Federico Ciamei

Swiss Artist Not Vital Has Spent a Lifetime Creating Otherworldly Installations Across the Globe

His latest project, in the Engadine Valley, is the culmination of his creative vision––and in every way very close to home.

Ask Not Vital how many houses he owns, and he might pause and answer with another question: “What is a house exactly?” One of the major themes of the prolific artist’s work has been to transcend the boundaries of what architecture can be––in both form and function. Vital doesn’t just think outside the box; he lives outside of it. Many of his immersive, site-specific sculptures, or habitats––from NotOna, an excavated cave on an island of marble in Patagonia, to his various House to Watch the Sunset towers scattered everywhere from Niger to Brazil––are spaces you can enter and, in some cases, spend a night or two, that is, if you can do without plumbing. He has even coined a term for this fusion of sculpture with architecture: scarch. If you do attempt to count all the habitats he owns and has constructed around the globe, it’s possible to come up with nearly a dozen. 

Left: A Calming Room with 108 holes bored by Vital. Right: Lo Único Permanente, a sculpture by Cuban artist Kcho. Vital devotes entire rooms to artists he loves. 

Federico Ciamei

His latest “home” and venture is perhaps his most exceptional yet, at least in size and grandeur: Schloss Tarasp, an 11th-century castle built by the lords of Tarasp on a dramatic, rocky hill that juts out in the middle of a valley in Switzerland’s Lower Engadine. Growing up as a child within this most idyllic of landscapes (the ski resort of St. Moritz is less than 40 miles away), Vital spent much of his time making snow tunnels and tree houses in the thick forests that surround his hometown of Sent. (His father was involved in the local timber industry.) From this hillside village he had a view of the castle. Today, in a fantastical twist of fate, Schloss Tarasp is his: He bought it four years ago from the last owners, the von Hessen family, who had possessed (but not occupied) it since the early 1900s. 

The Gran Dining Room on the first floor is open to the public.

Federico Ciamei

“No one has really lived in it for a hundred years,” says Vital as I follow him to the castle’s main entrance, a monumental wooden arched door painted with red and white stripes. Vital, sprightly and ageless for his 71 years, turns a massive, medieval-looking key in the lock and pushes back the door. We pass through the castle walls and onto a steep stone drive that’s wide enough for a carriage. We soon enter a courtyard with a lone tree standing in its center. Getting closer, I notice that instead of leaves on the upper branches, there’s a message. It’s one of the many site-specific sculptures that Vital has installed on the vast grounds of Schloss Tarasp: a tree cast in bronze with letters spelling out a line from the South Korean poet Ko Un that reads, “The world’s too vast to live in a single place or three or four.” 

Vital in a guest bedroom in front of a drawing that Jean-Michel Basquiat made for him.

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Vital translates it for me because he chose to write the phrase in Romansh, the mother tongue of about 60,000 Engadine locals, including himself. (Many think his name is an artistic alias, but Not Vital is a traditional Romansh name.) Although he moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and spent time with artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vital has followed a distinctly autonomous path for the past few decades. A self-proclaimed nomad, Vital travels about ten months a year and moves between Brazil, Niger, and China. “I use the world as my studio,” he says. “I make drawings in Brazil and make sculptures in China and Italy and source paper in Laos and Bhutan.” Despite his extreme wanderings, few have deeper roots in the Engadine than Vital. His family has lived here for generations, and he still owns his parents’ house in Sent, to which he added an enchanting park containing his art installations (including a house with a grass roof that sinks into the earth at the touch of a button). In 2003, he bought a fivestory historic house in the neighboring village of Ardez. Now open to the public, it houses an impressive collection of art and one of the largest libraries of rare books and manuscripts written in Romansh. In the international art world, Vital loves to exist on the fringes, but in the Engadine, he is like a much beloved king. 

I peer into a small, ancient chapel on my left filled with priceless religious antiquities and then notice a Bethan Huws piece mounted at the entrance that reads, “Personally, I like the idea that Jesus was born in a stable.” Already I begin to understand that for Vital, Schloss Tarasp is yet another artwork or, perhaps, his own version of a cultural space, one in which he has orchestrated dozens of interventions, not just of his own work but also that of other contemporary artists. Later the celebrated curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, will tell me he thinks of the castle as “a Gesamtkunstwerk, where Not brings together all the dimensions of his work: art, design, architecture, writing, music, collecting, and curating.” 

Vital on a concrete version of his House to Watch the Sunset sculpture series, which sits at the bottom of the path up to the castle.

Federico Ciamei

Related: Verbier––Switzerland's Quatre Vallées' Coolest Little Town

Vital opens a door across from the chapel; inside is a shiny steel elevator. “The hardest thing to do when I first bought the castle was to create a modern infrastructure within it,” he says. He enlisted the help of his brother, Duri Vital, an architect, and two of his nephews, a carpenter and artist, to install a heating system. 

The elevator opens and we take a left, walking around the castle’s exterior battlements. A door leads to a dark tunnel about 40 feet long that is lined with untreated pine into which Vital has bored 108 holes. “The number 108 is very significant to Hindus and Buddhists,” he explained. Narrow streams of light filter through the holes. Later Vital recalls a vivid childhood memory from when he was about five years old. He and his brother dug a long tunnel in deep snow in which he spent an undefinable, surreal length of time. “I remember the sun shining through the tunnel making the walls of snow look blue.” 

The parlor, with furniture collected by Lingner from other patrician houses.

Federico Ciamei

Some of Vital’s bigger pieces are inspired by his early memories and elicit a giddy sense of childlike wonder in the viewer. His House to Watch the Sunset project is something right out of The Little Prince. In fact, his first sunset tower was built out of adobe in 2005 outside the Saharan market town of Agadez, in Niger. (When the Little Prince first visits Earth, he lands in the Sahara.) 

Vital leads me up some stairs to his private quarters, three stories of rooms at the highest part of the castle. On the first level are several small rooms, including two bedrooms connected by a tiny bathroom. One bedroom contains some of the artwork that is most meaningful to him: a drawing Basquiat made for him that reads astronot; a sculpture by Vital of the heads of his parents facing each other so closely they seem to be turning into one person; a Martin Gropius chair; and several Rembrandt etchings. The other bedroom is somewhat monastic and contains several Japanese robes, another remarkable Rembrandt etching, and an elaborately carved wooden single bed. “I purchased quite a few pieces of the original furniture from the Schloss,” he says. “I’m like Pablo Neruda, who said he wasn’t a collector, but that he was a ‘cosista,’ a lover of things.” 

A small chapel at the castle.

Federico Ciamei

On the floor above are a warren of small rooms that Vital uses as exhibition spaces. One contains a work of bricks lined up on the floor by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija; another has been dedicated to British artist Richard Deacon, and a third contains drawings by German artist Otto Dix. The attic room, built by the nephews (one is, according to Vital, an exceptional woodworker), is lined with untreated pine like a room in a traditional Japanese ryokan and consists of a sauna, a shower, and several window seats. 

Vital heads back downstairs and leads me through the many grand public rooms to a stately concert salon with an ornate organ, the largest privately owned one in Europe. He begins to play an eerie classical composition, the sound so immense and penetrating that it feels like everything in the room is vibrating. 

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After he finishes, he explains that the owner before the von Hessen family was a wealthy German businessman, Karl August Lingner, the inventor of Odol mouthwash. He spent years sourcing furniture and doors from patrician houses across Europe. And he’s the one who installed this organ. 

When we sit down to lunch, I ask Vital if he considered Schloss Tarasp a sort of artistic swan song. He laughs and lists the multiple projects he is currently working on, including one in the Amazon and another on the island of Tonga. “I just keep moving on to the next projects.” He’s made the castle into a foundation open to the public, like his other spaces in Switzerland. “I’m a dreamer. I like to realize dreams,” he says with a laugh. “And I want to give others the chance to dream as well.”