2 - 4 December 2020, Lisbon

Not Vital

Jeremy Melvin, 18 February 2020


Not Vital – a Swiss name pronounced more like No Veetaal than following English sound patterns – is one of those artists who wrestles with architectural concepts in a way which throws light on them, without ever producing a work of architecture, at least in the sense that would have been recognized by the old style Architectural Review. And it is at least arguable that it is all the more insightful, and enjoyable, for that. His ongoing exhibition Scarch (a neologistic amalgam of sculpture and architecture) in the seductive setting of Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset outpost makes a fine introduction to his work (until May 4).


Not Vital, Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2020
Photo: Ken Adlard
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Variety is a vital constituent of Vital’s work. He grew up amid the Swiss mountains of the Engardine Valley, which remain a constant reference point. But he started to travel early and now splits his time between Rio, Beijing and his home village of Sent. The different contexts of his fields of operation are a constant inspiration to him and he matches this by working in numerous different media, painting, drawing, sculpture and in built structures.


Installation view ‘Not Vital. SCARCH’ Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2020
Photo: Ken Adlard
​Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Not Vital

One of the latter is the first exhibit that visitors encounter. This is a 1:3 scale model in aluminium of a House to Watch the Sunset, orientated to the cardinal points of the campus and which in this installation fits the cross axes of the threshing barn. Originally conceived for a site in Niger, where it is constructed from local mud bricks, further examples are proposed for Brazil (in wood) and Switzerland. Each adapts to its social context while retaining its orientation and apparent purpose, though the model has a pristine, precise quality that the full size objects lack.


Not Vital
House to Watch the Sunset
2005
Aluminum
430 x 550 x 330 cm / 169 1/4 x 216 1/2 x 129 7/8 in
Installation view ‘Not Vital. SCARCH’ Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2020
Photo: Ken Adlard
​Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Not Vital

Taking the form of a squat tower, it has three external staircases each leading to a different level with no internal connection between them. So it lacks the sort of functional logic that most architecture has and so, to borrow a concept from Hegel, it is ‘free’ to embody ‘spirit’ unimpeded by the messy business of everyday life. This gives it an other-worldly quality that allows the focus to be on its formal effects.


Installation view ‘Not Vital. SCARCH’ Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2020
Photo: Ken Adlard
​Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Not Vital

This is one example of how Vital’s work, by adopting some of the qualities of architecture but eschewing others, challenges conventions which architects and their critics find convenient. Function here becomes irrelevant, or is so deeply buried beneath trope, form and allusion that a new field of possibilities for what architecture might be open up.

The next work shows another aspect of Vital’s relationship with architecture. A series of granite columns, varying in height and width, with differently sized tops, is laid out on a regular grid. Each of these is a representation – ‘a numerical portrait’ - of an individual architect from the renaissance to the present day, and in a nice conceit, their ‘representations’ make a city of towers. Each consists of three pieces, determined by the day of the month and year of the architect’s birth. Reducing architects to algorithms of their birthdates is equivalent to eliding function in the towers, but in this case the result does not have the same resonance.


Not Vital
100 Architects
2016
Black granite
Dimensions variable
Average height: 56.22 cm
© Not Vital
​Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

The final two rooms reveal much about Vital’s working method, and how it has evolved over several decades. Here are works on paper, collages and small objects that reveal wit and invention.


Installation view ‘Not Vital. SCARCH’ Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2020
Photo: Ken Adlard
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Not Vital

‘Growing up in a Swiss village’ Vital reminisces, led him to respond to what he found, both at the macro scale of the landscape, and at the micro scale of using found objects, from the tin baths traditionally used by villagers for their ablutions, to dental floss, ears of corn or cotton buds, whose capacity for mark-making he explores in several small works. These could become simplistic one liners – and some are – but what gives them interest is when they contain the seed of an idea related to architecture, such as a piece made from tape on paper representing two towers, or small coloured stickers representing 108 Identical Houses for London, which shows, if nothing else, he has understood something about the city’s domestic architecture. Together they are evocative and perceptive.


Installation view ‘Not Vital. SCARCH’ Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2020
Photo: Ken Adlard
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Not Vital

Scarch is paired with an exhibition of photographer Don McCullin’s work, The Stillness of Life. It originated, he explained, in his wartime experience of being evacuated to Somerset and he sees the images he has made there to some extent as repaying a debt to the county.


Don McCullin, 2020
Photo: Matilda Temperley
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

It also includes urban images from as far apart as Liverpool and the Levant, which demonstrate the eye which made him such a good news photographer (and for which he has been knighted), and which he enhances by an incredible skill at making prints from his transparencies.


Don McCullin
Liverpool, Slum clearance
1970s
Gelatin Silver Print
Image: 33.7 x 51.1 cm
Sheet: 48 x 60.8 cm
© Don McCullin
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Most of the images are set in Somerset and with their enormous precision both in recording what is there, and in what he sees, they uncover an almost mythical reading of the landscape. I cannot be alone in seeing the Narcissus myth in the way he captures reflections, for example in Flooded Somerset. There may be little directly about architecture here, but in image capturing and making it is unparalleled.


Don McCullin
The Somerset levels at dusk
1998
Gelatin Silver Print
Image: 35 x 51.2 cm
Sheet: 48.2 x 60.8 cm
© Don McCullin
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Read other WAFN Articles.

By continuing to use the site you agree to our cookies policy. Accept