South Tirol’s artists and designers are spreading their influence throughout the world

Sequoia completa’ by Aron Demetz

Italy’s largest and most northerly province, South Tirol is a fusion of Austrian and Italian cultures. Tourism is the No.1 business and the provincial capital, Bolzano, which has the distinction of being both the hottest and coldest city in Italy, has been ranked the best in the country for quality of life. The region is renowned for its spectacular scenery (the jagged-toothed Dolomites mountain range, a World Heritage Site, has over 350 summits above 3,000 metres), flourishing wine and agriculture industries (including every tenth apple grown in Europe, thanks to 300 days of sunshine a year) and healthy mountain air, making locals the longest living people in Italy.

With its huge picture windows facing east and west, the angular, glass-encased Museion, Bolzano’s museum for modern and contemporary art, is flooded with dazzling light at all times of the day. The “Wow!” moment comes when entering the top floor gallery, where most visitors can do nothing but gasp and gawk at the sight of the surrounding mountains.

Museion

Designed by the Berlin architects KSV Krüger Schuberth Vandreike (Bauhaus Museum in Dessau, Humboldt Forum in Berlin, etc.), the museum has a collection of over 4,000 works which was begun in the early 1990s with an initial focus on artists of the Italian avant-garde. It has since evolved to include an international presence along with an exhibition space dedicated to young local artists. There is an annual, year-long special exhibition of works from the museum’s permanent collection based on a particular theme. 

South Tirol’s creative scene lives and breathes on five continents. That is how far afield a group of over 50 artists and designers from the region, all members of the Wanderer Collective, have dispersed to pursue their careers, taking their design, fashion and art to the world. The collective includes Andrea Lissoni, Senior Curator of International Film at the Tate in London, art and fashion photographer Brigitte Niedermair and Los Angeles-based Stefan Siegel, founder of the fashion brand Not Just a Label.

Another member is the internationally renowned wood sculptor Aron Demetz, who represented Italy at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Still living and working in the same mountain valley in which he was born, he has adopted a traditional South Tyrolean technique of woodcarving to create mostly figurative works. With a strong physical presence, while also deeply engaging the viewer on a psychological level, they seem to transcend the possibilities of wood as a material.


Aron Demetz, ‘Advanced Minorities’ (detail)

Demetz does not present polished, perfected works. After a figure has been carved out of a block of wood, the material is submitted to different ‘injuries’, as its surface is roughened, burned, scarred and otherwise distressed. A favourite technique is to cover the works with resin, which trees produce in nature to heal ‘wounds’ and thus create a new bark. Says Demetz: “The resin is the blood of the trees. You have to respect the soul of the materials. With the resin I give them back a soul.” Another technique is to use a special electrical tool to churn parts of a figure into a mass of chipped whorls, representing moss growing on trees. 

Demetz’s style echoes that of traditional local craftmakers. Across the road from his Val Gardena workshop, 3D Wood uses modern technology to continue a tradition of wood carving thought to derive from a centuries-old custom of farmers making wooden toys in the ‘dead’ days of winter. This evolved into a tradition of sculpture, especially of church items such as altarpieces and religious figures, and eventually became the area’s main industry at one time.

Multiple Marys at 3D Wood

Appealing to the tourist trade, shelves in the 3D Wood shop are laden with traditional wooden ornaments, from cherubs, saints and nativity scenes to local wildlife and Alpine huntsmen. Behind the scenes craftmakers create one-off, hand-carved pieces or work machinery to produce anything from small series items to thousands of units. Even a fine sawdust-spewing robot gets in on the act. 

Another member of the Wanderer Collective is the London-based designer Martino Gamper, who started as an apprentice furniture maker in his native Merano, 30-odd kilometres north of Bolzano. He went on to study sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna before completing a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London, where he specialises in interior design for high end retail stores and one-off furniture commissions.

A Martino Gamper table at Mairhofer Tischlerei destined for a New York client

For his best known project, 100 Chairs in 100 Days, Gamper collected disused chairs from alleyways and friends’ homes and reassembled them – one per day – into poetic and often humorous forms. He explained: “My intention was to investigate the potential of creating useful new chairs by blending together the stylistic and structural elements of the found one, like a three-dimensional sketchbook.” The collection has since been shown internationally as an installation. 

For his one-off commissions Gamper works with the Mairhofer Tischlerei furniture factory in the tiny hamlet of Proveis, where ‘Tischlerei’, the German word for carpentry, belies the supreme craftsmanship. Here Gamper supervises the completion of custom-made pieces of furniture for international clients – an example of how this tiny corner of Europe is having a worldwide impact on the creative industries. 

The late, British-Iranian architect Zaha Hadid was also inspired by South Tyrol. In collaboration with the Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, Hadid designed the Messner Mountain Museum (MMM) Corones. which looks like a crashed spaceship embedded in the summit of Mount Kronplatz (2,275 metres). 

The Zaha Hadid-designed Messner Mountain Museum, Photo © inexhibit.com

During the Gherdeina Biennale the pedestrian zone in the Val Gardena village of Ortisei is transformed into an open-air sculpture gallery, as contemporary artists exhibit their work in the valley’s stunning surroundings. One of the biennale’s organisers is Doris Ghetta of the local Galleria Doris Ghetta, a contemporary gallery in a former factory space which presents several exhibitions a year in collaboration with guest curators. Echoing the credo of the Wanderer Collective, Doris says: “Our visitors can perhaps carry out the name of Val Gardena to the contemporary art scene.” 

Fernando Sanchez Castillo (Spain), ‘Nail Man’, 2016, wood. The concept was borrowed from a WWI custom when locals could hammer a nail into a wooden horse by making a donation to support soldiers and their widows and orphans. During the Biennale Gherdeina, this 21st century version was a fundraiser for Save the Children

No visit to South Tyrol would be complete a visit with its most famous resident. Ötzi the Iceman is a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in 1991 preserved intact in an Alpine glacier along with his clothing and equipment. Ötzi now ‘lives’ in a climate-controlled chamber in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. A full-size recreation of him shows how he might have looked shortly before his untimely death by an assassin’s arrows or a subsequent blow to the skull. 

Ötzi the Iceman