Cursed arts and a new beginning

in Tiefencastel, Switerland

An Egyptian birthing chair, a bull skull and cars stuck in mud – when you spend a day with artist Mirko Baselgia, you'll have to deal with mysteries. In his work, Mirko reflects the fragile coexistence of nature and humans. He spends a lot of time in the woods and meadows of the Grisons, where he's from originally. But today he's on his way to a funeral.

As evening approaches, the mist gets thicker – soon, the clearing in the forest will be nothing but a white spot in white surroundings. Only soft thuds, the sound of bricks being put down, echo through the woods. Mirko lines them up accurately in a grave. Every now and then, the monotonous sounds are lightened up by the sound of a cow bell. Its owner is concealed by the mist. Smells of cow dung, rain and decay are in the air. The spiders have crept away, even for them it's too uncomfortable here. Their webs remain, trailing around the worn-out cow fence, beaded with tiny water drops. The beam of Claudio's headlight is the only source of light. In it, a handful of moths buzz around wildly – as if preparing for a dance of death.

Studio of a globetrotter

The sun hasn't come out yet, but Mirko is already up, packing the last utensils from his studio in Tiefencastel in Grisons and getting ready to leave. Pine cones, some of them coated in a golden layer, and twigs lie carefully arranged on the tables and on the floor. They will be part of an art project. Huge window facades offer a view of the forest, the smell of earth and wood tingles the nose – it almost feels like being outside. In the rear part of the spacious studio, there's a small staircase leading to the «think tank», as Mirko calls this room. Here's where he does his research, where he digs for facts in books, draws plans for his artworks or plans a journey. The walls of the think tank are «From reformation to revolution», from «Architecture and language» to «Iran – a travel guide» - the range is wide and various. Art, nature, animal welfare, history, religion, travelling – you name it. These are also the topics that Mirko tries to cover in his art. As much as he stays true to his topics, staying in one place is not Mirko's way of being. The globetrotter has a hard time working on his art in never changing surroundings. That's why he has, already and once again, terminated the lease for his workshop.

«This summer, everything was working against us, as if there had been a jinx on it»

A cursed summer

This summer, the studio has stood empty. Mirko spent the warmer months as Artist in Residence at the monastery Schönthal. «This summer, everything was working against us, as if there had been a jinx on it», says Mirko. Artworks were torn up, relationships broke, they had to deal with curators, plans couldn't be put into practice. Today, they will return one last time to the seemingly bewitched place: A car journey all across Switzerland lies ahead of him and his coworker Claudio, who has helped him out this summer with handicraft jobs and paperwork. They travel from the high mountains of Grisons to the lower ones of the Jurassic mountain range. Raindrops quietly beat on the car windows as Mirko and Claudio pass the canyons, forests and lakes of the Grisons. That's where Mirko grew up, between mountains and marmots. And although nowadays art galleries from Geneva, London or Beijing are sending requests to the winner of several art prizes, he loves to come back to his birth place. He's a wanted man – not an hour goes by without his phone ringing at least once. The organiser of «Dis da Litterature» is on the phone now, to plan his performance at the cultural platform. They speak a quick Rhaeto-Romanic, Mirkos mother tongue and an important form of expression – many of his artworks bear Rhaeto-Romanic titles. He's very careful about choosing his words.

«To me, there is no separation, no dividing line between me and nature»​

Searching for traces in the woods

He tries to avoid the term «nature». Too often, it seems to him, it is used to describe something that lies outside of us humans: «To me, there is no separation, no dividing line between me and nature», he says. He prefers to talk about a «rich environment» instead. Out in the rich environment is where he gathers inspiration and materials for his artwork – be it freezing cold, raining cats and dogs or a lovely spring day. The materials he uses for his pieces of art are as diverse as the pieces themselves – drawings, prints, installations, sculptures. But not only does he search materials in the woods, he is also looking for traces. He digs, searches, inquires, reflects – a searching for traces on the in- and outside of a rich environment. His projects can take many years to finish, his starting point is always the matter itself. He talks to a beekeeper about the colour of honey, to a carpenter about the structures of wood, to a caster about the texture of bronze. From these conversations emerge wooden frames for honeycombs made out of walnut wood, featuring geometric Arabic-Islamic patterns of beeswax; marmot burrows cast in bronze, or a copper model of a final storage facility of a nuclear plant.

A special night at a campfire

It's late autumn. The time of the year where you don't want to admit to yourself that days are getting shorter. Much later than planned, Mirko and Claudio arrive at the monastery Schönthal. It's a former monastery, strictly speaking, and is now used as a cultural meeting place. On the extensive fields, between forests and sheep, there are sculptures made by notable Swiss and international artists. The two travellers are greeted by a farmer who lives nearby with his family on his organic farm. He wants to buy Mirkos car and they exchange a few details about the car. The farmers little daughter is not convinced at all of the deal: «That's a very stupid», she cries out lout, «a stupidpoopy car!» She laughs like a hyena. «Do you live in the upside down world?», Mirko asks. «YES!», she roars. «So that's a no, actually?» - «NO!» Anyway – last summer seemed to be all upside down as well. Memories arise in the minds of the two.

«Only after having sat by the fire for a whole night, I could make my peace with this place»

Claudio points to a spot in the distance: «Out of the pond there we took clay and formed bricks out of it.» Old traditions were revived – already back in the 17th century, a brickyard was part of the Schönthal monastery. Too old to be used nowadays, though. So Mirko and Claudio built a new clay furnace – out of wood. They kept watch by the fire all night long, until the furnace collapsed and the bricks were ready. «Only after having sat by the fire for a whole night, I could make my peace with this place», Mirko says. The bricks that have been burnt in this fire are now carried to the remotest place in the forest nearby. That's where they want the funeral to take place.

A bull skull and a chamois carcass

Shovel load by shovel load they dig a big hole. When it's deep enough, Mirko takes a skull out of a black plastic bag, an enormous bull skull named Lataniel. Mirko and the animal are tied by a special experience: He was there when the bull was killed at the butchers. He wanted to accompany the whole process closely and express it in his art. From the moment he heard the last breath of the animal, he feels a particular connection to this creature. He was waiting for an appropriate moment to bury it. The skull is out of the bag now, with horns and all. Next to the remains of Lataniel he places the carcass of a chamois he found while riding in the mountains. Then he places a new wooden pallet on it. The wooden pallet has to be new – should the grave be unearthed in a 100 years, he wants there to be something new, a unused piece of wood, beside the remains of the animals.

This grave, aligned to the east, is a symbol of a new beginning: Onto the wooden pallet, Mirko places the bricks forming an Egyptian birthing chair. An even pattern of bricks is laid out, with a small deepening in the middle. Next to this small recess, he places two slightly higher yet very flat bricks – that's where the women in ancient Egypt put their feet when they were giving birth, crouching. Egyptologists have known for some time now that bricks were used to make giving birth smoother. They assumed this because they discovered depictions of the goddess , the deity of birth and death, in graves. She was shown as a woman with the uterus of a cow on her head – or as a so-called birth brick, as a body with a female head. When Mirko did his research, he found out that one of these birth bricks had been excavated in 2011 at Abydos in Egypt. The birthing chair is now covered with a layer of clayey soil. The sculpture of bones and birthing chair is merging with nature. He returns the clay they'd been taking out of the pond back to nature.

The spell persist

Exhausted and hungry they climb back up the mountain, ready now to leave this place. But the place won't let them go quite yet. Again and again they try to make the car drive up the road, again and again it slips down the hill. Mirko is at the wheel and Claudio, putting on his best yoga-teacher-voice, tries to guide him. But to no avail. The soil has been softened by all the rain and the tyres won't grip. The situation requires an emergency plan. After some chocolate and a deep breath, Mirko calls the farmer: «Maybe the car does have some flaws after all. We need your help.» Maybe the farmer's daughter was right. They use the tractor to pull the car across the muddy meadow until it reaches the road. Mirkos time at Schönthal is over. Time for a new beginning. After a winter in the mountains of his home canton, he will be on his way to China, once spring has come – prepared to explore new mysteries.

Want to know more about Mirko Baselgia? Read his Profile