting at the border Video Credit: Courtesy of Britto Arts Trust & Shelter Promotion Council

Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s Red/Red (2015-2017), on the other hand, is a work whose poetic equivalence is mired in how it is at once rooted in the particularity of a specific border—the banks of the Aras River that lie between Turkey and Armenia. Çavuşoğlu was concerned with the titular colour, and its manifestation as a pigment extracted from the Armenian Cochineal (Porphyrophora Hameli), indigenous to the Ararat Plain. Her title is a linguistic embodiment of the conceptual underpinning of this body of work: Red and Red separated by a slash, existing within the utopian space of a single sentence or phrase. The Armenian Cochineal lives in the roots of the Aeluropus littoralis plant that grows on the banks of the Aras river. The carminic acid found in the insect is responsible for the red, and its production dates back to the seventh century BC. It was used in Armenian textiles, frescoes and manuscripts. On the Armenian side of the border, the insect and the plant constitute endangered species, although they are found in abundance on the Turkish side. Unfortunately, since 1915, knowledge about the production of the pigment is almost extinct. Çavuşoğlu tracked down a physiotherapist, Armen Sahakyan, the only person in the world who could still extract this red based on recipes from 14th century Armenian manuscripts. Upon her exhortation, he produced 12 grams of Armenian Cochineal ink, which she used to create a stunning series of works that, though exhibited in various locations around the world, remains rooted to the border to which it refers.

From Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s Red/Red | Sahir Ugur Eren | Aslı Çavuşoğlu | STIRworld
Installation view of Red / Red at the 14th Istanbul Biennial Image Credit: Sahir Ugur Eren, Courtesy of Aslı Çavuşoğlu

When I visited the Berlin Wall for the first time in June 2017, while I was impressed by the wealth of information and pictures that attested to the violent history of divided Germany, what overwhelmed me most was a tiny detail buried within the rich displays along every inch of conserved wall. It informed about the Soviet-born cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, who, upon learning about the collapse of the Berlin Wall, decided he had to be there as witness. Since all flights from Paris to Berlin had sold out, he asked a friend who owned a private jet if he could be flown in. Arriving at the Wall, he found a spot near Checkpoint Charlie. He borrowed a chair from one of the guards, took a seat, took out his cello, and began to play “ Sarabande”, Bach’s Second Suite for Cello. Considering he himself had been exiled since 1974 for standing up to the Soviet Communist leadership, and had been stripped off his citizenship in 1978, his gesture was healing and profound. I read somewhere that when he asked later, about what the moment meant to it, he described it as experiencing it as embodying a synthesis between his life in the Soviet Union before he was exiled, and his subsequent life in the West.

02 mins watch Rostropovich journeyed to Berlin from Paris with his cello so he could perform at the Berlin Wall to mark the end of divided Germany | STIRworld
In November 1989 the exiled cellist, Rostropovich did an impromptu performance at the Berlin Wall Video Credit: Courtesy of No Comment TV / YouTube

At the time, learning about Rostropovich’s ephemeral, generous intervention made me think about artists around the world, some who remain anonymous, who live nomadic lives, eschew any attachment to false ideals of nation. They subvert borders by traipsing along them, constantly criss-crossing territory and leading almost mendicant lives. Like the Bauls.

I have heard them sing in living rooms in New Delhi and at concert halls in Mumbai, but nothing prepared me for a recent impromptu performance on a train from Santiniketan back to Kolkata. A female Baul sang her rendition of Kichhu Din Mone Mone (For a few days, deep within your heart), a song made popular by Parvathy Baul, who credits the lyrics to Uttam Chand Goshai while acknowledging Roshik Das and Rasaraj Goshai also as possible authors. It’s a song encouraging its listeners to keep their love for the divine beloved deep in the corners of their body-houses; evoking a melancholic notion of spirituality as a state of corporeal unity with the divine, hinged onborderlessness.

As we made our way back into Italy, one of my friends, a poet, texted me over Whatsapp from Los Angeles. Was it us who had discussed how Walter Benjamin’s most-read essay had been historically misread, he had wanted to know... That it was not an avowal of ‘the aura’ as much as a disavowal of it? “The sacredness attached to art is mundane,” he wrote. “Whatever is sacred lies only in the quality of attention, and that attention, like (Arun) Kolatkar’s Chaitanya’s, can be as readily offered to a stone as to a god?” I woundered,  (a word instituted into public discourse by the exiled Chilean artist, Cecilia Vicuña in her essay Language is Migrant), if this same subversive logic of aura could be applied to borders. 

Upon emerging from the tunnel that led out onto spectacular vistas of South Tyrol, I received his next text, a poem, Revolutionary Letter #31, by Diane di Prima that speaks about the violence inherent in systems of import and export, capitalist mechanisms that reinforce border-patrols. I shall end with its most powerful lines—

“the children of Bengal weave gold thread in silk saris
six years old, eight years old, for export, they don’t sing
the singers are for export, Folkways records
better we should all have homemade flutes
and practice excruciatingly upon them, one hundred years
till we learn to
make our own music”

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