Not Vital appeals to our nomadic impulses in Somerset
Swiss artist Not Vital divides his time between Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, and Sent – the mountain village in the Engadin valley where he hails from. Small wonder then, that pigeonholing his work is a near-futile endeavour. The sculptor and painter’s output bears all the hallmarks of Swiss sensibility (a clean, sober aesthetic); the industry of Chinese manufacturing (‘they have a completely different work ethic’, he admires); with the robust creative flavour of South America – and then some.
Perhaps then, the gentle pastoral setting of Hauser & Wirth Somerset is the perfect foil to Vital’s multidisciplinary practice. The exhibition title ‘SCARCH’– a portmanteau of ‘sculpture’ and ‘architecture’ coined by Vital himself in 2009 – reflects his longstanding interest in landscape and human perception. To wit, the Somerset showcase ranges from early rudimental works to portrait sculptures, mixed-media works on paper, and ‘socially-driven’ installations from his international projects.
Curated by Olivier Renaud-Clément and Giorgia von Albertini, the exhibition opens in the Threshing Barn with a model from Vital’s ongoing series House to Watch the Sunset (2005). ‘The model was three times more expensive than the actual house,’ quips the artist of the project, which began in Agadez, Niger, with a structure built from local mud bricks. ‘When it was finished, I realised this building – or whatever it is – is in itself pure, meaning you cannot add or subtract anything.’
So far, Vital has colonised Switzerland with a concrete version of House to Watch the Sunset; the Amazonian jungle near Paraná do Mamori, Brazil, in angelim vermelho, a native tropical hardwood; and outside of Ulaanbaatar, with iron from the Mongolian steppe. A new iteration, made out of aluminium, will debut in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore during the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale before voyaging to its final destination on the island of Fangasito in Tonga. The perennial nomad is intent on conquering every continent.
In the adjacent Workshop gallery, Vital shifts gears with a sculptural installation comprising ‘numerical portraits’ of architects. The volume and size of each of the 101 black granite structure is determined by the date and year of each architects’ birth, with Peter Zumthor, Norman Foster, Le Corbusier, and Michelangelo among the luminaries represented in the city-like formation. Also excellent are his mixed-media ‘drawings’ made from ephemera collected on his extensive travels; and the new stainless steel and ceramic tower in the front farmyard, Cannot Enter Cannot Exit (2020), that directs our gaze to the Bruton countryside.
Dedicated pilgrims, we’ve dutifully pursued Vital to a remote Filipino province to worship at his concrete shrine, and more recently to the Indonesian island of Flores to scale a 13m building overlooking a trio of volcanoes. Even Hauser & Wirth Somerset, though well-connected to the main transport arteries of the UK, still requires a certain amount of forward-planning to visit. His ambitious works of art would almost certainly be viral Instagram sensations – were they not purposely erected in far-flung locations. And therein lies the crux of Vital’s oeuvre: though it may not always be immediately accessible, physically (or even conceptually), the reward ultimately lies in the journey. §