Holy Orders
Wallpaper|June 2017

Swiss artist Not Vital’s sculptural installation, in the remote Filipino province of Bataan, is worth a pilgrimage.

Daven Wu

At first blush, the decision by the Swiss artist Not Vital to build his latest installation – a concrete chapel set high on a windswept slope – in Bataan was entirely appropriate. Not far from this spot, in April 1942, the victorious Japanese army ordered around 76,000 Filipino and American POW soldiers to begin what eventually became known as the Bataan Death March towards Camp O’Donnell, around 100km away in Tarlac. Barely 54,000 soldiers survived the ordeal.

Vital is, however, careful not to characterise the chapel as a memorial to the atrocity. It is not consecrated, nor is it, despite the abstract references inside to The Last Supper – a giant porcelain piece by Vital – cast specifically to the Christian faith. That notion is discounted by an antique wooden statue of the rice goddess Bulol, carved by the Ifugao tribe in the northern Filipino provinces, that hangs on one of the rough-hewn interior concrete walls.

For Vital, the chapel is the latest in a line of surrealist buildings cum installations he has built out of local materials in remote locations around the world, such as Tschlin, Switzerland and Agadez, Niger. Getting here is, to put it bluntly, a schlepp. It’s a bone-crunching, jaw-smashing drive through a gully hemmed in by shadowy jungle and pockmarked with huge rocks, before you emerge into a sun-blasted plain on which the chapel sits, framed by low hillocks and lazily grazing cattle. In the monsoon months, the road is all but impassable by mechanical means; during construction, bags of concrete had to be brought in by water buffalos when rain turned the gully into a muddy river.

For Vital and his patron, Bellas Artes Projects – a non-profit arts foundation that Jam Acuzar set up in 2013 and runs from her father’s resort Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in the nearby town of Bagac – the relative inaccessibility of the chapel is kind of the point. ‘It needed to be diffcult to get to,’ says Vital, who, at 69, cuts a handsome, dignified figure that’s entirely in keeping with his stature as an eccentric statesman of the arts. ‘The site becomes something like a myth, almost a pilgrimage.’

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