Sent, Switzerland

Not Vital

Parkin Not Dal Mot

What is a Mongolian tent, in perfect working order, doing in a park in Engadine, the beautiful valley in southeastern Switzerland where Not Vital was born? In fact, the park is actually a project that Vital has built over the years with many of his works, and the tent is part of the same declaration of poetics—and poetic action—that he has been developing for years, without which an understanding of his practice would be incomplete. In 1990, Vital built a hospital in Nepal with proceeds from the sale of bronze castings of the dung from Engadine’s cows; lately, his ethnic, social, and humanitarian interests have shifted toward sub-Saharan Africa. Such endeavors are rooted in an investigation of connections across national and cultural borders. But Vital is first and foremost an artist, and he must and wants to act as such. Since 1997, his most important field of artistic action has been this park of roughly five and a half acres, which he has slowly been working on with his brother, the architect Duri Vital. There, the bronze dung castings clearly allude to all the shit that the West sells to the third world, but also to Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), 1961. Placing the nomad tent amid the most ordinary Swiss houses is a provocation, but it is also an excellent example of alienation and dislocation as a refined and elegant artistic practice, with a soupçon of exoticism. Meanwhile, in Agadez, Niger, where houses are customarily built of mud, Vital has made an oasis his field of action for the construction of an “ideal city” utilizing indigenous techniques. Sometimes one has the impression of finding oneself in the presence of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, albeit a less despotic, less desperate, and above all less colonialist, more convincingly “correct” version of the character from Heart of Darkness.

What Kurtz and Vital have in common is a lucid delirium that allows them to create what, for others, would remain in the realm of dreams. Thus in the park in Engadine we encounter an underground room with a remote-controlled grass roof that can rise above the ground or disappear from sight, becoming absorbed into and camouflaged in the terrain. Built with the aid of Japanese architect Mitsunori Sano and entailing audacious construction problems that stimulated its builders to produce creative solutions, it clearly belongs to such an overweening vision. As an artist, Vital had decided to deny himself nothing, to realize every desire: You want the moon? Here it is, at the Sperone Gallery in Sent, a sphere of Carrara marble dated 2004, weighing more than three tons, more than five feet in diameter. The mountains you see from the window? Here they are, also in the whitest marble—five works from 2001. Your childhood memory evokes the long, mobile tongue of a grazing cow? Vital will enlarge it, perhaps thirty times, and erect it like a stone menhir, as part of his series “Tongue,” 1985–. But there are also less openly childlike and more disturbing works, such as the gigantic viewing tower in the park, begun in 2003 and completely covered in hair that almost seems to have grown there. Only the artist’s latest project seems to have a more contemplative aim: a series of rooms in every part of the world—currently in Niger and in the Chilean Andes, soon in Norway, later in China and Tasmania—built solely for looking at the sunset, as if one might mentally embrace the entire world in a single day, and see numerous sunsets. The perfect wedding of romantic intimism and sesquipedalian egotism: in short, the essence of the myth of the artist.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.