In the summer of 1816, overlooking Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein, the seminal story of a lonely, tortured monster brought to life in an alien world. And what did I do overlooking Lake Geneva in the winter of 2006? Eat fondue.
Unlike Mary, I did not have Percey Bysshe and Lord Byron as company. So in a small room at L’Hotel-de-Ville in Geneva, where seven other Indian journalists and our hosts had congregated, instead of writing the ultimate horror story, we all attempted (quite successfully too) to bring a piece of bread at the end of our fondue forks to life by dipping it in a pot of boiling cheese.
“Make sure you don’t drink water for at least a few hours. With fondue inside you, your intestines may explode,” said Gilles Jobin. Being one of Europe’s most cutting-edge choreographers, it was somehow impossible to tell whether Gilles was having us on or not. But we did skip the water in front of us and stuck to quaffing our (excellent) Swiss white wine.
Geneva, of course, does not usually conjure up images of a sewn-up reanimated eight-foot ex-human or, for that matter, of exploding bodies splattering warm cheese. Instead, it’s known as the boring town where all those boring entities such as the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation have their headquarters.
To be frank, even I thought that seeing the 140-metre, not-phallic-at-all water column on Lake Geneva, Jet d’Eau, was going to be the high point of my trip to Geneva. But Gilles, once again, peppered things up by taking me to a perfectly disrespectable club (“It’s a converted squatters’ colony”) where beer and punk rock changed my perspective of Geneva in general, of Switzerland in particular.
Framed by the masters
Being part of a group of ‘cultural journalists’ (“cultural, eh?”) has its down sides when your hosts expect you to be the last word in Indian art, Indian music, Indian cinema, Indian literature, Indian dance... you get the picture. But it has its up sides too.
Our visit was in connection with Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, opening its first liaison office in India (in Asia, actually) in January 2007. So pretty much all the art museums in Switzerland — my real objets du désir — was our oyster. Okay, no point kidding. Art houses, for me, were the Louvre, the Tate, MOMA.... The only Swiss artist that I could name before I set foot on Zurich soil was Paul Klee — and I never cared much for Swiss watches, cuckoo clocks or knives.
But there they were: An Albrecht Durer exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich (so I didn’t have to go to Germany); a permanent collection in the same building that included Roy Lichtensteins, Jackson Pollocks and Marc Rothkos (so I didn’t have to go to New York); a wonderfully archived collection of Indian miniatures spanning across centuries at the Rietberg Museum near Zurich (so I didn’t have to go back to India); a brilliant show, ‘Eros in Modern Art’ at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel (with paintings by the Big Daddies of Expressionism like Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, etc). Suddenly, I wanted to be an artist — or, at least, the next best thing, an art critic with slender fingers.
A night in shining armour
But it’s not all gauche and tempera in the Swiss Cultureland. Along the cobbled narrow lane of downtown Zurich, there are enough flashes emanating from windows to keep fine art temporarily at bay. Take the bar where four of us entered for a drink or two or three. I should have figured that this was not going to be the regular Swiss version of TGIF. After all, when you see a lady sitting next to you looking like a cross between Mr Bean and President Kalam, you know that the USP of the place does not lie in celebrating Fridays.
Protected by two women on either side, I realised that I was no longer a gay bar virgin. After some 15 minutes of consternation, I had slipped into a moderate comfort zone thanks to my Amazonian colleagues, when one of us, a man, asked a young man near the bar with one of his eyelinered eyebrows pierced, “Could you tell me where is the toilet?”
We scampered out of that place to another. There was a real woman at the bar and that reassured me — until I saw a wall plastered with stills from Brokeback Mountain. And the eyebrow pierced man from the earlier joint sitting next to the door! One drink and we proceeded to a ‘more conventional’ nightclub, where Tatiyana (from Ukraine) served us a very expensive small drink while her colleague did some incredible callisthenics that involved two props: gravity and a pole.
Which, of course, amply prepared me for that lovely painting by the French turn-of-the- 20th century-painter Pierre Bonnard, Le Cabinet de Toilette au Canapé Rose (or The Bathroom) at the Fondation Bayel a few days later, in which a lady is inspecting herself in the bathroom mirror. This side-trip may or may not have been intended as being part of our schedule prepared by our generous hosts from Pro Helvetia.
But the week-long dazzling display certainly brought me closer to a Gothic Switzerland that included fantastic medieval, pre-Reformation architecture; a fantastical short feature film, Terra Incognita, by Swiss filmmaker Peter Volkart on the life of Igor Leschenko, a fictional (or is he?) physicist from the late twenties; a roaring punk rock scene; freshly brewed beer (in Bern) that could have been straight from someone’s arteries. In other words a Gothic Switzerland that doesn’t show on postcards or tourist brochures that a Dr Victor Frankenstein — incidentally, a resident of Geneva — would have approved.