Drawing inspiration from the landscapes, environments, and cultures encountered on his extensive travels, multi-disciplinary artist Not Vital is particularly known for his installations that are akin to architectural monuments.
Vital divides his time between his birthplace of Sent in Switzerland, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and Niger. After graduating from the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes in Paris in the mid-1970s, he moved to New York City. Coming to artistic maturity surrounded by the dynamism of the city's art, music, literature, and nightlife deeply impacted Vital, and by the late 1980s he found himself entrenched in New York's art scene.
In 1999, Vital made his first visit to Niger. The trip was born out of an interest in the nomadic tribes of the area he had read about. Considering his own almost nomadic existence, he felt a sense of affinity with these tribes, particularly the Tuareg and the Peul. Since this first excursion he has returned and produced several large-scale artworks that draw from the physicality or culture of their settings. Built in Agadez, the pyramidal structure Makaranta functions as both a sculpture and a place for learning—schoolchildren are invited to sit on the steps that completely cover the structure's exterior. Sunset House, also located in Agadez, is, as the title suggests, a structure from which to watch the sunset, as well as a platform from which to track the stars in the night sky (the Tuareg's main orientation tool).
Alongside nature, Vital has a fascination with traditional manufacturing processes. The installation 700 Snowballs (2013), shown on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, marries these two interests. The work comprises 700 glass balls individually blown by a master glassblower in Murano—a location in Italy famous for glassmaking—and laid upon the floor. Similarly, The Last Supper—a ceramic panel with 13 abstract black splotches that depict Christ and his Apostles—was produced in Jingdezhen, a Chinese city known for the production of porcelain.
The Last Supper was made for Vital's Bataan chapel, a concrete structure he built in a small town 50 kilometres west of Manila with the support of non-profit foundation Bellas Artes Projects. Constructed as a polygon with a steel door and a narrow opening to allow dramatic beams of sunlight in, the floors of the chapel are designed to be flooded with water. Despite seemingly Christian references in the work—including the use of the word 'chapel' in the title and the inclusion of The Last Supper—Vital steers away from monotheism by affixing onto an interior wall an antique wooden statue of the rice goddess Bulol that was carved by the northern Fillipino Ifugao tribe. Additionally, the water that floods the chapel might be seen both as an allusion to the concept of walking on water and as a nod to the rice fields and agricultural economy of the Philippines.
Works such as Vital's Bataan chapel, Makaranta, and Sunset House investigate the boundaries delineating art and architecture. To describe these works, Vital coined the term 'SCART', referring to sculptural architecture with a social aspect. While appearing as actual buildings, these structures are often devoid of infrastructure, having been created for very specific purposes that exclude inhabitation.
In 2016, Yorkshire Sculpture Park hosted the artist's first major exhibition in the United Kingdom. Works from the past three decades of Vital's career such as 80 Cow Dungs (1990–ongoing)—an edition of 1000 pats of cow dung initiated on Vital's first visit to Nepal in the late 1980s and cast in bronze—were placed on display alongside newer, site-specific pieces. Prominent amongst these pieces was a site-specific aluminium bridge that enticed visitors to to the lakeside areas, mirroring the manner in which 18th-century follies marked key vantages.
Artworks by Vital are housed in the collections of several museums internationally. These include the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Dallas Museum of Art; Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Kunstmuseum Bern; Kunsthalle Bielefeld; Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva; and Museum der Moderne Salzburg.
Not Vital is in the habit of stressing that he isn't an architect. 'I never went to architecture school,' he told me the last time we met in Bataan, where he'd just completed a chapel that resembled an Aztec temple but contained a deconstructed rendering of The Last Supper and a statue of a local harvest deity. 'That's why I'm so free to do this.'
At first blush, the decision by the Swiss artist Not Vital to build his latest installation–a concrete chapel set high on a windswept slope–in Bataan was entirely appropriate. Not far from this spot, in April 1942, the victorious Japanese army ordered around 76,000 Filipino and American POW soldiers to begin what eventually became known as the...
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For a man who was born in the remote Swiss village of Sent, Not Vital is a seriously global sculptor. The nomadic artist has ongoing projects as far-flung as Rio de Janeiro, Bataan, Niger–and now Wakefield.
An exhibition film showing interviews with Not Vital and Clare Lilley, YSP Director of Programme.
Swiss artist Not Vital is an intriguing example of how the gap between art and architecture is narrowing. The artist, who is renowned for his unorthodox architectural structures around the world, here describes how his projects derive from moments in his own life.