At home with artist Jeppe Hein
Even in a period of social distancing, the art world continues to turn. In our ongoing series, we go home, from home, with artists finding inspiration in isolation. Reached in Berlin, Jeppe Hein looks back on a decade of mindfulness and reflects on changing oneself in order to change the world
Moving museum benches, balls darting along roller-coaster tracks, mirror labyrinths, and a chorus of Tibetan singing bowls are just a few of the devices Jeppe Hein has used to elicit joy and wonder. Far-reaching in appeal while incisive and poignant, his work imparts truths that are particularly resonant in these turbulent times – to live in the here and now, to accept the dark in order to see the light, to remember that we all share the same air. In midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the artist has taken his Breathe With Me project to Instagram Live, in the form of a regular Wednesday evening workshop that teaches mindfulness through art. We catch up with him ahead of his most recent workshop to talk about conscious breathing, inner change, and the pursuit of happiness.
Wallpaper*: Where are you as we speak?
Jeppe Hein: I am sitting at my desk, at home in Berlin. I have been painting my breath onto the walls of my room in my weekly Wednesday workshops on Instagram. There are other canvases standing next to me, on which I have started to paint waves for our corridor. My new yoga mat with breathing stripes is lying on the floor, and artworks from artist friends surround me. My desk is full of tools, brushes, blank paper, notes and sketches. It has started to thunder and rain heavily, and it smells fresh and very good. I had a long day today, with a lot of meetings and decisions to be made, a bit like a roller-coaster, but I am looking forward to breathing with you and the world in my workshop tonight.
W*: What role has mindfulness played in your life?
JH: Mindfulness is about observing and perceiving things in detail. Taking a break from what you are doing, opening up to new experiences and giving new ideas more space. After my burnout in 2009, I had to change my life. I started walking a lot, practicing yoga, and doing breathing exercises, which have influenced my later artworks and my public project Breathe with Me. I still try to include these exercises in my daily life. When I prepare my ginger tea, take a shower, take a walk in the forest, or work in the garden – I always try to be in the here and now, be aware of my breath and control it, so that I feel well. That’s my goal, but of course, I don’t always achieve it.
W*: How has the pursuit of happiness informed your career as an artist?
JH: When I realised my first work Moving Wall #1, I noticed that it activated something in the observer – joy, surprise, wonder, and happiness. This activated something in me too. It inspires me to see how people overcome their boundaries, how they feel themselves, how they perceive their surroundings in a different way, and how they start a dialogue with one another. It helps me develop as an artist, but also as a person.
W*: You are known for creating artworks that encourage public interaction. What is the usual thought process behind these artworks, and what interactions have you found particularly rewarding?
JH: While my aim is not merely to entertain, I believe playfulness and participation make artworks more approachable– especially for those who are normally not in touch with art.
Art can make people laugh, and life is easier with a smile on your face – or as Charlie Chaplin said, ‘a day without laughter is a day wasted.’ I believe if an artwork puts a smile on your face and gets you in high spirits, it even makes your life better, at least momentarily. To see how people interact with my work, to be able to fascinate them, and sometimes even make them happy, makes me very happy too.
W*: What are the merits of engaging a number of different senses through your art?
JH: Our different senses enable us to experience ourselves, others, our surroundings, as well as the artwork in the very moment. The more we are within ourselves, and aware of ourselves and our surroundings, the more we can open up to someone else. We always talk about what we see when we visit an exhibition, but in my opinion, what we feel and experience is more important.
W*: Your Breathe With Me project received a lot of positive attention in New York last autumn. How has the project evolved since?
JH: Since its launch in September 2019, thousands of people around the world have downloaded our manual and taken Breathe with Me into their own lives. We continue to empower individuals, families, neighbours, communities, kindergartens, schools, museums, as well as other public institutions and organisations, to make the invisible visible, and share how we breathe around the world. We also aim to bring Breathe with Me to other significant locations worldwide, including Greenland, a place of great beauty and importance, where the climate change – rising temperatures, warming oceans and melting ice – could have the most extreme consequences. We are also developing a concept for the upcoming Global Citizen Festival.
W*: What has been the inspiration for the watercolour workshops that you have been hosting on Instagram Live?
JH: It’s again about sharing. Right now, we are all sitting in the same odd situation, where we feel a lot of different emotions, and it is not easy to breathe freely. So I started to do these workshops to lighten things up and to give people a tool to look at themselves and reflect on their feelings.
I’ve hosted the workshop in different ways. I did How do you feel like drawings, encouraging people to express their feelings by painting their faces. Then I did Breathing your wave, where I asked people to listen to their inner ocean, whether it is stormy or flat and calm.
I eventually decided to do Breathe with Me every time, since it is very minimal and the concept is easy to understand. Everyone knows how to breathe and how to paint a line while exhaling. It is the core of what we need now – breathing. It unites us all. I will continue to paint my breath onto the walls of my room at home, and make a whole breathing room out of it.
W*: You once created a neon piece that reads ‘All We Have Is Right Now’. How would you relate this work to our current context?
JH: All around the world, our current situation forces us to stop and actually look inside, whether we want to, and to realise that what we have around us is all we have. We have to feel and reflect much more than we are used to. This is the moment to do things differently on many levels: in our own lives, in our society, in our world. Because if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself.
W*: Has the experience of the ongoing lockdown prompted you to discover new themes for your work, or revisit old projects that you didn’t have time for?
JH: If this time has a positive aspect, it is that there is room for fresh ideas and new thoughts. I ask myself: What is really necessary? Which way have I come here, and do I want to continue or turn left, right or around? It has inspired me to create a few new works, but also made me realise how important works like Breathe with Me are in offering people a moment to feel themselves again.
W*: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or listened to in the last few weeks?
JH: The song It starts now by Blond:ish, which includes a speech by philosopher Alan Watts. §