In London, a new show at Thaddaeus Ropac homes in on one of the many facets of Not Vital’s practice: painting. Deeply personal, these intimate and ethereal works present tensions between abstraction and figuration, light and dark, essence and representation. 

To mark the occasion, Swiss art curator, critic and art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist – a longtime friend of the artist – spoke to Vital about the foundations of his practice, from a childhood spent in the bucolic Engadin Valley to his nomadic travels across Europe, America and Asia. 

Vital recalls his street circus in Rome; a preoccupation with buildings that began when he was aged two and resulted in ‘Scarch’ – a term coined to describe his distinct blend of architecture and sculpture; and his eclectic influences, from Giacometti, Rothko and Bacon to Nietzsche’s moustache and his local Engadin butcher. 

Not Vital, Tian Tian, 2019.
Not Vital, Tian Tian, 2019. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I’m curious to know how it all began. For me, it was seeing the Giacometti collection at the Kunsthaus in Zurich when I was 12. That was the beginning of my obsession with art.

Not Vital: I was living here in Sent, in the Engadin Valley and would frequently visit Max Huggler. That was my introduction to art. 

HUO: Max Huggler was a pioneering collector and museum director in Switzerland. Were there specific works in his collection that you remember? 

NV: Yes, Huggler had a great painting by Kurt Schwitters titled Ausgerenkte Kräfte (Dislocated Forces), which had a lasting impact on me. Most of Huggler’s paintings were on canvas and as a child, I didn’t understand why. Huggler said, ‘I have this phenomenal painting by Kurt Schwitters on wood.’ From then on, I understood that painting doesn’t have to be on canvas. When I came back from seeing Huggler, workers were mounting a new roof on my parents’ house. I noticed a drainpipe on the floor, I picked it up, and painted it white. This became my first work: Chanala da tet (1964). Last year, it was shown at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset.

Installation view of Not Vital, ’Paintings’. Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London
Installation view of Not Vital, ’Paintings’. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg. Photography: Eva Herzog

HUO: Today we’re going to talk mostly about the paintings, the portraits and self-portraits. There are early photographs that are kind of self-portraits but more performative.

NV: I live close to the intersection of the Swiss, Austrian and Italian borders – the Dreiländereck (three-country corner). At the time, my idea was to erase these borders. For Treriksröset (Dreiländereck) (1970) I brought ashes to the point where the three countries meet and threw the ashes along the borders. For Being in the Shadow of a Tree (1970), I stood in the shadow of a tree for a whole afternoon, constantly adjusting my position to the shadow. This was kind of a performative and durational self-portrait. But I didn’t start painting until I went to Paris in April 1968. 

HUO: I was born in May 1968! 

NV: Were you? [Laughs] That’s a fantastic time to be born! So you can imagine the tension at the time.

HUO: So in Paris you began to paint?

NV: I remember we had a painting class with a model, but that didn’t last long, because it was considered passé and too apolitical. At the time, the civil unrest was at the centre of everybody’s attention. I didn’t paint much in Paris, and after that, I gave up on painting for a long time.

Not Vital, Monk Portrait, 2016. Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salburg
Not Vital, Monk Portrait, 2016. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg

HUO: Paris was the first of multiple exiles for you. After Paris you went to Italy, then New York and then you added more places. 

NV: Coming from Switzerland, I wasn’t really accepted in the May 68 movement because I was from a country that didn’t have a Communist Party. It was a very political time. But I didn’t stay in Paris for long, I went to Rome, where I had a circus. 

HUO: Can you tell me more about your circus? 

NV: I assembled a few friends and we did performances in places that were kind of dangerous, like the Gianicolo, where there’s a very sharp curve that the traffic would come down. I wanted the traffic to see the circus, to somehow be involved. There sometimes were accidents, and we were often arrested by the police. The animals that I had were very small because I had to keep them in my apartment. I had small real ducks and a big metal duck that I could wind up. When the fake duck would walk, the real ducks would follow it. Rome was a great place. But then I went to New York. It was just the right moment to be there. 

HUO: And that’s when you began to work more with sculpture. You worked a lot with portraiture in the sculptures, initially not with humans, but with animals. 

NV: Growing up in an Engadin house, animals played an important role. They were kept in the house because they would heat it up with their body temperature. There was also the ritual of the hunt, a very important occupation for the men. It is probably because of this proximity to animals that I chose to work with them.

HUO: Often it’s a fragmented portrait. How did that begin? 

NV: What impressed me as a child here was the butcher who would come to the neighbour’s house in the morning, and drag out the animal, let’s say a pig, and then cut off its head. There was this element of cruelty, but I was curious to know what was inside the animal and how the butcher made sausages from this pig. It was perhaps the reason for using just one part or a few parts of the animal in sculpture.

Not Vital, Mahalia Jackson, 2020. Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salburg
Not Vital, Mahalia Jackson, 2020. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg

HUO: This brings us to portraits of people. In your Nietzsche-Haus presentation in 1993, there was a sculpture of Nietzsche’s moustache.

NV: When I first went to the Nietzsche-Haus in Sils Maria [in Switzerland], what impressed me most about the death mask, drawings and photographs of Nietzsche, was this moustache that grew bigger throughout his life. In the end, you couldn’t even see his mouth. That was fascinating: that this moustache would take over his face. So I made a sculpture of his moustache, and placed it in his bed. 

HUO: Before 2008, the portraiture was mostly in sculpture, photography, performance, drawing. Then, at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, in 2011, the painted portraits were shown for the first time.

NV: After 2000, I gave up my New York studio, because I felt New York was over once artists had to move away from the city. In the 1980s, we never even went to Brooklyn, but suddenly the city had changed and everything became expensive. I went to Beijing, where you had space and there were lots of artists coming to the city. I got this place in Caochangdi, and an assistant from Japan, Mitsunori Sano, who was an architect, designed my studio. I immediately felt at home, working there in this new environment with professional assistants and a completely different work ethic. In China, you work from seven to seven without talking. So that was kind of contagious. One day, in 2008, I went to the art store with Li Gao, one of my assistants. I bought a canvas, I bought a few paints, and brushes. Then I painted Li Gao. It all happened really fast. I was astonished. Then I started to get very interested in portraiture. 

HUO: It’s not surprising that this happened in China, because you’re always surrounded by people. 

NV: Exactly. If you go out, there are thousands of people around you. And the first thing you look at is the face. That’s why I started to paint people. But in my portraits, the face is always fully frontal. When people sit for me, it’s very important that they look straight at me. The work on the invitation card for the show in London is called The Fly (2019). Have you seen it?

Not Vital, The Fly, 2019. at Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac
Not Vital, The Fly, 2019. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg

HUO: There’s a tiny fly on the left, but the protagonist looks straight at you.

NV: Yes. The painting depicts Tian Tian, one of my favourite models. A fly is approaching him from his right, but Tian Tian is not moving. If a fly approaches you, you turn to look at it, right? But he didn’t. And this is exactly what I want, this tension. I once read that the most difficult thing is to make a frontal portrait. But this is the only way I can do it.

HUO: [Gallerist] Alma Zevi writes in the catalogue for the Beijing show ‘Full On’ that in the fully frontal approach, she sees connections to Giacometti. It’s a little bit obvious to talk about Giacometti in relation to your work because of the Engadin connection. But it is interesting to note that Giacometti, a sculptor like you, painted fully frontal portraits. 

 ‘When I paint, I am always aware that the painting is only done, and only comes alive, when it’s behind glass. This is what Bacon said. I like that the glass becomes like a skin’ – Not Vital

NV: In a way there are parallels. Our colour asceticism definitely comes from our origins in the same region, where grey is the main colour. But I have a feeling Giacometti paints more like a sculptor. He builds up. It’s very muddy. I build up too, but I also destroy. Of influences, I think more of Rothko. I’m thinking of some of my very dark paintings, like Man with Dark Glasses (2012).

HUO: There’s also Francis Bacon who always put his paintings behind glass, as you do.

NV: Yes. When I paint, I am always aware that the painting is only done, and only comes alive, when it’s behind glass. This is what Bacon said. I like that the glass becomes like a skin. It gives life to the painting. It attracts, but also it inflects and reflects. It keeps you away, gives you the right distance to look at a painting

Man with Dark Glasses, 2012 Not Vital
Straightjacketed, 2010 Not Vital
Above: Man with Dark Glasses, 2012. Below: Straightjacketed, 2010. Private collection, Switzerland. By Not Vital, Courtesy the artist; © Not Vital; Photography: Eric Powell

HUO: Another link to Bacon is the almost mutilated or dismembered parts. If I think about Straightjacketed (2010), there’s something almost violent.

NV: Yes. In the London show, there is a painting titled Gu Cheng (2010). Gu Cheng was a famous Chinese poet who died in 1993, when he was in his late thirties. He was schizophrenic and he killed his wife and then hanged himself. So yes, Straightjacketed and Gu Cheng both have violence. 

HUO: And the self-portraits where you assume these different identities are the opposite of a fixed identity.

NV: I like this possibility of playing someone that I am not. Self-portrait as a Camel (2019), also on view in London, is a good example of this. Having done so many works with camels and camel heads, I just wanted to see how you could put the two together – half man, half animal. 

 Installation view of Not Vital, ’Paintings’ at Thaddaeus Ropac, London,
Self portrait as a camel, 2019 by Not Vital
Above: Installation view of Not Vital, ’Paintings’ at Thaddaeus Ropac, London, featuring Gu Cheng, 2010 (left) and Self Portrait, 2012 (right). Below: Self portrait as a camel, 2019. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg. Photography: Eva Herzog

HUO: The paintings are kind of the opposite of Zoom –  they have a lot to do with embodiment: a direct confrontation between you and the models, or you and yourself. A lot of portraiture in painting over the last 50 years has been photographic, but yours is not. What are the sittings like? 

NV: It depends. I usually don’t talk, or very little, until towards the end. When I have it, I might say something, but there is no music, because if you listen to music while you paint, you tend to listen to music you like. And then the good music makes the painting seem better than it actually is. The studio in Sent is usually quiet and dark. It has no windows because I felt like I had to keep the natural beauty outside in order to be able to concentrate. I usually start by painting the aura around the head. The size of the aura varies from model to model. And then it’s fighting to get the eye or one part of the face. That detail is very important. 

HUO: Very often, there are missing arms and necks. So even if it’s the opposite of Zoom, because it’s so physical, it’s like what happens on Zoom when you have a background – you move and suddenly your arms disappear.

NV: I don’t see the arms or neck. As soon as I have the head, the rest just becomes body, or almost abstract. It’s like with Rothko, where two colours can react together to create a painting

Installations views of Not Vital, ’Paintings’.Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London
Installations views of Not Vital, ’Paintings’.Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London
Installations views of Not Vital, ’Paintings’. © Not Vital Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg. Photography: Eva Herzog

HUO: It’s beautiful, the connection to Rothko. The paintings do oscillate between integrations and abstraction and sometimes the result is almost like an X-ray. 

NV: An X-ray, yes. Whatever you paint, even if you paint over it, it’s still there. If you make an X-ray of any painting, you see what’s hidden. 

HUO: When I came out to Sent to visit you, you told me the studio is in your head. Of course, the planet is in a way your studio, but painting does need a physical studio space. And you built both studios yourself: one in Beijing with the Japanese architect and one in Sent, your painting studio.This brings us to architecture, the focus of the previous UK show, ‘Scarch’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. And you say, building has been your favourite occupation since you were two years old, when you tried to enter a pillow! 

Cannot Enter Cannot Exit by Not Vital at Hauser & Wirth Somerset
House to Watch the Sunset by Not Vital at Hauser & Wirth Somerset
Above: Cannot Enter Cannot Exit, 2020, stainless steel and ceramic. Below: House to Watch the Sunset, 2005, by Not Vital, aluminium. © Not Vital. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photography: Ken Adlard

NV: Yes. I couldn’t even walk. I crawled into this pillow. When I was three, we had a lot of snow here, and I dug a tunnel in front of the house and I just stayed there. I felt so good in it. I remember the details and sensations, like the colour and the smell. I thought about how it would be to build my own habitat. And when I went to Africa, it was a dream to be able to build houses and schools. I am not an architect, and my projects differ from those realised by large companies such as Herzog & de Meuron or Foster + Partners. We’re currently working on a project to build a house in Sent where you go into the garage and you completely disappear. You live underground – very much like a marmot. All these ideas are not from studying architecture, but from not being an architect. 

HUO: You’ve built many different houses: the Disappearing House (2007), the House Against Heat and Sandstorms (2006), and the various iterations of House to Watch the Sunset, which you’ve said is your favourite. Why is that?

NV: It’s just so complete. This house came as a surprise. I built it without having any drawings or models but, once it was finished, I realised it couldn’t have been any different. House to Watch the Sunset is going to be shown this year at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, if it takes place. It’s going to be 13m tall, inside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

House to Watch Three Volcanoes by Not Vital
Not Vital on the balcony of his 13m-high House to Watch Three Volcanoes. Looking out onto Kelimutu volcano’s three crater lakes, it is one of the latest addition to his so-called ‘Scarch’ creations – part sculpture, part architecture. Photography: Eric Gregory Powell. As featured in the October 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*247)

HUO: I have one last question, the only recurring question in all my interviews, about your unrealised projects. Do you have a utopian architectural project, or are there people you want to paint whom you haven’t yet painted? 

NV: In terms of painting, it’s Hans Ulrich Obrist! [Laughs] And in terms of architecture, it’s a new project for a house. 

HUO: How’s that going to work?

NV: I don’t know yet. I know that the house should somehow be moving, because it has to go to different places. I’m in this great position of freedom, because I don’t have to build houses for other people, or in the conventional sense. I bought some land on the island of Folegandros in Greece, and want to build a house there, just to look out at this one mountain. People are always asking, ‘Why do you have all these places?’ I’ve realised it’s because, if you want to do the architecture that I do, you need a place to build, just like if I want to do a painting, I need a canvas, or if I want to do a sculpture, I need a structure to hold it together. It’s all one and it’s all related. §

Not Vital’s chapel in Bataan, the Philippines. 
Not Vital’s chapel in Bataan, the Philippines. A horizontal aperture runs the entire length of the chapel’s facade (left), allowing light to stream in and casting shadows on the walls and the water, which starts at the entrance before tapering off as one walks up the slope towards the last supper. Inside, a wooden statue of the rice goddess Bulol hangs on one of the walls. Photography: Eric Gregory Powell. As featured in the June 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*219)