Before the imagination can take hold...
Ian Whittlesea, Coline Milliard and Andrew Renton in conversation
Taken from the catalogue 'Becoming Invisible', published by Marlborough Contemporary in 2013. A full copy of the catalogue can be downloaded here >
You've known each other for a number of years. When and how did you end up first working together?
It was a long time ago – either 1996 or '97. Andrew had just started running a space called Cleveland. I'd been making a new group of paintings and didn't know what to do with them, so I asked some people at the studio and they suggested visiting Andrew. I turned up one day without an appointment, showed him my slides and we started talking.
You had beautiful slides! Cleveland was more of a corridor than a space, but I had hoped artists could risk the type of project they probably couldn't do in a more established gallery. It's not often that first dates work out so well. I remember being very moved by the work, the Studio Paintings especially. Ian and I shared a love of first generation conceptual art, but Ian had really understood something about how a work of art defines space around it in a very physical way. There were several projects he was developing at the time. I loved a series where he measured the light in friends' room or studio, for example, that was thoroughly rigorous and deeply personal at the same time. I was struck by how fully formed as a project the Studio Paintings were already.
It's even more fascinating to me now, as the series continues. But nothing had prepared me for the physicality of the paintings, for their materiality, for their sense of having been painted. They weren't graphic signs, but rather inherited that whole legacy of modernist painting. It was also immediately clear that one painting was enough to occupy an entire space and almost become the location prescribed in the painting itself. So we decided to exhibit one painting per week in the space and to change it every week over the course of the show. I must say it remains one of the most beautiful shows I have seen, and I am still surprised by how different each installation felt according to the location that was invoked during that particular week.
And there was a single painting in your office that stayed in place while the others changed: Thoreau's address – Walden Pond, Massachusetts. We also made a book in which I hand–wrote each of the addresses at which James Joyce lived at after his exile from Ireland, one per page. It was a precursor of the large Joyce painting I made later. The book was in a very small edition, rather like the publication for Becoming Invisible.
There's a nice story about that book. It was the only thing I ever sold in that gallery. I didn't know where to put the money, about twenty quid, I think. So Ian suggested we went for a curry with the cash. Did we ever go?
I'm still waiting...
Thinking about your Studio Paintings in relation to Becoming Invisible, I'm struck by how much your practice celebrates and relies on the power of imagination. The Studio Paintings are both very painterly and clearly anchored in the conceptual art lineage of an On Kawara, for example. Yet for me, the locus of the work is elsewhere, at the junction between the picture and the knowledge (accurate or eroneous) the beholder brings to it. Your work really demands the viewer's participation to truly function. This dual artwork–viewer relationship turns triangular in Becoming Invisible, because it also needs an active contribution from the piece's subjects. The gallery staff are asked to follow the exercises as accurately as possible in order to conjure up a concealing 'cloud' and the viewers are encouraged to suspend disbelief as they watch the resulting film. They can even try it at home with your publication, detailing the ritual that will allow them to 'disappear.' This leads me to something you said in a recent interview in Modern Painters: 'My work is never ironic, it's always sincere.' This absolute sincerity seems to be a cornerstone of your practice – if you don't believe in it yourself, your audience won't either. Do you agree?
Yes. I'll come back to sincerity, but it's interesting that you talk about imagination in relation to the work. I hope that my work acts first at a level before the imagination can take hold, that it directly affects the viewer in the moment of perception. So in the brief first moment of seeing (or reading) the Studio Paintings one actually is somewhere else, or the space one occupies has changed. Then after that the imagination, or reverie, can take over and the possibility occurs that anywhere can be a space of creation.
Maybe the best way to approach sincerity is through my translation of Yves Klein's book, Les fondements du Judo. I'd always known of the book, but when I finally looked at a copy it seemed obvious that I needed to know more about judo. And the only way to know more about judo was to start doing it. So I spent three years quite intensively practising at the Budokwai, which is where Klein trained when he was in London. It was a hard thing to do. I eventually got my black belt, but only after breaking my ankle, my nose and most of my ribs. In some ways learning judo was a demonstration of sincerity in response to the text. It gave me not just the knowledge to translate the book but the authority as well. That authority also allowed me to make the video The Demonstration of Gentleness, which shows identical twins Helen & Kathryn Cartwright performing an esoteric kata from Klein's book. It just wouldn't have been possible if I'd been seen as an outsider. Similarly, when I was working on reconstructing the Mazdaznan exercises that Johannes Itten taught his students at the Bauhaus it seemed essential to meet one of the few remaining Mazdaznans. She was very generous, and I hope that the finished book in some way repaid that generosity.
As to the new work, you say that the viewers are encouraged to suspend disbelief as they watch the video of the gallery staff performing the invisibility exercises, but I'm not sure that is true. Andrew and the others weren't acting, they were simply performing the exercises to the best of their ability, and I think that is evident in the intensity and concentration that you can see on the screen.
How was it for you, Andrew? And how does it feel to be working with an artist who wants you to become invisible?
In a weird kind of way, it's a bit of a relief! A space where I was not expected to 'direct' or 'curate'. And if sincerity is a key word for your practice so is trust. So one goes into the project in good faith. On the other hand, there's a double–take with the result. A very visible image of me that – like anyone who sees or hears themselves recorded – doesn't resemble what I think I look like. It's more telling as I look at the video now and I have a clear memory of the internal processes at work at the time. Actually, the experience was quite intense; more like prayer than meditation. I really had to concentrate on unfocussing. First an emptied subject, then formlessness, then me. It was disorientating. But I'm thinking now that it's a brilliant methodology for understanding abstraction. I wish I could do it again. Maybe quite regularly. I'm sure there would be great insights...
That relationship to abstraction was one of the first things that drew me to the exercises. First the participant has to imagine each of the seven colours of the spectrum filling the room in front of them. Then they condense each colour to form a small cloud and finally combine all of the colours to generate a glowing white cloud. By stepping into the cloud they become invisible. I couldn't think of a more useful set of visualisation exercises for a gallerist, who has to deal with colour and its relationship to space every day. Some of the works that accompany the video are an attempt to materialise those visualisations, so they inevitably resemble abstract paintings. There are two other paintings in the show that represent the trust or good faith that you mention. They show the silhouette of a figure demonstrating the correct posture for the exercises. I'd originally intended to use a generic figure, but the ones I finally made are of me. It ￼seemed only fair that I share a little of the exposure of Andrew and the others.
There's an inherent paradox in Becoming Invisible, since this 'exercise in disappearance' also renders the staff much more present within the exhibition than they would normally be. I see some connections with the Institutional Critique of Michael Asher, who relentlessly laid bare the mechanisms allowing art to exist. I'm thinking in particular of his 1974 exhibition at Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles, for which he removed the partition wall separating offices and exhibition space. How do you relate to this kind of practice?
It's possible that my show couldn't exist without Asher's, but I've always been more interested in the lyrical, and retinal, work of that era: so, Robert Irwin rather than Asher, Lawrence Weiner rather than Kosuth and Sol LeWitt rather than Art & Language. LeWitt is particularly important to me. I've used his handwritten Sentences on Conceptual Art of 1969 as the basis of a new typeface, and the first of the sentences 'Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.' is something to which I've consistently returned.
For years I struggled with that sentence of LeWitt's! I thought conceptual art had to be all about the rational to work. I believed that the texts offered by that generation artists were dry equivalents to objects in the world. But I think the opposite is true now, LeWitt was right all along, and there are indeed mystical, sometimes romantic, always subjective elements in conceptual practice.
There is definitely room for that within your work, I think. The painting Number Seven, for example. It might superficially index the Colour Cloud paintings, but it's also a numerologist's dream. The quotation from Newton that inhabits the painting, The Changing of Bodies into Light... resonates far beyond Newtonian physics. I could imagine it intoned in a yoga class, for example.
But whatever the associations, there is a 'thingness' to text that is at work here. It's not about quotation, but something to do with materialising concepts, given them presence within the space...
That 'thingness' of texts is one of the key reasons that I've continued to paint them by hand. It sometimes seems anachronistic when one is also working with printed text, projected text and text on posters, but there is something about the labour of their making that gives the paintings a resonance and a meaning beyond that of the text itself. When I was at art school I was taught by a generation of artists for whom the choice of abstraction or figuration was still a vital issue. At Chelsea there was virtual segregation – if you made figurative paintings you worked on the third floor, abstract or conceptual on the fourth floor. One of the things that painting text does is to completely sidestep that debate. As you paint a letter you aren't representing that letter, you are making the thing itself. It isn't a picture of the word: it IS the word.
And I suppose this also explains in part your relationship to the book as a medium. They definitely don't function as illustrations of other things, but somehow it feels important to have them in your hands, to work with. You've called the Klein book a 'transimile', but Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture and Becoming Invisible seem to complete a trilogy of illustrated, functional, guide books. Is that fair?
The three books are all instruction manuals for transcendent exercise, so they could be called a loose trilogy. Klein believed it was his practice of the katas described in Les fondements du Judo that enabled him to levitate. The Mazdaznan work attempts to elucidate and contextualise Itten's use of exercise at the Bauhaus. The movements he taught were designed to cause quite extreme physiological and perceptual changes through breath control and became central to the early days of the Bauhaus, yet because of squeamishness about the arcane they are mostly mentioned in passing and dismissed. The Becoming Invisible book is the only one where both the text and images are my own, but it brings together techniques from the literature of Rosicrucianism and theosophy.
You also mentioned illustration. When I was working on the drawings for the Mazdaznan book I became interested in what, if anything, separates art and illustration, and this book and show extend that.
In the end I'm not really sure if the Becoming Invisible text generated the images or the images the text, or if the works in the show are an aid to performing the visualisation rites, representations of an altered state, ritual objects or diagrams. Perhaps they are all of those things at the same time.
Your practice is steeped in art history, with references ranging from Cézanne to Walter De Maria (to name but a couple). Yet you clearly have a particular fondness for the late 1950s – early 1970s era, the cradle of conceptual art in the West. Is this a form of nostalgia?
I hope not! I'd rather see it as a continuation of an ongoing project. One of my main problems with art history as an academic pursuit is its need to see the world in terms of rupture, rather than as a stream of constantly interrelated objects. The conceptual artists that we have spoken of are my contemporaries, just as Cézanne, Rothko and William Blake are my contemporaries. The things they produced have just as much power now as when they were first made.