It is widely assumed that everyone is ‘interdisciplinary’ nowadays, that we all work at the intersections of conventional disciplines. But if being flexible, multi-skilled and polymathic are the prerequisites of survival in today’s world, why do educators and art marketeers still find it imperative to maintain conditions of production that advocate specialist outcomes? The aim of this new anthology in the Occasional Table series is to critically reflect upon the role of specialism in art and society and to understand better how the claim of those who seek to transcend the parameters of specialisation contrasts to that of others who maintain that deep levels of achievement can only be attained within highly focused methods and forms.
When I was younger, and had time for such things, I had the first of several crises with my work as an artist. A gradual disillusionment with what I was making grew to the point where I could no longer make anything at all. It wasn’t, though, just that I could no longer make art. I wasn’t simply blocked like a writer. It was more all-consuming than that. I was bereft. I’d lost my faith. I’d lost not only the will to produce, but the ability to experience as well. I dutifully went to exhibitions but remained unmoved, unable see why something was art, and what it might mean if it were. For someone who’d spent all his adult life training to be an artist this was, to say the least, disturbing. Yet after several years of grieving for my loss I finally found a way round this crisis through an act of homage, by borrowing from the commitment of another artist.
I had at home a small catalogue on the work of On Kawara. The first half of the catalogue consisted of a series of pictures, taken at intervals, showing the production of one of Kawara’s paintings in the Today series. Since 1964 Kawara had been making paintings that showed the date of the painting’s production in white text on a dark ground. So, the painting in the catalogue said (or showed), “JUNE 9,1991” in white capitals on a dark blue-grey ground. The first photograph was of an empty desk, with the base of a lamp and a travel alarm clock in the top left corner. In the next photograph a blank canvas, some paint and a brush are laid out. Next, a dark brown ground is loosely brushed onto the canvas, followed by the blue-grey colour over the top of it. Then the delineation of the letters in pencil begins. Subsequent photographs show the letters being gradually filled in and refined with seven coats of white paint and a scalpel blade being used to remove any irregularities. The final photograph shows the finished painting in the center of the desk, the clock suggesting that just under twelve, or twenty-four, hours have passed since it was begun.
I used the catalogue as an instruction manual, and began to make paintings once more. Putting words into a space seemed to be the simplest way of changing it, and so I took Kawara’s technique, but rather than a date my paintings showed the names of places where other artists or writers had worked. 222 BOWERY, NEW YORK showed the address of one of Rothko’s studios, MARFA, TEXAS that of Donald Judd and GIVERNY that of Claude Monet. Each painting was a suggestion that anywhere could be a site of creation, and that, in the moment of the viewer’s reading, a space could be temporarily transformed.
One of the things that came to interest me about the painting of text was the way that it sidestepped all debates about representation: when one paints letters one isn’t painting an image of the thing, but the thing itself. Making the Studio Paintings (as they came to be called) also gave me some insight into Kawara’s practice. Like his texts, mine never had a sign-writer’s fluency. Each letter or number was laboured over and worked on, seeking to reproduce the digital perfection of Helvetica Neue. The control of hand and of brush, and of body and of breath, became a meditation – the repetition of a thousand tiny brushstrokes mirrored by the larger repetition of the letters of the text.
My paintings were all made in my studio, and their meaning came to depend upon that. But Kawara continued working while he travelled. When I visited an exhibition of his in Birmingham the day after the opening I got into the lift just as a very composed, traditionally dressed, Japanese woman was getting out, along with several young Japanese men who solici- tously opened the door to the street for her. The gallery staff told me that the woman was Kawara’s wife, and that he was in a hotel somewhere nearby, working on that day’s date painting. It seemed both noble and tragic that Kawara wasn’t viewing his own show, and it brought to mind Raymond Roussel who travelled the world in a coach that replicated his study at home – a moving, rattling version of Proust’s cork lined room, in which Roussel worked on his byzantine novels, each a mechanism to recapture the glory of writing his first poem.
Along with that of Roman Opalka, whose 1965 / 1 – ∞ series ended with his death in 2011, Kawara’s work can be seen as an act of secular reverence, of worship through repetition, as a life-work of devotion: not to an existing religion, cult or belief system, but to a self-imposed set of strictures and rules. Following Sol LeWitt’s dictum that ‘Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists’, Kawara performed painting as an act of prayer, not to a diety, but to the act itself and its place in a self-generated system. The text on the cover of the catalogue I used as an instruction manual, possibly translated from English into German and back again like a lot of art writing, put it like this:
On Kawara, the artist who lives in New York, has produced since the sixties the most extreme reductionist works of contemporary art. The artist, who is continually travelling, who refuses to give interviews, who will not allow photographs to be taken of him, who does not go to the private viewings of his own exhibitions and who quotes in his biography only the amount of days he has used, has developed an almost totally anonymous and yet unmistakable body of art.
Kawara sounds like the Clint Eastwood of absence, the James Bond of negation. No wonder it was his commitment that I sought to assume when I so carefully borrowed his technique. Having lost my own faith I found it again through that of another, and it was no less real for that.
Kawara was still alive at the moment of my appropriation (1994 or ‘95), a fact he regularly announced in another aspect of his work, telegrams sent to friends or collaborators, that stated baldly “I AM STILL ALIVE”, but the elaborate machine of his work stopped as simply as it began. The thing that it, in part, sought to allay finally came to pass: death, the void, absence. Now he is dead [29,771 days: December 24, 1932 to June 28, 2014] it’s interesting to see how the meanings and significance of his work has begun to shift. The underlying existential scream of the work, the march toward mortality that had previously been obscured by the remorseless valour of its production, becomes more evident the further we move from its moment. The relationship of the paintings to the void, which is so often associated with Kawara’s Japanese roots and tied to conceptual art’s loose association with Zen, seems now to speak as much to a post-war Beckettian angst. The repetition that appeared so heroic during Kawara’s life, can, in my darker moments, conjure the actors of Canterel’s tableau in Roussel’s Locus Solus, each dead but revived and compelled to repeatedly perform the most important moment of their lives.
Or, perhaps my attitude to the rigour, repetition, and grandeur of the Today series is complicated by my second crisis...
After around ten years of making nothing but text paintings, all of which ultimately derived from that small catalogue showing how Kawara made his, I once more stopped working. This time there was at least a definable nadir, a moment when I realised that it had to stop. The last painting I made then said simply “DESPAIR” in white text on a canvas seven-foot-long. Ostensibly a reference to the name Crusoe gives his island in Defoe’s book, it was an accurate summary of my attitude to art: sick at heart and sick of the place art had come to occupy in life, I stopped working once more.
This time, it took a more roundabout route to return me to my faith. My then-wife away for a year in Cambridge, and the solace of painting removed, I found that time expanded to the point where it needed to be filled. A series of coincidences meant that what came to occupy my time was judo. This was, in part, a conscious attempt to sneak up on art once more, to catch it while it looked the other way. I’d always known of the relationship between the artist Yves Klein and judo (it went along with knowing that Samuel Beckett played first-class cricket and that Camus was a goalkeeper), and this link gave me permission to take up a pursuit very far from the safety of the studio.
For the first six months or so of my practice I would sit in the coffee shop before my thrice-weekly class shaking with nerves. Don Draeger, historian of the martial arts, once described judo as ‘the great crippler’, and he was right. A large part of any martial arts training is learning to accept and manage pain. By the time I achieved my black belt four years later I’d broken my nose twice, my ankle and most of my ribs, along with separating my shoulder so badly that I couldn’t raise my arm above my head for a year. Klein’s involvement with judo was less calculating, but just as painful. It is said that his addiction to amphetamines, which ultimately led to his heart attack at the age of 34, was begun in Japan as an attempt to overcome his injuries and continue training.
Klein had started learning Savate (French boxing) as a teenager in Nice, but soon switched to judo. Its mixture of efficient violence, control and Japanese ritual obviously spoke deeply to something within him. He later said:
I became a judoka, and French boxing no longer interested me. I dreamed of nothing but the fantastic movements of judo that, thanks to the technique of “yielding” to an adversary’s force of attack, make it possible to overcome a more powerful adversary with a minimum of effort.
In 1949 Klein moved briefly to London, working in a framing shop and practicing judo at the Budokwai, one of the oldest clubs outside Japan, and the same place that – sixty years later – I began to learn judo. Klein trained alongside a group of working class toughs, bouncers from Soho strip clubs, and middle class intellectuals such as Christmas Humphreys, high court judge, theosophist and founder of the London Buddhist Society. The chief instructor was T.P. Leggett, head of the BBC’s Japanese Service and one of the first Europeans to study at the Kodokan in Tokyo where he received a rare 6th dan. Leggett published English translations of key texts on Zen Buddhism as well as many books on judo, and Klein was deeply impressed by his insistence on the intellectual and spiritual roots of judo, quoting several of Leggett’s more mystical pronouncements in his diary and using them in texts through out his life:
As my teacher in London said: “There are no laws of ballistics, time or equilibrium. We have all the possibilities of inventing a new equilibrium, or a new disequilibrium. But movement, life, what we possess in order to act at the bosom of the universe, is a constant force: slow, straight and infallible. It is, if I do not deceive myself, the infinite.”
In 1952 Klein himself travelled to Japan to study at the Kodokan, the home of judo. There he found his tokui waza. In Japanese tokui waza means something like ‘favourite technique’, but for the judoka its meaning is deeper. It’s the technique that becomes you, that unites thought and action, which becomes as instinctive as breathing. With a good tokui waza a man can beat anyone. Even if an opponent knows the technique is coming, it can overcome any defense. Some people achieve their tokui waza naturally – it is the movement that most suits their body type, or comes most easily. For others it is a struggle. Klein’s tokui waza was O Guruma, the large wheel, in which the attacker’s jump-in to make the throw generates the momentum to wheel the adversary over an outstretched leg. It is the throw that Klein is shown completing on the cover of Science et Vie magazine, and inevitably it is a throw that says something about Klein’s attitude to life. Judo is a game of attack and counter attack. A throw can only be made on someone who is off-balance and often the moment of maximum risk perversely comes when one attacks oneself. With O Guruma, Klein’s throw, the attacker leaves the ground as he hops in and around. There is a moment of weightlessness, of supreme vulnerability, before the attack succeeds.
However it is achieved the tokui waza can only become a useful weapon in combat if honed by Nagekomi and Uchikomi – repetitive practice. Nagekomi is throwing practice: completing the throw and repeating it. Klein would have done thousands of Nagekomi, but even on the sprung floor and tatami mats of the Kodokan it is a punishing exercise for the one who is thrown. Instead of Nagekomi most judo training is done through Uchikomi. This means turning in for the throw but not completing it. The best Uchikomi is done with total commitment, the movement performed at full speed and to the point of almost no return, where one more effort would see the throw completed. The attacker turns in and out, in and out, in and out, over and over again. Often performed in sets of ten, or fifty, or a hundred, each judoka will perform thousands of Uchikomi during their life and it is sometimes said that twenty-thousand Uchikomi is the minimum number needed to produce an effective technique.
The ultimate aim of Uchikomi, of repetition, can be described by a term taken from Zen: mushin no shin, or ‘mind of no mind’. The repetition is designed not just to imprint the technique, or to develop muscle memory, but to reach a point at which no conscious thought is required during a fight.
The body and mind act as one in a prolonged moment of transcendence. In this way it is reminiscent of Roussel’s life-long search for the ‘Gloire’, the sense of universal connectedness and triumph that accompanied the instinctual composition of his first poem and that he sought to recapture through the elaborate mechanisms of his subsequent work. For Klein it fed into his life-long pursuit of the void, eventually leading to his ill-fated attempt to unite his devotion to art with that of judo by opening the Judo Académie de Paris, its walls hung with monochrome paintings in International Klein Blue.
Finally, unlike in art where it can sometimes seem that all is conjecture, chance and reputation, judo is utterly unambiguous. You can either beat somebody or not. Your tokui waza works or it doesn’t. The pleasure, difficulty and pain involved in learning judo reduced my perception of the artworld to a more appropriate size and it helps to know that I could throw most curators and critics to the floor and strangle them unconscious or, if they were to do the same to me, endure it stoically. My pursuit of the mushin no shin of judo, and the confrontation with fear that combat engendered, allowed me to once more begin making art, or to make things that are helped into existence by calling them art, with a lighter heart. A total commitment to the ritual strictures and physical demands of one discipline meant I was able to recapture my belief, and joy, in another.