Not Vital: On Scarch, Sunsets and Silence

by Lara Morrell
Lara Morrell
Not Vital

Take me back to your childhood in Sent, how did the Engadin Valley shape you as an artist and where did the importance of building ones own habitat all begin?

I grew up in a small village called Sent in Switzerland which is located not far from the Italian and Austrian border. Growing up in Engadin was incredibly isolated when I was a child. Without connecting tunnels, a trip to Chur by train would take more than four hours. However, despite the remoteness, it offered an idyllic childhood setting. Our school schedule was unique, with seven months of study followed by five months of vacation, these extended breaks allowed for many activities, with building huts and treehouses being a favourite pastime. These were moments I have never forgotten, I remember exactly how it felt, I remember the light, the smell. So since then, this has always been part of my work, trying to build my own habitat. Leaving Sent at 14 to attend high school in Chur marked a transition, but I always found myself drawn back to Engadin. It’s where my language, Romansh, is spoken, and its natural beauty is unmatched. Without my roots in Engadin, I might never have returned to Switzerland.


Engadin remains a remarkable place, I still reside in my family home, where they have been living for hundreds of years, every morning I’m greeted with the breathtaking sight beyond my window. The bond to a house you’ve lived in your whole life is profound, the beauty, height and strength the mountains exude never fail to inspire awe. I spend at least four months each year there.

What exactly do you mean by SCARCH – and that gap/crossover between sculpture and architecture?

As you now know, my interest in building started at a very young age, and when I traveled to Africa in the ’90s, that passion reignited. I began constructing houses and schools, including House to Watch the Sunset (2005) in Agadez, Niger. These structures differ from conventional houses as they lack kitchens and bathrooms. Instead, they serve specific purposes, such as providing relief from the intense African heat and sandstorms. I am not an architect. My work is more akin to sculpture than traditional architecture – while architects often move towards sculpture, it is less common for sculptors to move towards architecture. I lean towards architecture, simply because I have always been interested in building and materials.

Similarly, the structures I’ve constructed in various locations like the Amazon, China, Chile, and Patagonia share a common theme – prioritising beauty over luxury. Each project emphasises simplicity and functionality, ensuring that the design resonates with its surroundings. In essence, the focus is on creating aesthetically pleasing spaces that enhance the natural environment, rather than indulging in amenities.

So what is it about sunsets, and why build a house with the sole purpose to watch one from?

It began in Africa, the intensity of the southern sunset there is remarkable; they’re fleeting and dramatic, sometimes plunging the landscape into darkness within just ten minutes. I wanted to witness this spectacle daily, from a frontal vantage point. At the time, I had recently opened a space outside, an oasis of sorts, surrounded by trees. To catch the sunset above the tree line, I needed to construct a tower.


But it was built very fast and without formal plans, as many people in the area couldn’t read or write, I relied on a small model to guide our work. However, upon completion, I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. The design was fixed – you couldn’t add or remove anything. It stands as a testament to its own purity, untouched by additional or subtractive alterations.


That’s when I made the decision to construct one of these structures on every continent – a project I’m still actively pursuing. The one you may have seen at the Venice Biennale was supposed to go to Tonga. However, logistical challenges have arisen, making it difficult to proceed as planned. Similarly, there were intentions to install one in Mongolia, but current circumstances, including travel restrictions through Russia, have posed significant hurdles. Dealing with global logistics can be quite complex and unpredictable at times.

When and how did the transition from sculpture to painting come about? 

In the late ’60s, during my time studying in Paris, I dabbled in painting at university, though not extensively. However, I always harboured a sense that painting would be a part of my future. It wasn’t until I found myself in Beijing that I rediscovered painting.


Living in New York City during the ’90s, I sensed a shift in the artistic landscape. Many artists were migrating from Manhattan to areas like Brooklyn, Upstate New York, and Long Island. Feeling the need for change, I decided to follow suit.


Arriving in China in 2006, I found a vibrant artistic community reminiscent of New York City in the ’80s. The studio, designed by a Japanese architect, provided an inspiring environment. With skilled assistants at hand and ample time on my side, I delved back into painting. Beginning with portraits of my assistants and visitors to the studio, my involvement in painting grew steadily from there.

I just had a show last week in Paris, and this is the second one where I’m going to show paintings. I knew from the very beginning, that these paintings have to be behind glass. It is important to me that there is glass in front of the painting, so it’s floating. Beyond this effect, the presence of glass adds depth to the artwork, pushing it toward the realm of sculpture with its almost three-dimensional quality. This approach not only invites viewers to engage more deeply with the paintings but also enhances their ability to appreciate the details.


Francis Bacon said, at one point, “Everything has to be behind glass.” Which I very much agree with him. He says, “Even a Rembrandt should be behind glass.” And he’s right.


You see yourself reflected in it, evoking both introspection and connection simultaneously, and that’s exactly what I want.

I know Rothko has been influential to your painting practice. In your early career, who were other influential figures?

As a sculptor, I’ve drawn inspiration from various sources over the years. I have always been impressed by Constantin Brâncuși ; his work has always captivated me with its profound simplicity and elegance. Yes, Mark Rothko’s paintings have had a significant impact on my artistic journey, Rothko once stated, “I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions.” This sentiment aligns closely with my own direction.

I’m curious about the role that these three components play in your work; humour, animals, and smell.

They are all elements which some how go back to my upbringing in the Engadin, we need humour (which is not very Swiss!) I grew up in the mountains til the age of 11, there wasn’t that much humour, but it is so important. 


Smell. In Romansh we don’t look – we smell, like dogs.. why has a dog gone there? probably because he smelt something – it’s the same thing with humans. I’ve made a few installations with this wood that grows up in Engadin, in altitudes over 1,800 metres, it’s called stone pine and it has a very fragrant smell, and it stays for hundreds of years and this is how our houses in Engadin are built, especially the living rooms. So smell is very important to my work.


Animals also play a part, growing up we kept the animals in the house, underneath, to create heat, and the hay would act as insulation. Hunting was so important for the people there, my father was a hunter.


My nephew hunted this (pointing to a piece in the gallery just above us), but he hunted this animal which only has one set of antlers, they didn’t grow on the other side. So it has four points, and then I wrote, “Fuck” – something that maybe what the animal would have said as the human was about to kill it. And that take us back to the element of humour, especially if you use language.

What’s your favourite colour?!

Multiple. It depends, right now you could say probably blue, because I have been using a lot of Prussian blue. This preference for colour is a relatively new. Growing up in Engadin, where long winters dominated the landscape with snow, colour didn’t hold much significance. Instead, the towering mountains and their height often influenced my sculptural work. However, my exposure to a different environments, particularly Brazil where I created many of my recent paintings and the Paris exhibition, introduced me to the power of colour. Had I remained in Engadin, I might not have explored colour as extensively.

At the Castle of Tarasp the words of a poem by the South Korean Poet Ko Un read ‘The World is too Vast to live in a single place, or three, or four’ …. Italy, China, Brazil , the US, Patagonia, West Africa and Japan are all Places you have at some point called home… could the acquisition of Tarasp be a form of home coming?

I thought so, at the beginning. I thought that this would be maybe the peak, because it is a really big project. Which actually, began when Alma Zevi was working with me, we had been looking at the castle for a long time and one day I came up with this idea, because it was for sale for a long time. I remember her eyes really glowing, “Oh my God, this could be something.” And so I thought it would be really the peak of it. It would be like, that’s it. But actually, it’s never over.  Actually, it is more of an impulse to continue further. It’s not an end.


I’ve since moved to Brazil. I moved to Japan, I moved to Tonga. So I very much live to the words of this poem by Ko Un.

Can we talk more about this show, and its title, Silence?

I’ve been showing my work at Galerie Tschudi for quite a long time now. In December 2002, they opened a second gallery in Zuoz/Engadin, which became the main gallery in 2005. The gallery was purchased in 1999 but didn’t open until 2002 because they had to wait for the farmer to leave with his cows.


Then, two years ago, they opened this gallery in Zurich. When I saw it, I knew we were going to have a show here. I love the space; I like it when galleries are almost taller than they are long and wide.


This piece is called Silence, it’s a chimney from a foundry in Italy. It’s actually an objet trouvé, it was sitting outside for 20 years – it’s called, Silence – It doesn’t move, it doesn’t walk, so it’s very silent.


The paintings are self-portraits, or perhaps they are family portraits. It’s strange – often when I paint myself, I later realise it’s not me but my father. This can be quite shocking!


The piece upstairs is called Camel (Camel, 2004). It comprises sixteen sealed silver spheres, each nine inches in diameter, and each, we are told, contains a part of a camel. In art, I believe the narrative is important.


This sculpture was made in Agadez, Niger, where I met a silversmith who had crafted a sphere on a ring. I asked him, “Did you make this ring?” He replied, “Yeah, of course. Where else, right?” I was amazed that he could create this technically intricate piece without electricity. Then I asked, “Could you make a bigger sphere, the size of a melon?” He said yes.

I started to think about how I could turn this into a sculpture. In the desert, people eat camel meat, and there was a market nearby where we bought a whole camel. We put all its pieces inside each sphere.

This concept is very much like in The Little Prince. In the first drawing, it’s a boa that ate an elephant, right? Children believe it, but grown-ups don’t. Similarly, when I showed this piece in New York, people asked, “Hey, why is it called Camel?” I replied, “Because there is a camel inside!”


I’ve also been working on these drawings since 1983 in New York. They are always done on the same type of paper, and I continue to create them, with many completed in my studio in Brazil. These drawings are cold, and I’ve always thought about how to depict ice or coldness. Since it’s so hot in Brazil, these drawings serve as a kind of visual air conditioning.

Can you provide our readers some insider tips, or less obvious things to see and do in Zurich?

Go to Kunsthaus Zürich, to the second floor, and look at the Rothko painting. Then leave. 

Leave Zurich?!

Well, I meant you can leave the museum or you can leave Zurich! I’m very seldom in this city. But if I have a few hours, I go up there, I look at the Rothko painting, I love it. And then that’s enough.

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