New York

Not Vital

A minimalist fabulist you might call him: In most of the sculpture here, the Swiss artist Not Vital combines Euclidean geometries with children’s-book contents. Camel, 2004, comprises sixteen sealed silver spheres, each nine inches in diameter, and each, we are told, containing a part of a camel. The animal’s body was laid out to dry in the sun, and shrank; so these sixteen globes hold the whole thing. 50 Snowballs, 2001, is fifty more spheres, this time in clear Murano glass with a frosted-glass core—crystal cases for apparently arctic objects. And the most fairy-tale piece of all, Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Bremen Town Musicians), 2004, actually turns on a story of the Brothers Grimm: Each of four rectangular silver boxes stacked on a high plywood dais, we once again are told, holds the dried remains of one of the animals in the tale—a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a cock. Where the spheres in Camel are all the same dimension, the boxes in Bremer Stadtmusikanten are scaled according to the size of the animals they contain, giving the stack a ziggurat shape.

Necromancy seems the order here—the cold and dead are coffined in beauty, and beauty empowers and blesses. But art history of course there is too. We cannot know that Vital’s globes and boxes really hold camels and donkeys; we must trust the storyteller, or not—just as we must trust, or not, that the cans that Piero Manzoni sealed in 1961 really hold the merde d’artiste, and somewhat as we will never know what object hides in Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise of 1916. For 300 Knives, 2004, Vital plunged three hundred different-size chef’s knives into a wall, with the dark reversal that the blades point outward rather than in, as if some stony troll in the building’s concrete fabric had hurled them out at us. My first thought here was of Repulsion, the Polanski film of 1965 in which walls crack open and hands reach forth at Catherine Deneuve’s dubious heroine. That scene itself, though, has an antecedent, in Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête of 1946, where the beast-prince’s palace is lit by torches held by living arms that issue from the walls. 300 Knives might fit the fright register of Repulsion, but the descent line of Vital’s work generally may run closer to the magical side of Surrealism, and to the antic spirit of the other artists above.

It is magic itself, though, that seems the truer touchstone. The knives coming out of the wall are supernatural. In 3000 Tears, 2003, a beam of white marble is incised on all sides with teardrops, as if some flow of sympathy had briefly and mysteriously moved the stone to take the marks of grief. Vital has a house in Niger, and his works in silver are made by local artisans; the boxes’ hand-hammered surfaces are gorgeous in their soft and tactile depths, and if they are in fact coffins, we are seeing the transformation of the dead. And then there are the animals themselves—the foursome from the Grimm tale, who, though beaten down, are able to talk and plan and to outwit men, and the camel, a fantastical creature to a northern child. Despite the simplicity of his forms, Vital is able here to evoke a premodern imagination, full of terrors, delights, and powers.

David Frankel

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