Synonymous with Alpine glamour, St Moritz is best known as the birthplace of winter sports. But away from the slopes, the Swiss resort is fast establishing itself as an important cultural centre. This season it has come alive with contemporary art – hosting a major exhibition of works by British artist Damien Hirst.

Spread across the town’s indoor and outdoor civic spaces, ‘Mental Escapology’ is Hirst’s first public exhibition in Switzerland. It features 40 works from some of the artist’s best-known series, including Spot Paintings, Natural History and Kaleidscope.

Photograph of Damien Hirst’s The Monk sculpture being installed on Lake St. Moritz
Damien Hirst, The Monk, 2014. Installation image of Lake St Moritz, 2021. Photographed by Felix Friedmann © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

For the first time, the frozen surface of Lake St Moritz plays host to a large-scale sculpture – with Hirst’s 12ft-high The Monk (2014) installed at its centre.

On the edge of the lake, art lovers can catch a glimpse of Temple (2008), a giant anatomical sculpture, and Two Figures with a Drum (2013), which was previously displayed alongside The Monk in the artist’s 2017 exhibition, at the Punta della Dogana in Venice.

Photograph of Damien Hirst’s Two Figures With A Drum sculpture installed in St. Moritz
Damien Hirst, Two Figures with a Drum, 2013. Installed in St Moritz, 2021. Photographed by Felix Friedmann © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

‘It’s been amazing to be able to set my work in the incredible frozen lake and mountains of St Moritz, alongside beautiful historical buildings that link back to big themes I love, like science and religion, themes that have influenced my work so much over the years,’ says Hirst. ‘I’ve always thought it’s such a privilege to be able to live with art and I’m so happy to see my work outside in this mind-blowing setting for everyone in the city to enjoy.’

Curated by Jason Beard and produced by Oscar Humphries and Marco Voena, the exhibition creates a fascinating dialogue between contemporary art, the natural world and the historical.

‘The valley of St Moritz is a natural wonder. You have the lake and then the mountains surrounding it,’ says Humphries. ‘We tried to use that to show the outdoor sculptures to their best advantage. Temple looks out over the lake and it can be seen from a great distance as it’s so large and the colours stand out against the white of the snow and the ice.’

‘St Moritz is also a cultural centre – full of art lovers and with interesting museums like the Segantini Museum. So it has nature and culture, which is the perfect backdrop for a show like this.’

Photograph of Damien Hirst’s Temple sculpture being installed on Lake St. Moritz
Damien Hirst, Temple, 2008. Installed in St Moritz, 2021. Photographed by Felix Friedmann © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

Installing a sculpture at the centre of the lake presented many logistical challenges for the team. ‘When we first discussed the idea we thought it would be impossible,’ says Humphries, ‘but Marco and I, and the studio, liked the idea of something impossible.’

‘In the end we put it on a pontoon with a helicopter. Then the ice froze around the pontoon and the work. Now you can walk on the lake and the work feels at one with it.’

Photography from the Mental Escapology exhibition by Damien Hirst at the Forum Parcelsus in St. Moritz, 2021
‘Mental Escapology’ at the Forum Paracelsus, St Moritz, 2021. Photographed by Felix Friedmann © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

Alongside the outdoor installations, works are displayed within some of the resort’s most architecturally significant buildings.

The recently restored Forum Paracelsus, which dates back to 1400 BC, has a history as a thermal bath and provides a unique backdrop for Spot Paintings, and the installation piece Stripper (2006) – a cabinet that contains surgical instruments.

Recalling mandalas and stained-glass windows, Hirst’s butterfly-wing Kaleidoscope paintings bring colour to St Moritz’s neo-gothic Protestant Church, where they are displayed alongside The Ascension (2003), a major formaldehyde work featuring a preserved calf.

‘Mental Escapology‘ at the Protestant Church St Moritz, 2021. Photographed by Felix Friedmann © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

The exposure of the outdoor sculptures to St Moritz’s winter temperatures has had an interesting effect on the works, which are made of bronze and encrusted with coral.

‘Their origin as artworks is the sea and it is fitting that they’re again connected to water, albeit frozen,’ says Humphries. ‘Since they were installed we have seen ice form on the coral – a reaction we didn’t anticipate. It’s very interesting as an exhibition producer to see these magical things happen that we didn’t imagine.’

On display until 24 March, the exhibition follows ‘Aeternum’, Sean Scully’s 2020 show, and the 2018 opening of Hauser & Wirth’s local outpost in cementing the resort’s status as a high-altitude haven for art. §