Since May, the monochrome yet wildly varied output of Swiss artist Not Vital (1947-present) has taken up residence at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Stretching across the venue, both under the northern skies and within two interior pavilions, Vital’s works both dominate and concede to their new setting, insisting on their heritage and origin, while half-welcoming and accepting a new one.
Though formal similarities are almost completely lacking throughout his body of work, I am struck by the hefty Pollockian aura that seems to hover over many of Vital’s pieces. Here, undoubtedly, is the idea of the Modernist, lone, male genius updated for the contemporary moment. The show’s programme depicts the artist himself as the centre of a photographic and sculptural landscape, a part of his work as his Abstract Expressionist predecessor was – both during its creation and after its display. In case that’s a little subtle for your liking, the artist does not just include himself in this image, but a fantasy of himself as male incarnate. Straddling two gigantic rocks, writhing lasso in had to further conquer nature, Vital’s splayed legs make masculinity (and his performance of it) visually and metaphorically the center of his practice.
Even if you opted for a different gift shop purchase, however, in Vital’s vast stainless steel, open-air pieces, it is impossible to avoid an inherent sense of machismo, despite protests from their context of production. Both Pelvis (2008) and Tongue (2010) claim zoomorphic origin – the former is based on the pelvis of a camel; the latter on a series of musings beginning with the tongue of a cow. There is clearly, however, both more and less to it than that. Particular to its placement atop a hill in the YSP, Pelvis seems to mirror the splay-legged pose of Vital’s chosen self-image. I don’t think it’s necessary to spell out the formal echoes of Tongue. Described in the literature as a “vital and sensitive organ”, the masculine implications of this latter piece are clear for all to see. However, here the distancing device of animal inspiration is more effectual – no human tongue has ever been so long and spear-like. Despite clear reference to the male, Tongue nonetheless complicates the assumption it invites: the idea that every elongated sculpture is purely phallic.
These works are executed in gleaming steel, both contradicting and mimicking the constructed pastoral landscape which hosts them. A key part of Vital’s practice is to assume the crafts and art forms of the various areas to which he travels, making use of these methods within his heterogeneous output. Drawing the technique of brushed steel from Beijing, Vital makes reference to the history of China in a third work – Let 100 Flowers Bloom (2008). A legion (or two legions, if you’re being pedantic) or identical, unopen lotus buds lie in various positions in a column, all pointing the same way. This work makes reference to one of Mao Zedong’s atrocities, in which the population was encouraged to criticise the regime, before being violently suppressed for its trouble. This is easily the most overtly political of Vital’s piece at the YSP, and unfortunately it seemed to ring a little hollow. By selecting a particular historical moment as the work’s meaning, the multivalent aspect present in his other works is stifled, while the particularities of the medium are subjugated to the reference of tragedy.
Though it probably says more about the behavioural norms of the museum space than it does about Vital’s work, the pieces placed within the indoor galleries seem more subdued than those left exposed to the elements. Nonetheless, Vital’s refusal to commit to a single medium ensures the creation of a new space, as both sculptural and two-dimensional works collude to transform the YSP’s stable Underground Gallery, and challenge the equally steadfast idea of the gallery itself.
As a religious art enthusiast, I immediately gravitated towards the Last Supper (2015) mural, a highly abstracted take on the most traditional of themes. Spanning an entire wall above head height, the viewer is immediately reminded of Leonardo’s prototype rendition. Here, however, the disciples are rendered as disembodied, black, bead-like shapes. These heads transform the wall that bears them to a surface implying much smaller objects – a punch-card music score, or a scrap of Morse code. Perhaps, referencing Leonardo, ‘code’ is the operative word. By attaching to these plain but highly differentiated shapes such a loaded title, Vital suggests that the viewer decipher in one way – to read the work as a representation of Jesus’ Passover meal. Are the two heads close to each other brothers James and John; the two joined together another James and Christ (or, if you’re feeling a little 2003, Christ and Magdalene); the blanked out, Judas? Whoever is who, the work reveals the heavy cultural capital of Catholic themes, even in our secular age. Like the Rothko chapel, the gallery becomes a space of worship and quiet contemplation, like the monasteries that centuries ago have housed such images. Before we become too comfortable our metaphor, however, Vital brings us back to the now by providing thin, precarious rosewood benches (Walking Benches, 2011-2012) to view the scene. No comfortable pews; we’re sitting on art, we’re looking at art. This reminds us what we’ve forgotten while we were praying – there is no singular meaning here; interpretations must be built on sand rather than rock.
These faces come down from the wall in the next room, where a row of similarly abstracted Heads (2013) meet the viewer. Initially these seem intimidating and mechanical, their shape and highly shined metal surfaces make them look robotic and cold. It is in these works, though, perhaps the most, that the setting takes centre stage. Borrowing from their surroundings to create themselves, the beamed roof of the gallery clothes the Heads as hair, transforming from stiff geometric form to an organic and mushroom like fan. The Heads also reflect their each other, so the presence of their neighbours allows them eyes with which to receive us, becoming serene and recognisable faces like the discarded Laos Buddha head which inspired them. The viewer however, is largely denied a part in this assimilation. If you were trying to look for your own reflection, a foot or so away you could see your own elongated form. For the most part though, the shape of the Heads made the viewer invisible, denying their reflection and place in the meaning. As a traveller himself, perhaps Vital has got sick of the adage that we ‘find ourselves’ by doing so, and denies that possibility here. But perhaps it’s just visual play.
Whether Vital is a cynical about the ‘wanderlust’ generation as me or not, a definite connective thread in his work is the importance of place, though that place continues to change. By making use of the media of the traditional art forms of his destinations, Vital has formed a varied and shifting body of work. Initially, the pieces reflects (metaphorically but also often literally) the place of their production. For many of those discussed, installation at the YSP has necessitated additional meaning and context, so that that landscape, geography and people become a part of their make-up too. The most adamant exception to this polymorphous assimilation are Vital’s paper works, produced using traditional techniques in Laos. Here, that place is literally carried within the works. Whereas we would expect various flora to be encased in the paper, instead Vital gathered detritus found on his way to the studio – a dead frog, a sock, some pepperoni. Rather than the context of display coming ot the fore, these pieces act almost as a map, a taste of their own production. Their refusal to assimilate earns them their own little indoor space – away from the larger, sculptural works which seem at half at home in God’s Own County.
The responsive handling and conscientious placement of Vital’s first major UK show is no mean feat. Though his tendency to oscillate between mode and media intensifies the challenge, the show at the YSP remains congruent, despite the additional shifting between outside and inside, foreign and domestic. The visitor is both lead to and encouraged to stumble upon Vital’s work – allowing for an organic process of engagement and interrogation of the works on display – just as we might imagine the artist stumbling upon his dead frog. This softens the inherent masculinity of the show’s content, making even the most physically domineering of works become accessible and sensitive.
Viewers, like the works themselves, seem to become at home with these alien works, as they blend with the more familiar works of home hero Moore. I half expected, at the end, to find postcards of Vital straddling the Cow and Calf. Perhaps a project for next summer.
Not Vital’s works will be on display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 2 January 2017.