Mile-high concrete walls and imposing metalwork meets the eye, as nomadic Swiss sculptor Not Vital invites us into his creative Beijing hideaway to discuss his latest works in stainless steel, and his growing fascination with portrait painting. Vital’s atelier, in the heart of the city’s Caochangdi arts district, is itself a slick piece of architecture from young Japanese designer Mitsunori Sano. Walls of stainless steel foster a mirror effect in the central room and cleverly hide the living quarters behind. At the moment, the walls are strewn with large, white canvases, each depicting a single, blurred portrait in black, behind thick glass. Vital’s neighbor, the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, is among the friends who have sat for him as he explores the new medium in monochrome. “I asked Ai recently why he never paints,” says the artist. “He says it’s too strong for him, that it might kill him. Sculpture is more conceptual; painting comes from within. I know what Ai means.” While smog-choked Beijing seems an odd home for a multidisciplinary artist who is perhaps best known for his ongoing project to create a “house to watch the sun set” on every continent—Vital already has homes in remote parts of Africa and South America, and is buying land on the Indonesian island of Flores—he explains what drew him to the Chinese capital in 2009 and what compels him to return every year.
What about Beijing that made you to want settle and build a studio here?
Not Vital: I spend about four months of the year here, mostly in my studio working all the time. I often work with stainless steel, and in China the production process is so fast. They still chase the steel instead of casting it. It’s a very labor-intensive process and requires a lot of technical skill. In Europe, they were using this technique 20 or 30 years ago, but much less now. To complete a sculpture in this way in Switzerland might take six months. Here it takes just two. I also find fewer distractions in Beijing, and it’s a city where I always feel a bit lost. The people inspire me though. I live in an area surrounded by artists. It’s a bit like 1980s New York.
Why do you shun the use of color in your work?
NV: I grew up in the Engadine valley in Switzerland. For the half the year it is covered in snow and bleached of color.
You carved a sculpture of the famous mole on Chairman Mao’s chin out of coal back in 2009. What was the reaction like inside China?
NV: I think most Chinese were amused and they liked the use of a common material for a work of art. Sometimes art needs to incorporate humor. The Chinese are very quick on the uptake and they have a good sense of humor. They are not so different, I find.
Which other parts of China have you found inspiring?
NV: In southwest China, in Yunnan, the area around Dali is incredible. You can find stone in the ground that is very beautiful. It is incorporated into local furniture. It’s stone that, if cut from the ground in just the right way, has the look of a Chinese landscape painting. It’s as if the stone in the ground reflects the landscape above it. People help me look for this stone, but digging it up is a lottery. You never know what you will find.