Elisabeth Millqvist I want to start by discussing your connection with another artist. At Wanås there is a piece by Dan Graham from 2000, Two Different Anamorphic Surfaces (see p. 60), it’s a two-way mirror pavilion situated by the lake. You and Dan Graham exhibited together in 2008 and you have an ongoing dialogue. Dan Graham has said that what your work shares with his is playfulness. The word playfulness often comes up in discussions of your art. How would you describe your interest in play?
Jeppe Hein I think it is very important not to limit yourself when developing a new idea. No barriers should affect your creativity. I always try to be open to new ways, methods, and impulses from all sides. This also means allowing myself to play. Later on the concept can be reduced so that it doesn’t become too funny or playful.
EM Do you actively think of children as an audience for your work?
JH Of course. There is a child inside all of us…
EM There is a famous film – Le Grand Cirque – from 1927, in which an elderly Alexander Calder plays with a circus that he’s constructed. He gives a mesmerizing performance using circus props, high-wire performers, a juggler, and a trumpeter clown, to name just a few, all made from bits and pieces of found material. A lion is featured in Calder’s circus and the theme of wild animals reappears in drawings such as The Wild Beast Cage. From 2009–2010 you had a residency at the Atelier Calder in France. You made the large piece la Cage during your stay there, which related to Calder’s circus. While all the pieces of Calder’s circus fit into a trunk, and he performed with them for the Parisian avant-garde, you enlarged both the cage and the circus. When you invited artists to participate in Circus Hein, the circus became collective again. Can you tell me how the cage functions in the context of your circus?
JH The circus cage is a reference to the tiger cages in traditional circus shows. Though in contrast to the traditional cage, people are allowed to enter this cage and take a closer look at the artworks presented inside instead of a lion or tiger. Walking through the entrance of the cage is like entering the circus arena. Inside the cage, visitors find themselves in the situation of both looking and being looked at. Like a tamer, visitors circulate around the cage observing the artworks positioned on pedestals. This opens up a new perspective that is strongly perceived as being part of the circus show.
EM The cage, made of slender, bended iron rods, becomes a stage for active participation instead of a struc-ture for separation. At Wanås you have placed the cage on the lake and described the site as a place for possible introspection. Tell me, what situation would you like to create?
JH The lake is at the centre of the Park and one of the poles of attraction for visitors – besides the exhibited sculptures of course. The lake is not usually accessible and can only be experienced through the lakefront. My idea is to offer visitors the opportunity to walk on a dock to a pontoon in the middle of the lake where the Cage will be placed. The work will be simultaneously open and secluded, creating a room for contemplation. The inside and outside will melt into each other, and people will feel the interplay between nature, art and, themselves.
EM You are also surrounding the lake with benches. The bench is something you’ve been working with since 2000 (see p. 4). They’re quite basic constructions, but with alterations. The seat might sink into the ground while its back turns into a loop. The artist Douglas Gordon has said, “Art is an excuse to have a dialogue.” Does this describe the effect you intend for your benches?
JH Yes, in a way, though I would say art should promote having a dialogue. As a kind of furniture that we encounter daily in urban architecture, benches can be both public space and places of private rest. On the one hand, benches provide an excellent opportunity for communication and social exchange. On the other hand, they offer moments of respite. Thus their design influences people’s public behaviour by giving them the opportunity to place themselves in a way that either discourages or encourages others to sit down next to them. Developing communicative benches and placing them in the public sphere is a method I consider to be a respectful approach to a space as an active political intervention. It is important for me to visualize the social aspect of benches while emphasizing the contradiction between common furniture and artwork. By combining the conventional notion of the bench as a basically functional one with an artistic approach, I try to create a dialogue between the work and the viewer. People are invited to play an active role by both using the benches as seating and by enlarging the opportunities of social practice offered by the bench.
EM Similar to your variation on the circus theme, you created a tivoli with the title ILOVIT and invited artists to contribute work to it as a part of the 2012 Copenhagen Art Festival. Again you formed an area for meeting and exchange, and at Wanås you have continued to expand this idea and turned the Art Gallery into a grand workshop area. The first the visitors meet is the text "WORK SHOP/RIGHT HERE/RIGHT NOW" (see cover). This time the focus is on happiness. Can you tell me about this new concept in your work?
JH If you ask people "What is happiness?", you receive a wide range of answers and definitions, because happiness is a very individual feeling, though it seems to be a common aim in life. The universal and at the same time extremely personal meanings of happiness, in connection with the possibility to create situations that somehow promote a happy mood, aroused my interest when dealing with this topic on various levels. Planned as future-oriented research, my intention is to approach the theme from an artistic point of view and to share these diverse perception – knowing that the result won’t just be one road to happiness, but instead an index of streets.
EM Your preoccupation with happiness has a personal background. After more than a decade of fast-paced work you burnt-out. Since then you have been rebuilding yourself. You have described your thoughts about the exhibition A Smile For You at Wanås and at Bonniers Konsthall and your work with happiness as “illustrating my personal journey to happiness on the one hand and on the other encouraging individuals to consider their individual idea.” Can you tell me about your fascination with the singing bowls?
JH Singing bowls are beautiful objects that produce pleasant sounds, but what fascinates me most about them is that they are able to stimulate something. If you listen to the sound of a single singing bowl or a singing bowl concert, you will perceive a holistic experience, which has an impact on your entire body. In addition, its long tradition piques my interest, and I’m trying to transfer this tradition to something new.
EM For the past few years you’ve been painting watercolours. There is a station in the Art Gallery where visitors can paint, and where your watercolours are exhibited. Can you describe how you have worked with the exhibited watercolours?
JH It was a daily ritual when I was sick, especially during the time when I could hardly speak to anyone and needed to let my mind wander or arrange my thoughts. Nowadays, I only do it once in a while, except when I am travelling, then I paint every day.
EM The singing bowl paintings and the watercolours you’re exhibiting function like suggestions for the visitors while offering the possibility of joining in. There is also a workshop station with sticks that visitors might use to make letters and create words or sentences. Much like the large-scale versions both indoors and outdoors that use branches to spell "Happiness" and "What is happiness to you?" This simple material reminds me that happiness is an ancient theme, and yet new discoveries are still being made on the subject. Today neuroscientists can actually measure the intensity of our emotional experiences to a very precise degree. There is a sound installation by the Buddhist teacher Winnie Rode described as music that supports vibrations. You are interested in how happiness might be stimulated; is that the basis for the sound room?
JH The sound installation is able to stimulate memories of happy moments, but in the end you can only find true happiness within yourself.
EM We encounter several round two-sided mirrors in your exhibition. When you enter the Art Gallery you have one on each side. You have worked with mirrors inspired by Calder’s kinetic sculptures, and also mirrors with different geometric shapes and angles. The mirror is one of your characteristic materials. In the mirror, we see ourselves, we see what is in front of us, and what is behind, and when we step away, someone else may take a turn. Are the mirrors in your exhibitions a constantly evolving self-portrait?
JH Yes, they are my and other people’s self-portraits. By looking at yourself in the mirror you start to reflect upon yourself literally. It also refers to the workshop theme written on the wall with sticks – right here right now – seeing your mirrored self reminds you of your current status.
EM Starting with “What is happiness to you?”, you ask four more questions about happiness; how does it smell, taste, sound, and what does it look like? The questions are asked in the exhibitions, in a newspaper campaign, on posters, and on postcards, and people are encouraged to send in their answers. You don’t just study happiness; you continue a dialogue about happiness by asking these questions and collecting the answers. I’m interested in your choice to connect the senses to the question of what happiness is; can you tell me more about that choice?
JH Sensory experience seems to play a vital role in people’s conception of happiness. Their definitions of happiness often refer to the senses; it’s a specific smell, sound, or feeling that they associate with happiness. Since my artworks also appeal to people’s senses, I am very interested in the connection of happiness to the senses.
EM Your work reveals the influence of the Minimalist tradition. Now you’ve brought pink, yellow, blue and green colour to the indoor walls. What is your relationship to colour?
JH Colours are able to create a specific mood or atmosphere, which influences people’s awareness and perception of a space, as well as their behaviour. I decided to use colours in order to provide a comfortable ambience that inspires visitors to be creative.
EM I have asked all of the artists exhibiting at Wanås this year your questions. To end this discussion, I’ve singled out one of them for you. Happiness: What does it smell like? Could you share your answer with us?
JH Happiness smells like my children, and the forest when you’ve just woken up and smell without being influenced by any other sensations.
Jeppe Hein was born 1974 in Copenhagen, he lives and works in Berlin. He studied at the Royal Danish Art Academy, Copenhagen, and Städelschule, Frankfurt. His solo exhibitions include, among others, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa (2011), Neues Museum, Nuremberg (2010), and ARoS Museum of Art in Aarhus (2009).