Text in the Expanded Field
An interview with Ian Whittlesea
The British artist Ian Whittlesea's principle medium is words, and he often addresses the lives and work of other artists and writers. His practice assumes many forms: from painstaking text-paintings that take years to make, to ephemeral posters and transient projections. In one series of paintings using white paint on a dark ground he painted the addresses of artists' studios, in another, all the placed lived in by James Joyce. For a recent exhibition he projected the first chapter of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, one word at a time for twelve hours. He has also designed Sol Sans (a typeface based on Sol LeWitt's hand-written Sentences on Conceptual Art).
In 2010 Whittlesea translated, typeset and printed in a 'transimile' of the original of Yves Klein's The Foundations of Judo with The Everyday Press. Whittlesea's new publication is Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture. Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha'nish, the founder of the Mazdaznan religion, published in 1902 the instruction manual Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture, which inspired the Swiss artist and teacher Johannes Itten, a devout follower of Mazdaznan, to lead his Bauhaus students in a series of physical exercises before each day's work. Whittlesea produced a newly illustrated and annotated edition, together with a set of posters depicting Kingston University Art & Design Foundation Course students performing the original Mazdaznan exercises.
Asymptote: Why did you choose this rather obscure book, Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture?
Ian Whittlesea: It actually began with a photograph, rather than the book. The photograph shows Johannes Itten and his students performing exercises on a roof in Berlin. It's often described as being the roof of the Bauhaus, but it's the roof of the private art school that Itten founded after he left the Bauhaus. Itten is important as an educator, and particularly because he began the Vorkurs, the course that evolved into the contemporary Foundation course. Since almost everyone who studies art now does a Foundation course it could be said that's Itten's ideas are built into the DNA of contemporary art.
Most articles and books about the Bauhaus mention that Itten was a devout Mazdaznan, and that he taught his students to follow the Mazdaznan vegetarian diet and exercise regime, but then they stop there. Nobody seemed to have done any work on what Mazdaznan really was or what the exercises consisted of. So my main motivation was simply to find out what the exercises were and how to perform them. I started reading about Mazdaznan and collecting related material, and soon realised why most people had avoided the subject!
Mazdaznan itself is difficult enough. It is a religion, but has also been described as a cult, and as with all religions it deals with things that rational art historians tend to shy away from. Its main focus is on an attention to breathing and diet as a way of self-realisation. It's founder, Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha'nish, claimed that by following his regime one could live to be 475 years old. Dr. Ha'nish was an extraordinary man who is said to have been variously a genius, a shepherd, a typesetter, a magician and a fraud, as well as friend and inspiration to a bewildering variety of figures including Marx, Ernst Haeckel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Annie Besant and J. H. Kellogg. It is claimed that Edison named the first lightbulb 'Mazda' in his honour and that Henry Ford attributed the dawn of the motor-age to Hanish's influence.
Apart from the mystical nature of Mazdaznan it also has a troubled history within Germany, where it was extremely popular between the wars. There were several Mazdaznan restaurants in Berlin, and active branches all over the country. The German strand of Mazdaznan took some of Dr. Ha'nish's original teachings about race and extended and expanded upon them to conform to the prevailing mood of pre-Nazi Germany. Itten's contribution to the first Bauhaus print portfolio was a drawing of a modernist building called "The House of The White Man", and he wrote articles for art magazines on "race-evolution". Yet the Mazdaznans believed that the term Aryan should include Indians, Jews and Persians, and so when the Nazis came to power it was inevitably proscribed along with a wide range of other esoteric and occult groups.
Asymptote: How did you end up with unusual format and binding of the book?
IW: The form of the book is partly based on a British edition of Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture that was published in 1940 under the Utility guidelines. To save paper, the unnamed editor removed a huge amount of supplementary material and kept just the description of the exercises, which was perfect for my purposes. It was still fiendishly difficult to follow what the text actually wanted you to do though, which led to the decision to illustrate the book.
I was lucky enough to work with the Stanley Picker Gallery at Kingston University who arranged for me to run a workshop with current Foundation students. I taught the students the exercises and then photographed them, using the photographs as source material to produce drawings for the book. The exercises consist of very simple bending and stretching movements, but they are combined with a form of breath control that generates quite rapid physiological and perceptual changes. The students were wonderful. They took the project completely seriously. I'd emphasized that they would be the first art students to perform the exercises properly for nearly 100 years and I think that struck a chord.
Once I had the drawings and the collection of archive material for the appendices I worked with the designer Joe Pochodzaj on the layout and typesetting. Joe then came up with the idea for the strange double binding that keeps the main text and the appendices both together and apart.
Asymptote: Are you a follower of Mazdaznan?
IW: No. But there are still a handful of practicing Mazdaznans in Britain and around the world. Most of them are now quite old. I was lucky enough to meet a very generous woman in her 80s who spoke to me about her faith, about the exercises and lent me some of her rare material on Mazdaznan. This was very useful in a practical sense, but also useful in that it made me more mindful of a responsibility to represent Mazdaznan as a living belief system rather than as a historical curiosity.
Asymptote: How would you say this project relates to your art practice in general?
IW: I think when I was younger I was overly conscious of what was and what wasn't part of my practice. Now I'm older I no longer care how my practice is perceived. I just do whatever seems most important at the time and trust that it will find a physical form that may be of interest to other people. If the work has a unifying element then it would be the use of text and an interest in the way that text can alter physical and psychological states of being.
A piece to which I always return is Robert Barry's work that says:
A place to which we can come, and for a while "be free to think about what we are going to do." (Marcuse)
In a very simple and direct way Barry's text can change one's perception of a space forever. It's also interesting that it is both a quotation and a translation...
Asymptote: What for you, as a visual artist, is the value in working with words?
IW: When I first started making text paintings one of the important things was that it allowed me to side step any debate about abstraction and representation. When you paint letters you are making the thing itself: as you paint a letter X you aren't making a representation of a letter X, it just is the letter X.
Now I guess my work could be called 'text in the expanded field'. So it would be possible to describe The Demonstration of Gentleness (a recent video that shows identical twins performing an esoteric judo kata) as a text work by virtue of its relationship to my translation of Yves Klein's book on judo that describes the same kata.
Ian Whittlesea is represented by Marlborough Contemporary, London, and his solo show Becoming Invisible will open there in March 2013. Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture is published by Stanley Picker Gallery (Kingston University) & Open Editions, London. The Foundations of Judo by Yves Klein, translated & typeset by Ian Whittlesea is published by The Everyday Press, London.