Not Vital x Beijing

The Swiss Artist Opens the Doors to his Striking Home Studio in the Chinese Capital

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?

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.

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    Shanzhai Biennial: Dark Optimism

    The Genre-Splicing Artist Trio Subverts Notions of Authenticity and Design at MoMA PS1’s Summer Festival

    Chinese model Wu Ting Ting lip syncs to an opaque cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” while wearing a sequined gown emblazoned with a deliberately misspelled shampoo logo in this new video from Shanzhai Biennial. The New York-based artist trio, comprised of Cyril Duval, Babak Radboy and stylist Avena Gallagher, has described itself as a “multinational brand posing as an art-project posing as an multinational brand posing as a biennial.” Taking inspiration from China’s infamous and rich culture of “Shanzhai” imitation goods—faking products from supermarket stock to high-end luxury items—the project seeks to liberate branding from the obligation to make a sale. “Selling things is always a drag on the aura of a brand,” says Radboy, who also works as Creative Director of Bidoun magazine. For ProBio, a group show curated by Josh Kline as a part of this summer’s large-scale Expo 1: New York at MoMa PS1 that is dedicated to the theme of “dark optimism”, he and Duval, who has exhibited internationally under the moniker Item Idem, reached out to Helen Feng of the Beijing musical act Nova Heart (the “Debbie Harry” of China, as she’s been called) for the Chinese rendition of O’Connor’s 90s classic, which they adapted from an amateur online production. “The relevance of the song is right there in the title,” says Radboy. “We were searching desperately for a version in Mandarin and finally found a recording on an obscure and outdated Chinese social networking site by a pretty busted looking queen in his 40s—so there are four levels of separation there.” The result couldn’t be truer to the illogical form embodied in Shanzhai products. “It’s a very Shanzhai production!,” says Duval.

    ProBio, part of EXPO 1: New York, is on view at MoMA PS1 through September 2, 2013.

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    The Bridge

    Oscar-Winner Fisher Stevens Narrates an Homage to the Poetic Landmark on New York's East River

    “It hath cables and it does one good to cross it every day,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his 1956 poem “Brooklyn Bridge Blues,” inspired by the New York monument that also attracted the likes of poets Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marianne Moore, and even Walt Whitman, who immortalized the part-built landmark back in 1878. The neo-Gothic symmetry of one of the city’s most recognizable structures is honored in this short by filmmaker Harrison Boyce, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor and director Fisher Stevens. Today potentially overlooked as an object of mere utility overshadowed by the imposing skyline of Manhattan, here the Brooklyn Bridge’s aesthetic appeal is reinvigorated some 130 years after it first opened in 1883, when it was one of the tallest structures in the city. The 1.1 mile steel-wire suspension bridge was originally designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling and took 14 years to complete, linking Manhattan and Brooklyn across the East River—a cultural connection that continues to flourish today. Boyce filmed the ode to his favorite landmark in between shooting the titles for Saturday Night Live and working on fashion and music projects for Dazed & Confused. “What I really love about the Brooklyn Bridge is how many different elements were brought together to build it,” he says. “While the other bridges in New York are made primarily of metal, the Brooklyn Bridge has stone, wood, steel, cement, and all these old signs and doorways; it has a lot of mystery to it.”

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