Not Vital. Dung, 1997.

Several years ago Vital was traveling in a rural part of Nepal and a man approached him and told him that his son had been very badly scalded by boiling milk (burns account for 1/3 of casualties among children since it is common for families to live in one room huts with an open fire for cooking and heating, and the children, without toys or other distractions, are attracted to the fire). The father, desperate, asked for Vital’s help.

Vital came to see the boy and then rented a bus to bring the family to the hospital in Katmandu (a six hour trip). When he returned later to see how the boy was, the family was still waiting outside because the only empty bed was in a private room which cost two dollars a day. Not arranged for the private room and returned each day to deliver medicine and visit.

Later, back in Switzerland, Vital had the idea to make 1000 unique sculptures by casting 1000 pieces of (sun-dried) cow dung in bronze and to use the proceeds from sales of the sculptures to build a burns hospital in Katmandu (since 1990 he has raised more than $300,000). Vital liked the idea of turning cow dung, something valuable in Nepal (as in India) and worthless in Switzerland, into something valuable in Switzerland (though worthless in Nepal) by casting it in bronze, and by doing so he could use “good burning” to help bad burning.

Our project began when we visited Vital in Sent, his village in the Swiss Alps. He had some copper plates in his studio and asked us if etchings could be made from cow dung. We developed a technique on the spot based on supplies we found in a hardware store a couple of villages away. That same day we hiked up a mountain with the two copper plates, a shovel and can of spray paint. Vital dropped cow dung (fresh, not dried, this time) from the shovel onto each plate, then I covered each with spray paint. When the paint (acting as a resist) was dry, I removed the dung (which acted as lift-ground) and washed the plates with water (similar to “sugar-lift”).

Back in New York our printers added an aquatint and proofed the plates. Vital was so happy with the results he decided he wanted to make twelve prints and mount them on cloth “like the old maps in school rooms”, a map of twelve islands. Eventually we arranged for Vital to work in a dairy farm in Pennsylvania to make ten additional plates.

It is interesting that those who have seen this work have come up with very different “readings” of it; some see it as an example (or parody) of “Action Painting” of the drip & splatter school, for some it has an oriental or Zen like feeling, some see it as a map, as Vital does, etc.

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