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Homes from home: the Swiss sculptor Not Vital talks to Apollo about his own work, the art he collects, and how he is displaying both in his native Engadine Valley.

Sculptors never have enough space,' says the Swiss artist Not Vital (b. 1948; Fig. 1). It seems like an amusing throwaway line. I have just asked him, as we drive down from Tarasp Castle in the Lower Engadine, what prompted his recent purchase of this mighty 11th-century fortress perched atop a craggy rock 100m above the valley. Space to show his own art and his art collection is, it transpires, one reason for having bought the castle and the crystalline Lake Tarasp beneath it. His remark, I soon realise, is also pertinent to his entire artistic practice. For this is an artist always in pursuit of a challenge. Anyone unfamiliar with his work would find it difficult to imagine how vast and extraordinary his ambitions are.

Not Vital does make sculpture, and he has recently returned to painting, but his most ambitious projects are what he terms 'SCARCH'--interventions in landscapes, which are part sculpture and part architecture (and part land art). His natural canvases span anything from immense African skies to lush Brazilian rainforests. In 2005, for instance, he built an adobe House to Watch the Sunset in Aladab, Niger (and House to Watch the Night Skies a year later) and he continues to produce variants of the former using different materials and local craftsmen, with projects current in Indonesia and Mongolia. Such projects could also be regarded as social interventions in communities that are often poor and isolated.

One of his first projects in Niger--the Sahara beckoned when he decided to stop living full time in New York in the late 1990s--was the 'living sculpture' Makaranta (School) (2003). An open-air adobe schoolhouse in the form of a ziggurat, its stepped sides are transformed by the 500 children who now gather there. If it had not become too dangerous he would have stayed in Niger, Vital tells me. He had planned to build more schools, as well as a place for the Tuareg to drink tea. He also had his sights on repatriating some of the dinosaurs excavated there.

Vital is rather like a nomad himself. He spends his year roaming between the multiple projects he always has in hand, his studio in Beijing, and his various other homes--or habitats. The most extraordinary of them all is on the small marble island in Lago General Carrera in Patagonia, which he bought in 2008. Finding he could not bring himself to build on it, he instead tunnelled across part of it, excavating a som-long domed space out of the marble. A surreal photograph taken offshore at night shows the artist standing silhouetted by its window, a small dark figure in a blazing rectangle of light emerging from the low black outcrop of rock.

One constant in Vital's peregrinations is the Engadine. Every summer, and for part of the winter too, he returns to the small village of Sent. These days it is his family house to which he returns (his late mother, who celebrated her 100th birthday last year, had moved into a nursing home). On a day of brilliant sunshine, it is hard to imagine the harshness of life endured until fairly recently by such postcard-perfect communities. The Swiss have always had to leave their country to find work--this particular valley, where Romansch is still the most widely spoken language, traditionally produced the world's great pastry chefs. Vital's family had been prosperous timber merchants for generations but his father warned the children that there was no future in it for them; they would have to think of something else. Vital took him at his word. What is striking about the art that he creates, however, is that wherever it is made and whatever it is made of, it is invariably informed by his relationship with this valley --whether the cast bronze cow pats sold to benefit burns victims in Nepal, the variously reconfigured hind quarters of deer (Fig. 3), or the mountain peaks found within his Chinese 'Dali stone' sculptures. 'It is impossible not to return to the Engadine,' he assures me.

The artist has a reputation for inscrutability, but his smile is far from sphinx-like. There is something of a grown-up Tintin about Not Vital. Unlike the intrepid boy reporter, however, this artist does not cross the globe to solve mysteries, but rather to realise them. It could be argued that the making of habitats--occasionally even functional ones--is at the heart of his practice. 'It all started here, building tree houses as children,' he explains as we sit before dinner looking out over the ever-changing surfaces of the mountain opposite. 'And what we dreamed of was this,' he continues, opening his laptop to show a photograph of an extraordinary treetop eerie in Papua New Guinea. 'As children we had five months off in the summer, and rival groups would build secret hideouts that would be destroyed by the others if found.' This led to ever more ingenious shelters. Those he builds now low-or high-tech--remain places 'to dream, think, escape'.

Not all these hideouts are far away. Several are to be found on the edge of Sent, in a ravishing precipitous garden, which was created by another returning Engadiner and 'saved' in 1998 by Vital, who has turned it into a playful and fantastical dreamscape-cum-sculpture garden, open by appointment. Its acquisition was not his first, or last, local philanthropic act. Vital has, almost by default (since he sees his activities as egotism rather than philanthropy) been slowly colonising the region. In 2003 he formed a foundation to acquire one of the few imposing traditional houses in the locality that had not been destroyed by fire. The six-storey house in nearby Ardez is a gem, built in the 16th century, enlarged in 1756-57, and carefully restored by Not Vital's architect brother Duri in 2005-06. 'If I hadn't bought it, it would have been turned into apartments,' Vital says. 'I wanted to preserve it but I also needed a home for the library of Romansch books that I had begun collecting while I was at school.' It is an important holding of rare volumes, mostly New Testaments and Psalms translated into Rhaeto-Romanic and printed in the Engadine from 1560-1850. The Ardez house is, however, a substantial building for some 550 books.

Functioning as museum, occasional apartment, and project space, the house contains many of the eclectic works of art that Vital has acquired over the decades, including gifts and swaps from other artists as well as acquisitions. They sit alongside his own smaller-scale works of art in the house's spare and sparsely furnished pine-lined rooms. There are surprises galore. Among the rustic local furniture, for instance, is Jacques Lipchitz's sculpture table with its revolving top. Above an ornately carved chest is Basquiat's jokey 1981 portrait drawing of the artist as a Soviet 'Astronot'. There is Wolfgang Tillmans' photograph of an armpit, a Felix Gonzalez-Torres jigsaw-puzzle piece, and Ai Weiwei's transparent glass Taxi Window Crank (2012). Here, too, are Tibetan tiger carpets (a particular interest), African jewellery, and Khmer sculpture. Most unexpected of all is a 16thcentury black chalk drawing, squared for transfer, of a male nude by Tintoretto.

Not everything in his collection is so arbitrary. A Gerhard Richter print of the Engadine hangs near one of Vital's own 'Dali stone' sculptures. Vital first encountered 'Dali stones' while travelling in Southern China. Such 'dream stones'--marbles in which the natural striations echo the forms of nature--have been prized by the Chinese for centuries. He collected examples suggestive of mountains, waterfalls, ice, and forests for years before deciding how to use them. Now these 'found' objects are embedded into deep trapezoid plaster mounts, which give the viewer the illusory effect of peering at a landscape through a window--and very specifically the traditional bevelled Engadine windows, which allow the maximum light in but the minimum of heat out.

Vital likes the fact that the name of these stones is also that of one of his favourite artists. Language is important to him--he is a polyglot--and it is no coincidence that he builds structures in places with beautiful names. He talks of a recent project on the volcanic peaks of the Indonesian island of Flores ('flowers' in Portuguese) boasting the unique natural phenomenon of three crater lakes each with a different, changing colour. Letters, too, find their way on to the points of antlers or to the tips of tree branches made of aluminium patinated white or black. Here, 'What's Up', in Romansch, tops one tree; 'Fuck Off' on a cast of antlers from a deer that his father had shot.

There are abstract portraits in silver of Vital's father and mother. The dimensions of these rectangular silver boxes are determined by dates of birth: the larger representing the year; the smaller, the day and month. Hand-beaten by Tuareg silversmiths, their surfaces have a soft lustre. Much of what the artist produces depends on rare or unique craft traditions, or early industrial processes that have survived somewhere across the globe. Above the two portraits hangs the inky black rectangle of one of Hiroshi Sugimoto's meditative gelatin silver print seascapes of the night-time Ionian Sea.

At the top of one staircase are Vital's gestural prints made as he listened to symphonies by Sibelius, Grieg and Nielsen, 'conducting' them directly on to the printing plate. There is also the odd bird's nest--considered good luck in the Engadine--and swallows freely fly in and out of the unglazed quatrefoil windows. Here is one of the earliest of the artist's own, an installation called The New York Calming Room (2007), fashioned out of Swiss stone pine that is famed for its soothing aroma. Everything but the knots is painted white. In fact, the artist rarely strays beyond the monochrome palette of the white, blacks, and greys of snow and rock for either his art or his interiors. A rare exception at Ardez is the brilliant blue bathroom with its very contemporary twin sarcophagus-like baths.

There is a bath that resembles an ancient sarcophagus in the studio that he built in Sent (Fig. 4). Even this structure is more habitat than working studio, for presiding here is an late-Qing dynasty Jiangnan-style canopy bed, almost a room in itself (Fig. 2). 'The most important things I need are a bed and a bath,' the artist says. All his beds--even those in the castle where, at the time of my visit last August, he has spent only one night--are made up with snowy down duvets ready for use at any time. 'This building is all about inner world and outer world,' Vital continues. 'I wanted it to surprise.' Outside it is rocklike but with the slightly lumpen look of adobe (it was built inside out, with wood, steel and poured cement). Inside, its clean, smooth geometries are bisected by a line of electric light.

Dominating the whole is a wall of monochrome portraits arranged on rows of narrow shelves. All are under glass--'as Bacon said, it is only then that a portrait comes to life. You also see yourself in it. It is all about auras.' He began painting portraits in 2009, as a response to being around so very many faces in Beijing. The reflective stainless steel walls of his studio there lead to his focus on self-portraits--haloed or hatted heads and indistinct features emerging out of washes of thin pigment. These recent works were unveiled in Europe at his major retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park last year. 'I don't want to exhibit them or sell them in a gallery yet.' It is hard not to be reminded of Giacometti, an artist born in the same valley.

Tarasp Castle is also in this valley. As one of the few tourist destinations in the valley, it was important to the local economy that it stayed open to the public. It was on the market for decades. 'The price of the castle came down and down until it was the price of a large apartment in St Moritz. Then it became interesting,' Vital explains. After almost two years of negotiations, he was able to secure it last March. His vision is to transform it into a cultural attraction of international importance by integrating contemporary art and sculpture into the historic buildings and their grounds.

In 1900 the fortress, by then in ruin, was acquired and painstakingly restored by the Dresden industrialist Karl August Lingner who had made a fortune from Odol mouthwash. His agents scoured the valley and the Tyrol beyond to find appropriate historic panelling, ceilings, beds, coffers, tables, stoves, and the like, much of it 16th century. The project is very much a work in progress but Vital has already made his mark.

On a promontory at the base of the path that winds up to the fortress, he points out where he will build another t3m-high House for Watching the Sunset. A highly polished, stainless-steel cratered Moon will float in the lake below the castle. Another of Vital's steel pieces hand-chased in his Beijing studio, Unpleasant Object (2008; Fig. 6), is already spikily in situ further along the path, and round the corner inside the castle's defensive walls stands a monolithic Tongue (2010), which reflects the surrounding stone and brilliant blue sky in its gently undulating curves. To the ancient chapel with its ghostly remains of frescoed saints, Vital has added above the altar a small reproduction of his favourite painting, Christ Crucified by Velazquez--'the only artist who can paint blood' with his own head of Christ standing beneath it (Fig. 5).

In the castle proper, Vital has both thinned out the pre-existing displays (the indifferent Old Master paintings and sculpture are gone) and added to them (Fig. 8). Beside a 16th-century Flemish tapestry, for instance, is his powerful self-portrait Me, Myself and I. In a butler's pantry above a rustic chest and trivets, one of Daniel Spoerri's table settings defies gravity on the wall (Fig. 7). Vital is a master of placing objects: two pairs of antique Chinese leather boots under four Warhol Cow silkscreens, a Khmer torso framed by a sensational view. Alongside the historic furniture--grand and rustic--are more 'Dali stone' and tree sculptures, and painted and silver portraits. There are also works by artists from Max Ernst to Keith Haring, with a generous helping of Arte Povera--not least Alighiero Boetti's Pack. Boetti is one of the artists given a room on the castle's top floor; another is Otto Dix, with work made in the Engadine.

Back at Sent, before I leave this sublime valley, Not Vital takes me into the Bond-style bunker that serves as working studio and storeroom. Here, tucked away in a corner, is his boyhood conceptual art. Perhaps inevitably, it includes a 'readymade' tin house and a tin bath.

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.

Caption: 1. Not Vital (b. 1948), photographed in 2013

Caption: 2. Red-lacquered and gilded Jiangnan-style canopy bed, from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912), in Not Vital's studio in Sent

Caption: 3. An interior of the foundation at Ardez with Not Vital's piaster and heroin deer sculpture Heroin, 2000, and the bronze with white patina Stockhausen, 2006, On the wall is an untitled graphite drawing by Andy Warhol

Caption: 4. Portraits by Not Vital, books, and bath in the artist's studio in Sent

Caption: 5. Chapel in Tarasp Castle with a reproduction of Velazquez's Christ Crucified above Not Vital's own image of Christ

Caption: 6. Not Vital's sculpture, Unpleasant Object, 2008, is set above the path leading up to Tarasp Castle

Caption: 7. Daniel Spoerri's Not Vital Weissertich, 2005, hangs in the butler's pantry at Tarasp Castle

Caption: 8. Not Vital's Troupeau, 2004, a box made of silver beaten by Tuareg silversmiths and containing the remains of goats, in Tarasp Castle
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Author:Moore, Susan
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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