Not Vital: Poetry, Unique and Intense

by Tilla Theus

Rendering for the installation of Not Vital’s ‘House to Watch the Sunset’ in the Abbey of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy

Not Vital coined the word SCARCH, a portmanteau word, to describe his works between sculpture and architecture. They are conceived and executed transcendentally, with no infrastructure. In other words, they are neither practical nor utilitarian but intensely poetic. Vital, who leaves nothing to chance, developed a clear-cut concept for SCARCH. Everything is meticulously worked out and formulated from beginning to end, as illustrated by the following excerpt of the ‘list’ that he wrote in a 2015 poem:

4 rooms 3 x 3 x 3 m
+ 1 bed + 1 table + 1 chair
no water or electricity
just enough
to make the sun set

Sculpture and architecture
The project House to Watch the Sunset is a quintessential SCARCH, which the artist intends to construct on every continent in the world, much like U.S. military bases, but for the peaceful purpose of watching the sunset.

These four-story SCARCHes all have the same dimensions. Three separate staircases at an angle of 45 degrees with 13, 26, and 39 steps, each measuring 25 centimeters in height and breadth, lead on three sides to one of the four stacked rooms, which are in turn each three square meters in size. If you want to enter all of the rooms you have to climb up and down three times. Every room is furnished with a bed, a table, and a chair—nothing else; no water, no electricity, but it is adequately equipped ‘to watch the sun set.’

Using the stairs requires great concentration. Climbing them is a challenging act. The descent calls for an even greater sense of balance. The windows on every floor reveal only a section of the surroundings. That focuses the gaze: ‘to make the sun set,’ as Vital writes in his poem, in order to permit your sun to go down.

Pisa Baptistery of St. John in Pisa, Italy © Michael Evans/
Chapel of the Dead in Buochs, Switzerland © Douglas Mandry

Effort, a prerequisite for the experience
This SCARCH is not a work of art for viewing. It has to be climbed and in this way—and only in this way—it sharpens our perception. ‘To watch the sunset’ bestows an experience, a memory of the great and consciously laborious call to concentrate. Climbing the stairs prepares the climber to look at the sunset. Only through this action does ordinary nightfall become a new experience, exerting a profound impression that is stored in memory.

After Vital has created the idea and finds the place—or rather, the place finds him—he verifies his idea on-site with reference to available materials. He observes the people living there, their habits and their techniques. In short, he develops the specific implementation of his idea in harmony with local resources, possibilities, inhabitants, and techniques. The abstract poetic idea is thus interwoven with local realities and completed as a new reality.

They have been planned for all of the continents in isolated locations shrouded in myth; they are hard to reach. Visitors are compelled to communicate and enter into an exchange with local people in order to find a SCARCH.

As mentioned, dimensions of the Houses to Watch the Sunset are identical, but they are executed in different materials depending on where they are built. They have been planned for all of the continents in isolated locations shrouded in myth; they are hard to reach. Visitors are compelled to communicate and enter into an exchange with local people in order to find a SCARCH.

A ‘House to Watch the Sunset’ was built of mud, straw, and dung in 2005 in an oasis in Aladab, Niger; another was built in 2016 out of angelim vermelho, a native tropical hardwood, in the Amazonian jungle near Paraná do Mamori, Brazil; and a third in 2018 in Tarasp, Switzerland, out of concrete using sand from the river Inn.

This year Vital has been working on a ‘House to Watch the Sunset’ made of iron in the Mongolian steppes and another—out of aluminum—for the island of Fangasito in Tonga. The latter will first be installed in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore during the 2020 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Not Vital, Painting Studio, Sent, Switzerland, 2015 © Not Vital. Photo: Eric Gregory Powell
Chapel in Brion Cemetery in San Vito d'Altivole, Italy, by Carlo Scarpa © Darren Bradley

Architectural comparisons
Seeking architectural comparisons to the SCARCH structures that are likewise exclusively monofunctional, I think of religious buildings erected for important stages in life—namely, for baptism and death. Artists recognized the significant singularity of these events and created spaces for them that aroused strong emotions.

Magnificent, intensely moving baptisteries are found in the Lateran in Rome (4th century, in Riva San Vitale (5th century), in Florence (11th century), in Pisa (12th century, and in Parma (13th century).

Just as baptism, signaling active entry into a religious community, was assigned a room of its own, death (and entry into eternal life) was honored with an exclusive architectural space as well, as illustrated by St. Michael in Fulda, Germany (9th century), and the chapels in Schwaz, Austria, and Loreto, Italy (both 16th century). Contemporary masterpieces are the chapel in Buochs, Switzerland, and the chapel by Carlo Scarpa, completed in 1978, in the Brion Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole near Treviso, Italy.

In addition to being monofunctional, the Houses to Watch the Sunset feature a distinctive treatment of light. Comparable projects, in this respect, are James Turrell’s Skyspaces, with sky windows precisely calculated to experience nightfall and the dawn of day; and Walter de Maria’s ‘The Lightning Field,’ made of steel rods with slanted tips laid out in the landscape to catch and reflect the light of dawn.

House To Watch The Sunset 1 - 2005 (1)
Not Vital, House to Watch the Sunset, Aladab, Niger, 2005 © Not Vital

Instead of a house, an island is transformed
One ‘House to Watch the Sunset’ steps out of line: ‘NotOna’ in Patagonia. Vital had intended to build one on this island but then changed his mind after spending time with the terrain. Instead, he has transformed the entire island into a house. A tunnel, approximately 160 feet long, leads to a window from which ‘to watch the sunset.’ The tunnel was carved out of a mountain of white marble and all of the excavated material was packed into one large cube at the entrance to the island, so as to leave nothing behind, neither natural nor designed.

‘Go there alone. Get to know yourself. Become your own friend.’—Not Vital

The best way to visit ‘NotOna’ is to fly to Puerto Montt. Then, at the Lago General Carrera, a man named Celi must be found. He ferries the visitors to and from ‘NotOna’ in a small boat. These instructions underscore the necessity of speaking with the locals to receive vital information—namely, to take food, water, wood, and a lighter along. These are the requisites for an unforgettable experience entirely in the spirit of Vital, who often says: ‘Go there alone. Get to know yourself. Become your own friend.’

To me, the experience around Walter de Maria’s ‘The Lightning Field’ is similar. The task consists of discovering the only house in the village that is one story higher than the others, entering it through a wooden door, walking into the courtyard, then through a dark hallway, and finally through three consecutive rooms. In the last one, a man wearing a cowboy hat and boots is sitting at a table; he will take you to ‘The Lightning Field’. This may sound disconcerting but it corresponds to reality. We were deposited in the desert and picked up again 24 hours later. The experience is overwhelming and is indelibly impressed upon memory—exactly like Vital’s Houses to Watch the Sunset.

Walter de Maria 1
Walter De Maria, Lightning Field © Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: Tilla Theus
James Turrell, Skyspace Piz Uter, Hotel Castell Zuoz © 2019 James Turrell. Photo: courtesy Hotel Castell

Or Turrell’s ‘Roden Crater’ in Texas. After a bumpy ride through volcanic terrain near Flagstaff, Arizona, past herds of cattle, you climb into the work of art hollowed out of the volcano: an incredible atmosphere and distilled concentration meet you there in the oval space with its stairs leading to a precise angular opening on the sky. The changes in light as darkness falls open the mind to unprecedented shifts in color and a new perception of the sky.

There is one significant difference between the ‘Roden Crater’ and the Houses to Watch the Sunset. Turrell often adds sequences of colored lights to his Skyspaces, while Vital relies exclusively on natural light. And the rooms in Vital’s ‘houses’ are so small that visitors are encouraged to watch the sunset alone, whereas in Turrell’s case, several persons can experience the Skyspaces together.

Ingenious creativity as an enthralling gift
This sensitivity to the natural world generates art that is exclusively poetic and reliant upon the cosmos. With his ingenious creativity, Vital bequeaths us an enthralling gift—in Niger, Tarasp, Brazil, Patagonia, soon to come in Mongolia, then in Venice, and finally in Tonga—‘to watch the sunset,’ or rather, as the artist insists, ‘to make the sun set.’

Titled ‘SCARCH,’ an exhibition of Not Vital’s work organised with Olivier Renaud-Clément and Giorgia von Albertini is on view at our Somerset gallery from 25 January – 4 May 2020.