SWISS ARTIST NOT VITAL TRANSFORMS ENCOUNTERS AND IMPRESSIONS INTO WORKS OF ART.
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...