Estranged in Switzerland: Teju Cole pictures the silence

"The country is sane, clean, eye-wateringly expensive and saturated with a straightforward, unironic and inexhaustible beauty. A couple of months into the residency, I was in a mesmerized state." (*) Teju Cole

The American photographer, writer and critic Teju Cole spent his summers between 2014 and 2019 in Switzerland, exploring the signs and spaces between the country’s ubiquitous mountains. The result is “Fernweh”, a book taking its title from the German term meaning a longing to be far away – and a work that resounds even louder in a time of isolation.

This content was published on May 2, 2020 - 11:00

The timing couldn’t be more (in)auspicious. As “Fernweh” was being launched, in February, isolation measures were rapidly being put in place in almost all European countries, including Switzerland, to slow the spread of Covid-19. 

Suddenly, what was supposed to be a visual and atemporal exploration of the spaces of Switzerland in all their silent and empty glory became a sort of dark mirror of the most immediate reality.


"I became less interested in populating my images and more interested in traces of the human without human presence. I used deep shadows less frequently than I had in the past. I pretty much ceased nocturnal shooting. As the sequence began to take shape, I got a better sense of what belonged and what didn’t. I was studying photographs constantly, but I also immersed myself in the rhythms of certain painters and collagists: Chardin, Matisse, Rauschenberg, Mehretu, Mutu. I let go of some ʻʻgood’’ photos, the way you strike out pretty sentences from a draft, and I learned how a number of tightly argued photos should be followed by one or two that are simpler and more ventilated. Authorship, after all, is not only what is created but also what is selected." Teju Cole

Invited by Zurich’s Literaturhaus to take up an artistic residency, Teju Cole spent half of 2014 travelling and snapping pictures around the country while writing a project related to Lagos, Nigeria, where he spent his childhood.

There could be nothing more antipodal for Cole: “I grew up mountainless, close to the lagoon and the sea, in a city where the only heights were high-rises. I was familiar with the extremes of city life: the crowds, the traffic, the energy, the crime. But nature’s extremes, of violent weather or vertiginous terrain, were unknown to me.”

During his stay in Switzerland, Cole says, he never felt bored at all. Being a complete stranger on the move, he revelled in the sensation of being suspended in time, cruising in solitude in a sort of non-place. The word 'Fernweh' is difficult to translate: it is the opposite of the usual 'Heimweh' (“homesickness”) – it’s the longing for being far away.

Fernweh and Heimweh, according to Teju Cole

The German word for homesickness is Heimweh. Legend has it that Swiss mercenaries from the 15th century onward, dispersed throughout Europe to fight foreign wars, were hardy soldiers susceptible to few weaknesses. But they missed home with a deranging intensity, longing for the high elevation of their cantons, their clear lakes, their protective peaks. This feeling they called Heimweh

The intense psychosomatic disorder was first treated in 1688 by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer [Editor’s note: Hofer was a French medical student studying in Basel, Switzerland], who also gave it the Greek name ‘nostalgia’ [Editor’s note: Hofer put two Greek words together, Nostos and Algos, to make the new word]. It entered the English language in the late 18th century as ‘homesickness’.

Heimweh, having been absorbed into standard German, acquired an antonym, Fernweh. Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in faraway places. Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge. 

Wanderlust is rooted in the German Romantic tradition and is strongly tied to walking out in nature. Think of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of a lone hiker in spectacular landscapes, communing with the overwhelming greatness and intricacy of nature. 

Fernweh is a bit more imprecise. One simply wishes to be far away. Fernweh: the syllables sigh.

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After his first stay, he spent the next five summers back in the exotic Alpine country, convinced that in order to understand Switzerland one has to understand its mountains. Previous material to peruse, on this topic, was never a problem. 


"Switzerland is in-between but not average, a periphery in a central location, in this world but not of it." Teju Cole

The crossing of the Alps, before and after the Gotthard tunnel, was an adventure that inspired and challenged some of the best European minds, artists and writers. An ideal of Switzerland is present throughout European arts and literature, and has also spread to the wider world; for example, Switzerland has been for decades now the prime setting of romantic musical scenes in Indian Bollywood movies.    


"Lake Zurich, bigger than expected and as clean and graceful as the city whose name it shares, is described by Baedeker as follows: ʻʻIts scenery, though with slight pretensions to grandeur, is scarcely equaled in beauty by any other lake.’’ But I found Lake Zurich’s equal at Lake Brienz, which in summer is a turquoise color of hypnotic clarity and is ringed by steep green cliffs that, in winter, threaten the small villages along the shore with avalanches. In fact, the problem I encountered was that each lake in Switzerland was the most beautiful, if it happened to be the one you were on." Teju Cole

For all its pride in its long national 'modern' history, spanning over 700 years, Switzerland cannot avoid being wrapped up in the idea that others have made of it. 

Indeed, it can be argued that Switzerland was effectively invented by the British tourism industry in the 19th century as an exotic and cheap destination for a growing bourgeois middle class. Before that, throughout the 17th century up to the 19th, Switzerland occupied a high spot in British aristocratic imagery as part of the Grand Tour, a journey through continental Europe that young noblemen (and also women, accompanied by a chaperone) would undertake as a rite of passage to becoming world-savvy ladies and gentlemen.


"As I shot more and more, I saw that I was drawn to signs, to mirrors in the landscapes (in Switzerland, there are rectangular mirrors at many street crossings, which frame the landscape behind you above the one you are facing), to maps and globes, to mountains as well as to pictures of the mountains in billboards and posters. I noticed (...) that some of my photographs of mountains looked like photographs of photographs of mountains. I was drawn to this shimmering partition between things and the images of things." Teju Cole

The country lived up to the projected expectations – but it definitely didn’t get remain cheap.

Teju Cole, for his part, is very well aware of the imagined Switzerland, its history and geography. He is also very candid about his doubts and not so sure whether what he is trying to do will ever pay off, intellectually and creatively.


"I never felt Swiss. I never felt like moving to Switzerland. The appeal was all in the awayness of it, the estrangement that one could count on. (...) I was most at home in Switzerland precisely because I wasn’t. It made me happy because it couldn’t." Teju Cole

Cole uses images and texts to expand on long-standing notions of Switzerland. His thoughts and musings loom alongside a gallery of seemingly tedious images, bringing them to life. 

Whatever the impression he manages to project, one thing is certain: Teju Cole has definitely joined the club of world artists and thinkers that shape the mental Swiss postcards in our collective unconscious.


“July 2015. Late afternoon. A hotel room in Zurich. I’ve been out shooting all day and have made no good pictures. I remove my lens cap. I’m shooting with a Canon Elan 7 now, a lovely lightweight film S.L.R. from around 2000. I pivot the camera on its tripod. Covering the front of the free-standing wardrobe in the room is a picture of a ship on a lake, beyond which are mountains. You could wake up suddenly at night in this room and, seeing that lake dimly lit by a streetlight, imagine yourself afloat: the slightly vertiginous thrill of being nobody, poised in perfect balance with the satisfaction of having, for that moment, a room of your own. I face the wardrobe. I open the windows behind me and increase the camera’s exposure setting slightly. A black lamp, gray striped wallpaper, the wardrobe, a foldable luggage rack, black light switches, a brazen handle on a black door. Arrayed like that, they look like an illustration in a child’s encyclopedia. This is a door. This is a ship. This is a lake. This is a mountain. This is a room to which you long to be away, a room redolent of fernweh. This is a man in a room, crouched behind the camera, readying his shot, far away from home, not completely happy, but happier perhaps than he would be elsewhere.” Teju Cole/MACK

(*): All captions are excerpts from Teju Cole's essay Far Away from Here (New York Times Magazine, 27.09.2015).

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