We saw him solitary above us on the mountainside, the last iron man remaining from the Horizon Field Project in Vorarlberg. I’d come to Austria to explore this most westerly region of the country, known for its unspoiled landscapes where man can live in harmony with nature. But on this lush green mountain above the town of Lech there was art too, not only this Antony Gormley sculpture, but other art installations hiding in the rocks and meadows waiting to be discovered. The Horizon Field project of 100 iron men took seven years in the planning, but after two years its permission ran out and in 2012 all but one of the sculptures was removed. Now there are plans for a new artwork called Skyspace, to provide an equally compelling artistic experience for locals and visitors to Vorarlberg.
Our walk on the mountain was led by Marcell Strolz, whose family come from Lech, and is a driving force in the Horizon Field and subsequent art projects we were to hear about. We hiked above Oberlech, our path taking us through areas of mountain meadow, a tangle of wildflowers and grasses, yellow daisies crowding in with the white lacy heads of cow parsley.
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Skyspace Lech – a new artistic project for Vorarlberg
Marcell led us through a wire mesh gate to a raw hole on the hillside at the top of Tannegg Hill. This is where the next artistic project will be created, called Skyspace Lech. Once it proved impossible to keep the Antony Gormley sculptures after the project ended in 2012, Marcell and the board of Horizon Field turned their energies to finding a new artistic project for the Bregenzerwald. They set their sights on working with an artist of similar international stature to Antony Gormley, and so the collaboration with James Turrell was born.
The American artist is known for his lifework of the Roden crater in Arizona, where he has created tunnels and underground rooms that open to the sky to create “Skyscapes” bathed in changing forms of light and colour. The Skyspace Lech will be built in the hole where we were standing, a cupola that will be partly buried underground to blend into the mountainside and open to the sky through a central hole, like the Pantheon. Visitors will enter through a tunnel and sit around the dome to experience a light installation lasting 40 minutes, with a dome that opens and closes according to the weather, making it difficult to distinguish where the light of the artwork ends and the sky begins.
Marcell told us how they had worked with artist James Turrell to select the perfect spot for the Skyspace Lech. The location was chosen because of the beautiful views of the Bürstegg mountain that will greet you as you emerge from the tunnel, overlooking the valleys that are known to be some of the earliest settled by the Walser people who migrated here from Switzerland around 1300. As if to prove that nature is the driving force here, a herd of cows ambled along the path below us, the alpine bells around their necks clanging loudly.
The Lech Wall and the Green Ring
Our walk continued up the mountain, through the wildflower meadows of early summer with views that I was only too happy to stop and admire (while catching my breath) as I climbed up the steep path. The iron man sculpture was on the mountainside ahead, but as we passed the reservoir below it, I noticed a long stone wall snaking through the landscape. We learned that this is the Lecher Chluppa, a name that means lump or chunk, reminiscent of the stone walls that are used to keep out animals in the mountains. Each stone of this 60 metre long wall was inscribed with the name and date of birth of an inhabitant of Lech, forming a permanent archive of all those who live here that will be added to with another stone each time a child is born in the town.
The wall was created in 2010 by sculptor Daniel Nikolaus Kocher as one stop on The Green Ring, a three day hiking trail around Lech-Zuers, which draws on mythology and legend with art installations along the way. You might come across a door on the mountainside waiting to be opened, or a rocky watershed that was once a playground for witches, or a wooden giant climbing through a cleft in the rock. There’s an extension of the trail called the Green Mystery ring created by artist Daniela Egger that is designed for families to enjoy, with a workbook that enables you to discover all the riddles and become a riddle king. Watch the video about The Green Ring.
We continue a little further up the hill to meet the last iron man standing in Vorarlberg. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled along the trail, searching for the giant figure of my imagination, silhouetted against the sky. But when we find him above the lake at Kriegeralpe, I’m a little disappointed to find he’s only life size, made from a mould of Antony Gormley’s own body. The whole Horizon Field project took seven long years to realise. With 100 life size figures to be installed at exactly 2039 metres above sea level, each one involving negotiations with a different landowner, it must have seemed at times that the project would never happen. Marcell tells us, ” At first the locals were sceptical about Horizon Field – they asked, why do we need iron soldiers to look after us ? But when they were removed people were crying“.
The iron men were spread over an area of 150km, each at exactly 2039 metres above sea level, each within sight of another sculpture to create a web of horizon lines. In a community effort, the ground was prepared with the help of 120 volunteers and helicopters were used to fly in the sculptures. Marcell tells us how, because of the difficulties, one of the sculptures was installed only 50cm ouside the 2039 metre altitude, but the sculptor insisted that it be reset at the correct level. “But why at 2039 metres?” we ask. Marcell smiles and shrugs, “Because he wants it that way“.
For two years the iron men stood on the mountain, in summer pasture and winter snow, visited in all weathers by hikers and ski-ers. One was swept away in avalanche – they found it together with the arm which had broken off but are still looking for the hand. These iron men keeping a solitary watch on the mountain ask a question according to the artist – ” Who are we, what are we, where do we come from and to where are we headed? ” The artwork is not the iron men themselves but the interaction of the figures and those who visit them.
In 2012 the two year permission that had been given for the artistic installation ran out and the sculptures were removed, all but this one at Kriegeralpe. He still stands in silent witness, gazing out across the mountain landscape of Vorarlberg and you can visit him easily enough if you like, either by hiking or by taking the Petersbodenbahn chair lift and then the Bergbahn cable car from Oberlech (€4 one way for each lift). In Austria you often find excellent mountain restaurants in the most unlikely places and there’s a delightful one at Kriegeralpe where you you can sit with a refreshing drink in hand and see the sculpture above you.
But even though he’s the last iron man standing, art is never far away on the mountainside above Lech in Vorarlberg.
Where to stay in Lech, Vorarlberg
I stayed at the luxurious Hotel Der Berghof which is in the town centre, yet slightly set above the main street so that you feel you’re already on your way up to the mountains. My room was decorated in elegant Austrian style with painted wood furnishings, wooden beams and a balcony to look out towards the mountains and the cable car going up and down close by. This is a lovely boutique hotel that combines Austrian charm while keeping one eye on the latest modern style.
There were plenty of cosy sitting areas around the bar and reception area, with tactile fabrics and well padded easy chairs for that sense of relaxation and luxury. I did not eat in the restaurant but breakfast was delicious with a huge range in the buffet spread – I love the way that you can find a choice of ten local cheeses just at breakfast in Austria and everything feels so healthy!
Visit information for visiting Vorarlberg Austria
Vorarlberg is the most eastern of Austria’s regions, known for its unspoiled mountain scenery and natural beauty. Find out more on the Vorarlberg Tourism website.
Thanks to Vorarlberg Tourism who hosted my visit to their region of Austria