Fluorescent Seas of Fog

Visual miracles at the millennium
– Switzerland emerges as a city

In November/December 1999 and in January 2000, six months before Z died, the weather conditions above Switzerland’s Central Lowlands frequently proved ideal for his photographs. Winds from the northwest brought snow down to the lowlands with a high-pressure area coming in from behind. The humidity was concentrated in the low-lying fog, with very dry layers of warmer air above: maximum transparency, almost Mediterranean clarity. Z, consulting weather maps daily, was prepared. The moment the high was stable, he would commute between his house and the Bachtelturm tower. Decked out in polar clothing, he held vigil all night long with Leica and tripod. These hours in freezing cold weather saw the creation of an enthralling series in the late-twilight, at night, in the pre-dawn. These images of fluorescent winter fogs above Switzerland’s Central Lowlands are his last and key motif, foresight and legacy.

One evening in January 2000, Z invited me over to see his latest slides. He picked me up at the Hinwil railroad station. On the phone, the excitement in his voice was tangible, and when, on the homeward drive, he mentioned “a few good shots”, I knew something special had happened; he had always been so reticent in evaluating his own work. At home, he immediately turned the projector on and the fans started whirring. As usual, Z flooded the narrow wall space between two windows:
beams of coloured air on plain white plaster.
He was immersed in the mechanics of his new projector.
What I saw, blurred at first, took my breath and speech away:
visualised intuitions, a wall liquefied.
Moments between shuddering and enthusiasm: I was reliving how someone had touched and shifted the borders of the visible, frame by frame, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Z showed the originals, gave each one no more than 30 seconds. He was busy with grains of dust and lint, blemishes that plumped up into black faux comets when he projected the slides. On detecting a contaminated slide, he would remove it and blow on it gently, then put it back again. The fan: whirring.
I saw pictures of familiar landscapes, sleeping.
Unnervingly real.
Intoxicatingly other.

The clicking of the machine was a reminder that what appeared on the wall must be of this world.

In previous years, I had already seen a few pictures of fluorescent seas of fog, now for the first time there was a whole series in the carousel tracing the phenomenon in all its variations.
The evening series of 29 November 1999, view to the southwest, the wreath of the Alps to the left, the pyramid of the Rigi in the middle:
After the sun sets, the familiar arching colours and coronas span the horizon. The low-lying fog devours the late-twilight hues, hoarding away the reds, the purple before it becomes febrile.
Each picture further erodes the circadian reprise.
The shadow of night presses the natural light beyond the horizon against the lens, the shadow of the earth edges closer, extinguishing the colours of twilight on the fog.
No matter: A new febrile fabric is aflame below.
Gossamer lacework at first.
Threads of the soul.
The fog, ancient enveiler, appears in a new dual guise:
It is a medium, flame-flecked membrane, ecstatic.
Fog can be stirred under and up, itself stirring the sweetness of the view with salty velocity, current with undercurrent.

The white sea, everlasting mantle and veil, intervenes and reveals, leads the way. Along public byways, millions of high-quality bodies of light have been installed, sodium vapour lamps, pressure mercury vapour lamps, the lights go on in myriad buildings, traffic frequencies and velocities are so extreme that the mist – the all-caressing, flattering, seductive mist – reacts. It seeps through everywhere, into every nook, its droplets forming haloes in the artificial light, forums, it makes connections, makes everything blur into everything else.
Only to surface again, blurred.
We are gazing upon an open brain.

The fog reveals what we suspect:
The elements have set out on their own, joined forces. Synaptic.
The Swiss countryside, suburbs and villages by day, fused into an indistinguishable whole by the winter fog of night. Cityscape.
The lowlands: test trough.
Inverted basin.
The winter Alps in the pictures wear their ancient white ruffles, crinkled and puckered a thousand times over, exquisite garments trimmed with the bluish shadows of the valleys. The massifs: crystal-clear, towering above everything, seemingly timeless, unlicked by unleashed currents.

Antennae on many peaks.
Dotted red.
The Alps: dream islands of yore.
In the bygone floating.


Z spent a lifetime observing the winter fog at night and was the first to capture the flow and change of fluorescence. He grew up at the foot of the Bachtel, to the north of Zurich, known as the Zürcher Oberland. In his youth, he began keeping meteorological records. Having known Switzerland’s landscapes in darkness, from the 1960s onwards he witnessed the steady encroachment of artificial illumination.
After studying natural sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he worked as an assistant in climatology and glaciology at meteorological stations in Greenland, northern Canada and the Swiss Alps.
He studied the snow and the ice and took pictures to capture the colours of the air in extremely cold, dry weather conditions.
In the mid-1970s he moved into Spiegelberg House, a stone’s throw from his childhood home, where his twin brother had started an organic farm. Z shot most of his early pictures of weather, clouds and stars from the veranda of this house. From the tower on the summit of the Bachtel, at an altitude of 1100 m and 10 minutes away by car, Z had a 360-degree panoramic view. To the north and northeast: the downs of the Zürcher Oberland, undulating molasse, the Speer being its highest elevation on the European continent, with the limestone massifs beyond to the east and southeast: the Alpstein and Churfirsten mountains.

To the south: the Linth plain of the Glarner Alps.
To the southwest: Zurich’s two lakes, bits and pieces of glaciers, the mighty Central Alps fanning out behind them.
Most recent glacial polish: the burnished hump of the Pfannenstiel, a giant whale, pitching and diving. Above it he saw the Central Lowlands to the southwest following the rim of the Alps, bounded by the Jura to the northwest.

Fog was Z’s life element.
The basin of the Central Lowlands, so vital to him, lay between the Jura and the rim of the Alps. There is a microclimate in this basin: From October to March, the fog rolls in at different levels and in different forms. Z kept a lookout over his oceans for decades, beginning with systematic observations of the top layer. His house was often nestled in the uppermost vapours of the fog, where pollutants and the greatest humidity accumulate. It is here that a number of well-known phenomena emerge: arches, rays, Brocken Spectres, etc.
Z took his first pictures of fluorescent winter fog in the 1980s, but with little light, almost monochromatic, grainy. He had not started using sensitive colour films that could have captured the fluorescence, and the amount of light was probably insufficient.

Z met filmmaker Peter Mettler in the early 1990s and worked with him as coproducer and meteorological consultant on his film of the northern lights, “Picture of Light”. In order to shoot the Aurora Borealis in the cold winter night of northern Canada, they modified a 16 mm film camera, adding a time-lapse device of their own invention. They had tested it at subzero conditions in a custom-built chamber. It enabled them to shoot the northern lights in time lapse for a whole night. To Mettler, the lights were like ephemeral “thoughts”. Z took many of the stills of the northern lights together with the filmmaker. Their close collaboration left its stamp on Z’s own art. His early work often foregrounded scientific aspects, now Z began to focus on aesthetic issues: tone and composition.

Fantastica Helvetica

Z’s photographs were an important source of inspiration in the changeable years of transition from analogue to digital. We met in 1993 in Zurich, under a late autumn ceiling of fog. I admitted that fog was a vital concern to me as well. We had similar backgrounds, both being city-dwellers who had grown up on the lower slopes of the Alps. My preoccupation with fog as an inexhaustible source of metaphorical imagery was entirely unscientific. It was a phenomenon that also divided cultures: The identity (and self-confidence) of those who live on the lower slopes of the Alps rests in part on the fact that they look down on the fog in autumn and winter, they are a light-favoured minority.
The Ricken Tunnel was my reliable fog-maker in autumn and winter: When all of the Central Lowlands lay submerged under a sea of mist, its waves breaking silently along the eastern ‘shores’ near Kaltbrunn, the heart of the Toggenburg region on the other side of the tunnel was usually bathed in sunshine. But the fog line has risen, it no longer comes to a halt at 600 m above sea level, as it did when I was a child, nowadays it often settles in at 800 m and higher. It has abandoned its time-honoured altitudes. It has advanced into new territory as if to follow suit: a reflection of mushrooming urban sprawl.

The shifting fog put me in a state of turmoil, I kept moving around, living above it and below it, but I didn’t know enough about how it worked. The great fog-stirrer Z lived in the same geological formation, but in a neighbouring basin: at the edge of the fabled lowland molasse trough. Z soon realised that I was under-informed. We immediately drove to the top of the Bachtel. During the drive, he told me about the major and minor movements of the fog in flow. He parked under the tower.
On top of the fog: whitest white, cold and clammy. Same thing on top of the tower: nothing in sight. We waited. Z kept gazing into the amorphous heaving mass, he talked about the origins of the landscape.
We were in the midst of the alluvial fans of the Ur-Rhine: The first mountains were carried away and rolled flat millions of years ago.
Remains of fluvial discharge.
The limestone massif: the sediment of ancient seas. Organic deposits.
The last glaciers recently crept along, as Z put it, at an altitude of about 1100 m above sea level. Switzerland’s Central Lowlands were still covered with ice 10,000 years ago. Then: gravel. Lichen and moss.
Micro organisms, chemical reactions.
The first humus. Pioneer plants.
The vegetation, the familiar green of our landscape:
less than 10,000 years old.
The fog: prehistoric masses of ice.

Half an hour later, just as Z had predicted, the white was suddenly wiped away, the curtain drawn: We stood in the radiant golden blue of morning, an undulating ocean valley flowing by underfoot. Northeast wind: mighty waves, kilometres long, floating by on the surface, as if sent by the light, hastened and driven by the flat morning sun, but dragging: the light entangled in untold eddies and streaks, fanning out in the process. Spectral births. For two minutes an orchestra of colour played, we gazed at green hills against bluish snow-covered mountains, before the next giant wave came rolling in, a white bank silently enveloping us. We went under as if being lowered in a periscope.

Afterwards, at his house, Z showed me a selection of slides, his work of the past twenty years. With exact explanations for every slide. I soon realised that my knowledge of the weather was a negligible hodgepodge. We decided to link up the pictures and the text, to create a slide show. He handed me his old projector and several carousels with a few hundred images of the sky. At home, I spent a couple of days looking at the slides until they were etched in my mind, picture after picture: Z’s clouds, after-twilights, purple windows, rays and haloes. Flashes of lightning. Northern lights. Satellites, comets, planets and stars.


... never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be an agent of revelation. My teacher’s name is Hartmond. That’s an old [German] word for January. He’s waiting for me at the lift that will take us to the top of the school tower where he lives by himself ...

... His instruction is geared entirely toward acquiring a different sense of time. He’s always teaching me no matter where we are. The airspace is our lecture hall. One question keeps worrying us: What does revelation reveal ...

... Stray animals live above the fog. Hartmond says they are mistborn. We hold our breath as we observe what’s happening. It is as though the fog were sighing, as though creatures were rising from the sighs to bask awhile in the sun ...

... In the Lake of Cold we suspect there’s a kind of spawn from which weird amphibians hatch and wriggle upwards, glinting in the sunlight. There, they perform intricate dances, as if to devote their entire existence to living life to the utmost in just a few brief moments, before silently bursting ...

... Peacocks and pheasants nest aloft the fog, laying eggs, shedding feathers ...

... We have several words for static, drifting and flowing fog. We distinguish between fog that you get lost in and fog that you find yourself in: fog that erases and fog that traces. There is the Whispering Drizzler – the ground fog that people used to call ‘echomat’ because of the way it seems to cling to your heels, at times bearing what’s been said behind the speaker ...

... The Cottonwools are indeterminate kinds of fog that are barely visible but they obscure hearing. Generally speaking, the fog is becoming denser every day, acquiring shapes that beg names ...

... By describing the fog, we describe what is not revealed ...

Of astonshment

Z had one foot in the natural sciences, the other in the fine arts, in the nonconformity and cross-border experimentation of the late 1960s. That explains the inspiring mix of hyperrealism and poetic phantasmagoria. With his open-minded, phenomenological approach to the miracles of nature and civilisation, he broke down the multi-mirror entity that is Switzerland, transcending hackneyed cliché and ideological clutter. He borrowed some of his concepts from science but when they surpassed all hitherto established evidence, he invented his own. Expansive, compelling metaphors, exacting ecstasy:

“... while Venus wanders in the luminous light of morning hurtling towards us in silence ...”

Many of the motifs from nature that have recently cropped up in art and literature are indebted to the great fog-stirrer Z. Single-minded in the pursuit of his mission, he was an indefatigable bearer of books. From the depths of his shelves, he extracted words, sounds and images, giving and dispatching the poetic, the scientific and the quirky, as well as older writings whose significance dawned only later. Like others, I too was repeatedly marooned outdoors, shipped off to glacial tongues, lured into the baskets of balloons to climb through layers of air and up into the ether. We drove down country lanes in his four-wheel-drive, visiting gorges and roaming through forests.
Conversational journeys around untold bends, shifting from panoptic to microcosmic views, to mushrooms and lichen. The sound of the engine was the basso continuo of his epic narrative tone – Swiss German as spoken in Zurich, broad and fluent, studded with facts and data. Z, eternally astonished, with a heart both urban and rural, lavished his energies on indivisible interests.

The fact that people know so little of what is happening in space and air always troubled him. It was not until after the sun had gone down, when everyone had left the terraces and towers, that he would turn up with his camera. He was at home in the ensuing hours of refraction, tonality and reflection, when the gates to the world beyond were flung open, when planets threw themselves into their glimmering orbits behind the curtains of twilight.
In the late nineties, Z focused increasingly on his fluorescent winter fog. He had found a motif into which he could channel his entire being. Everything he had ever explored and measured reappeared in these images: a gathering of all the spirits of the air. Another carousel of 80 slides was planned, half of which were realised.

And of splendour

“Language needs nourishment from neighbouring gardens,” the heading of a joint publication in the Kunst-Bulletin of April 2000, was a working title, it was intended to promote a book project that would have been titled simply ‘Sky’.
During his final journeys he studied roundabouts, “little gardens for the souls of places”, as he called them. His studies took him to Switzerland’s agglomerations, to France, England, India, cheerful daylight diagnostics of urban outskirts. He died in August 2000 of a heart attack; he was 53 years old. He was found in the rambling garden in front of his house, amongst summer flowers and nightshades. His sudden death wrenched him from the midst of life and work. He left behind several versions of the slideshow, two carousels full, traces of work in motion in slides, words and sounds. Nightshift as a rule.

During the shows, silence had proved a valuable mediator between word and image, silence, touching the spheres, led across the border from seeing to saying, and back again. As I switched the slide projector to automatic and the pictures appeared at regular intervals, for exactly 30 seconds each, the silence of the spheres became a searing void. The presentations without the artist floundered, it didn’t breathe, there was no rhythm, no presence. Optically, I couldn’t handle the complexity of the materials – projector, room and screen, projection: Z had always taken meticulous care of everything, painstakingly dusting off each of his little pictures, bending over the projector for hours. The auditorium had to be as dark as possible to show the phenomena to best advantage.

“Splendour” was the word he used to describe the consummate miracles on screen. Splendour comes from ‘splendere’, to shine. Z created splendid paintings out of refracted artificial and natural light.

... We have strict dream specifications. Every agent of revelation hopes to have sumptuous dreams. Since we wonder about the creation of the world, we want to dream the grandiose, all-embracing and elemental theories of creation ...

... Mature agents of revelation run their own open-roofed tea shops ...

A few years ago, I took the train to the Zürcher Oberland by myself. I had the projector with the full carousel (copies) on a trolley and thought I’d be able to walk to the venue. I set out in the wrong direction. And as night fell, a drizzly fog set in. The street lights: abrupt orange, swarming electrons, wispy, wafting haloes around the lamps, like burst yolks, conical, aligned in rows. I ended up on a street with no pavement, no lighting, the train tearing and hissing luminous beacons through the grey. I carried on, still in the wrong direction, a road hazard prompting a cacophony of car-horns, barely visible, it seems, in the greying darkness. Pulling a remarkable Swiss cultural treasure behind me on squeaking rollers: small transparencies. Top-of-the-range headlights kept trying to burn yellow, bluish, white effigies of me into the mist, I became a sharply outlined shadow of myself, saw fluorescences emerging in the night fog: droplets ceaselessly coupling.

text by Peter Weber
translation by Catherine Schelbert