Through the fil­ter of sur­re­al­ism, Swiss artist Not Vi­tal trans­forms en­coun­ters and im­pres­sions into sculp­tures, paint­ings, and in­stal­la­tions.

“IF YOU’RE GO­ING TO BE A MASS MUR­DERER, be a big one. Life is ei­ther-or,” Not Vi­tal said dur­ing an in­ter­view in one of the Las Casas Filip­inas de Acuzar her­itage houses where a spe­cial lun­cheon was held in his honor. The state­ment, though bold and bru­tal, drives the mes­sage home but loses its vi­o­lent tenor when de­liv­ered in the Swiss artist’s softly mod­u­lated voice.

His name is a con­tra­dic­tion to his arch per­son­al­ity, which didn’t seem to have an au­di­ence in Not’s idyl­lic home­town. “There are things I did in school that I can’t even tell you,” he dis­closed, but the artist did men­tion steal­ing a goat, feed­ing it and milk­ing it for three days un­til a passerby heard it bleat­ing.

He was raised amidst the pic­turesque sur­rounds of Sent, in En­ga­dine where Not re­called ex­plor­ing the woods with his friends dur­ing the five-month long school va­ca­tion. They would build houses, some­times up on the trees: “At night you hear these sounds, and that’s scary. But in the morn­ing, you will see a deer below, and that’s beau­ti­ful,” he says. Dur­ing the winter, he would dig tun­nels with his brother, with the artist stay­ing be­hind to dream, while his brother scam­pered away when it was time to go to school.

Switzer­land, with its wealth, se­cu­rity, and in­sanely beau­ti­ful land­scape is, ac­cord­ing to Not, a great place for the very young or the very old—but it cer­tainly was not for mis­chievous rogues. Any kid who threw a stone at a neigh­bor’s win­dow would be dis­ap­pointed be­cause in­ci­dents like these were ad­dressed with re­mark­able ef­fi­ciency. In­sur­ance would take care of the dam­age, and things would be fixed the fol­low­ing day. “It’s so frus­trat­ing,” the artist lamented. “The Swiss don’t think about steal­ing, it never comes to mind.” He would al­ways find his car as he’d left it the pre­vi­ous day: un­locked, key in ig­ni­tion, his wal­let in­tact. “Can you imag­ine how bor­ing that is?” he asked.

By the age of seven, he knew that he had to leave his coun­try’s ster­ile en­vi­rons. Not went to New York in the ’70s and stayed through to test his sur­vival in­stincts, join­ing many other artists from all over the world who sim­ply had to go to the Big Ap­ple be­cause, as Not cheek­ily said, “you can’t be an artist in Mis­sis­sipi.”

Life in New York wasn’t easy, but Not was com­mit­ted to the jour­ney, adding that “mak­ing art is bet­ter than killing some­one, so you’re al­ready on the right track.” The city’s sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll scene wasn’t a de­struc­tive di­ver­sion, as much as an in­cen­tive for the artist. “That’s the great part about it. That’s the thing. I think peo­ple are not enough into that to­day. I think peo­ple should en­joy more. We had such great par­ties, tak­ing drugs, hav­ing sex,” he dis­closed.

Tough places, “where you have to be con­stantly be aware,” as he put it nicely, like Rio de Janeiro and Niger, ap­peal to the artist. The chaos ap­par­ently nur­tures his ad­ven­tur­ous spirit, drives his restless en­ergy to cre­ate, and makes him feel alive.

The artist has ex­hib­ited all over the world, but his build­ings are what cap­ti­vated a wider au­di­ence. He bought an is­land of mar­ble in Patag­o­nia, Chile and carved its in­nards in­stead of build­ing on the is­land so as not to dis­turb the spec­tac­u­lar views. As a sculp­tor, the NotOna Tun­nel, as he named the pro­ject, gave him an op­por­tu­nity to en­ter and ex­plore his medium. At night, all that can be seen is a tiny hole of light peer­ing from the is­land.

He evoked the mem­o­ries of the tree­houses built dur­ing his child­hood with the “House with Hair,” which stands amidst the lush en­vi­rons of Sent. In Niger, he built two struc­tures: a house for watch­ing sun­sets, and a school called Makaranta, both of which are in Agadez.

Makaranta is what Not con­sid­ers as the jewel among the struc­tures that he’s cre­ated. When he started to build, he didn’t have an en­gi­neer, nor was he an ar­chi­tect, so he sim­ply drew the sketch. Upon see­ing the draw­ing, the na­tive Tuaregs re­cruited for the con­struc­tion ex­claimed

that the artist had lost his goat. These chal­lenges though were what he found to be ir­re­sistibly se­duc­tive. As he said in an in­ter­view aired on YouTube, “This is an ad­ven­ture, and as an artist, I need that. I want that.”

In the same in­ter­view, he de­scribed the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing hun­dreds of school chil­dren gath­er­ing on the steps of the pyra­mid-like struc­ture. The move­ment, the color, and the noise fas­ci­nated him. He went on to say that “It’s the best sculp­ture I’ve done, it’s ki­netic. It moves.” Though ob­vi­ously en­joyed by Agadez’ school­child­ren, Not says that he built it for him­self. He didn’t have a phil­an­thropic agenda can­didly ad­mit­ting that he “wasn’t born as a Mother Teresa, I don’t like to give.”

Ex­cept for the Mar­ble Tower in Bel­gium and the Not On a Tun­nel, which were both made from mar­ble, Not’s other build­ings seem frag­ile and inse­cure, in­dulging his itch for dan­ger and the un­fa­mil­iar. “I don’t like se­cu­rity,” he ad­mits. The artist de­scribed a bridge he made that would shake pre­car­i­ously as vis­i­tors reached the mid­dle part, with no other way to go but for­ward. He built a mono­lithic mud wall called the Moon House, where view­ers have to climb a makeshift lad­der to get to the nar­row top (with­out rail­ings of course) from where one can ex­pe­ri­ence a soli­tary au­di­ence with the moon.

The Sun­set House is de­void of doors, and its 39 steps that lead to the el­e­vated in­ner cham­bers don’t have any­thing that vis­i­tors can hold on to. But any­one who climbs its stairs will be re­warded with what the artist him­self de­scribed as a sun­set so fast and in­tense that you could “al­most hear it.”

The artist has cho­sen a quiet hill­top for his pro­ject at Las Casas Filip­inas de Acuzar. He of­fers no other de­tails ex­cept that he will be in­stalling a glass sculp­ture de­pict­ing the Last Sup­per. Much like his other ar­chi­tec­tural works, this will en­tail a bit of ef­fort to be­hold but, all those who sur­ren­der to a Not Vi­tal ex­pe­ri­ence will take with them a very spe­cial mem­ory. Two as­sis­tants who were with Not dur­ing the in­ter­view don’t seem to doubt that this will be an­other pow­er­ful piece. Eric Gregory said that, “Not is al­ways very fo­cused on mak­ing some­thing re­ally good.” Gao Guangyi per­haps en­cap­su­lates the essence of Not’s oeu­vre best: “It’s not for the money or recog­ni­tion, he does it for the feel­ing.”

1 Not Vi­tal pur­chased a re­mote is­land of mar­ble in Patag­o­nia and carved this cre­ative abode, aptly called the NotOna Tun­nel. 2 The artist at work in Agadez, Niger, in­stalling a 2003 work en­ti­tled Camel. 3 Heads ( 2013-2015) is a se­ries of re­mark­able...

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