Thursday, 7 July 2011

Cheesy Deception in Gruyère

As a family we love cheese and all things Dairy. Gruyère -pretty little idyllic Swiss-French village that it is- is all about cheese and cream, and merited a minor pilgrimage from where we were staying on lake Geneva up into the alps. We arrived, had fondue, ate bowls of cream with berries, took pictures of the waitresses and tourist shop salespeople dressed up in variations of lederhosen, purchased a couple of keyring-sized swiss cowbells... and unexpectedly stumbled into a typically wild bar designed by Alien (the movie) set designer HR Giger.

Of all the places in the world he could have fallen in love with, he fell in love with picture-postcard, Heimat theme-park Gruyère, deciding that this all-smiling all-dancing hill top tourist mecca was to be the home of his significantly darker, mechanico-biological, violently pornographic, science fiction legacy. There is now a Giger museum near the apex of the village's High Street, and behind some medieval arched windows opposite lurks what looks like a vaulted room housing the museum's bar.

So from a town heavy on the cheese in every respect -from the food, to the camera snapping, to the nauseating cuteness of it all- you step into some full-on stage-set cheese Noir, beginning with the Pelvic-bone-and-spinal-column Umbrella rack.

Through the alien tables, giant swiveling spinal column chairs, spinal column vaulted ceiling, writhing and complaining wall of tiled babies etc etc. There is way too much of every element, with every square centimeter of the place taken up with one or another motif by the artist. Its wonderfully OTT.

It offers itself up to you with all the honesty of a good piece of horror-ride artifice, wearing the contradiction between its quite spectacular visual and lighting effects, and the crapness of the way its materials are all revealed to be light and hollow when you knock on them, very lightly and happily indeed.

It kind of redeemed Gruyere for me, because these cloyingly perfect towns were getting on my nerves a bit. They all seem to be taken-in by their own illusion, seeming to themselves believe the lie they peddle to visitors that they are somehow real and originally swiss, simply by virtue of their physical fabric being old (and usually this is a selective truth anyway, after certain 19C romantic remodelings).

Like St Paul de Vence in the Var, these tourist havens are quite violently pornographic in how they serve up, without context or content, narrative or depth, their limbs and ligaments, streets and facades, which hump away obediently and on cue in the background of family snapshots, smiling inanely like the beautiful old houses that they are, smiling the empty unhappy smile of someone getting fucked for money. This whole sad scenario is perpetuated by the incredible belief that it is precisely in amongst this industry of heritage exploitation, exactly in the middle of this terribly efficient engine of cultural annihilation, precisely in the empty hearts of places like Gruyere, with its "Artisanal" cheese and 15th century houses, devoid of economic independence and local life, that authenticity claims to be located.

And Giger, for me anyway, with his massively over the top interior slap bang in the heart of Authenticland, by virtue of ramping up the ridiculousness of his kitsch noir, acts as the perfect antidote to all the fake earnestness outside. The Giger bar doesn't pretend to be real but asks you to suspend your disbelief and enjoy its silliness and strangeness in a pact of knowing enjoyment; it is illusion. Gruyere and similar villages pretend to be real, and ask you to suspend your critical faculties and spend your euros in specificaly codified ways, in a pact of mutual exploitation; it is deception. The Giger bar brought this scenario out into sudden clarity and relief for me. It gives the truth to Gruyere's lie