Caleb Landry Jones

Having acted for luminaries such as David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, Texas-born issue 28 cover star Caleb Landry Jones embodies an archetypal otherness, made all the more so through his avant-garde music. Sonic outlaws, authentic art statements and the darker angels of our nature: Welcome to his world

Jones wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello SSS21 throughout

“You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated – cool to the point of not feeling anything.
Nothing is real with us.” 

― SE Hinton, The Outsiders

Civilisation has always had a fascination with its outsiders, and perhaps more expressly, its rebels – those societal outlanders whose very existence seems antithetical to the maintenance of a consensual white-picket-fence status quo, or quote-unquote reality. This enchantment exists across most artistic mediums in the pantheon of Western culture, but it has some particularly frazzled outer edges in the acid-soaked sonic universe of ’60s psyche – perhaps best personified by the troubled likes of Kim Fowley, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek. While these iconic counter-culture figures belong firmly to the lysergic mythology of another era, it could be argued that they have something of a contemporary avatar in the form of our cover star Caleb Landry Jones – a 31-year-old ball of frenetic energy from Texas best known for his cameos of drugged-up, twitchy, switchblade-happy types in work by some of the most iconic auteurs of our era (David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers… the list goes on).

When he’s not busy ranting about suicide for David Lynch, or being unceremoniously thrown out of windows by the likes of Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), the charismatic actor embodies a somewhat archetypal otherness in real-life – not only in his often unkempt personal style and openness about the regular ingestion of what seems to be a fairly profound weight of marijuana, but also in his (lesser-known) avant-garde musical output. This sonic aspect of his creative verve first reached an audience in 2020 with the release of his debut album The Mother Stone, on Sacred Bones Records – a deeply anti-commercial experience in which a Beefheart-esque sensibility (circa Trout Mask Replica) is married with the tongue-in-cheek fuck-everything vibe of early-’90s intellectual super freaks, such as Ween and Butthole Surfers. Suffice to say, it’s a record that effortlessly pinballs around an otherworldly psychedelic universe, and is one that is increasingly name-checked in muso circles as the epitome of retro-fetishist cool – being favourably compared by some to the likes of the legendary White Album by The Beatles.

It’s the psyche-troubadour Caleb Landry Jones, rather than the actor, that I have in mind to interview when I hit him up on a Zoom call from London in order to discuss the upcoming chapter in his musical odyssey, which has been heralded by the release of the single ‘I’m on Top of the World’ – a track that I suggest to him wouldn’t sound out of place on an early offering by The Kinks (…had north London’s finest whimsical dandies been mainlining DMT). “The Kinks! It’s always The Kinks,” enthuses Landry Jones while steadying his blacked-out smartphone to reveal a pair of feral blue eyes and a rat’s nest of long, tousled hair. I’m immediately struck that he resembles one of the hippies living on Spahn Movie Ranch in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and, as it turns out, he’s actually hiding out from the global pandemic in a barn on his parents’ farm in Texas. It seems apparent that like so many American outsiders, his roots lie firmly in her vast open spaces. “Man, I was obsessed with The Kinks when I was about 20 years old and I bought The Village Green Preservation Society. I was living in New Orleans and listening to that album all the time. I just couldn’t get enough of that record, even if a lot of its riffs are stolen from Howlin’ Wolf.” He half-laughs half-coughs as he mentions the blues legend, breaking out a lupine grin that feels as though it might crack the screen that divides us – it’s emblematic of an enthusiastic zeal that proves infectious.

“When you’re in certain pockets of making music, or certain aspects of making, just like with filmmaking, there’s certain moments where you’re allowed this kind of freedom, you know?” offers the multi-instrumentalist at an all-tabs-open pace when I kick off by asking what he finds creatively fulfilling about the process of music-making, as opposed to that of taking on a role. “The music is on my own dime, and it’s all about what can happen in the process. I don’t have any conception of what I’m doing sometimes when I sit down at the piano, except maybe a feeling?” he continues, displaying a tendency to almost ask himself questions as he rockets along a meandering but enlightening internal freeway of thought. “I just try to see how close I can get to what’s in my head, and how exact I can get it, and then to see whether or not it will become something completely different. I might not feel sad, but sadness comes out; I might feel angry, but somehow the sounds come out kind of jolly. There’s no control, but maybe just a possibility of something extraordinary happening, from kind of just letting whatever happens, happen.”

And what happens is a rare kind of weird that is all at once an ironic vaudevillian psyche-rock circus and a deeply heartfelt outpouring of emotion – crash landing somewhere in the surreal yet emotive landscape of near-mythic artists such as Vivian Stanshall and Daniel Johnston. “Sometimes you can hear things in music and see things in art, and it’s kind of naked – you can see struggle there, or something, and I love that,” he says, when I ask if the latter lo-fi legend is an influence. “I was actually watching footage of Daniel Johnston playing in a record store somewhere in Austin just the other day, and, you know, he begins crying while he’s talking about the Judgement. He’s going through something right there! He’s letting it all hang out. It just gives me so much peace and joy to see people do that,” he continues apace. “I guess I’m very drawn to artists that do their own thing; I really identify with that, and I think it’s up to artists and folks to keep pushing for that space. I’m so sick of all the talk about a little materialistic world, and the aspects of life that, you know, the magazines show you…” he laughs, a little conspiratorially, as if checking his manners. 

This seeming commitment to a kind of authentic honesty or emotion in art begs the question as to whether there’s a self-healing aspect to the reason he himself makes music? “Oh yeah. A hundred per cent, man. It sounds stupid, but when music doesn’t do it, those are the scary, scary times. When you sit down at the piano because you’re about to do something really stupid, you are giving yourself the shot to let this be the stupid thing that you do, and that it can maybe turn into something. When that doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do, you know? And sometimes that doesn’t work, and that’s really tough.”

Given some of the visceral places he has been to as an actor, not least the suicidal abusive junkie boyfriend of Amanda Seyfried’s wide-eyed high-school beauty in David Lynch’s opus Twin Peaks: The Return, I wonder if music is a way for him to battle certain real-life demons. “I definitely got some kind of sick disease in my head at 18, or something like that, and it was the sense that this ride wasn’t going to last too long,” he explains. “I was on a very self-destructive path in a lot of ways, and that feeling was just in my head all the time. It felt kind of like the Cheshire Cat sitting up there in the tree – just always there. I hated it, and I didn’t know what to do about it, but every time I made music it felt like I was making sense of something; even if I listened back and it was complete nonsense, it felt like there was something there.”

I can’t help but think it’s significant that Landry Jones seeks some kind of salvation in music because his childhood entrée into a musical universe first came in the environs of the church, playing with his friend in a worship group: “Church was the first kind of space I could make music, but me and my buddy couldn’t make the noises we wanted to make, because as kids we were already way into stuff that was never going to be in the Sunday worship.” But it isn’t only music that has arguably saved him from the darker angels of his nature; acting also proved cathartic in allowing him to actually play them out. “I didn’t scream very much as a teenager… I didn’t yell, I didn’t get angry. There was this aggression in certain aspects of me that was really kind of dormant,” he remembers. “I didn’t know how to allow myself to have these feelings, but some of these characters that I’ve gotten to play have allowed me to kind of push myself in ways that I’ve always been afraid to. It has definitely forced me to look at myself in a lot of different ways and kind of stretch a lot of the things that I was too afraid to look at, or didn’t know how to talk about. I mean, I have been so lucky with the directors I’ve worked with – people I really think of as artists. When I was a kid, to think I would even work with one of those directors, man…”

At this point in our conversation, his face suddenly lights up, and he smiles as his girlfriend arrives with a ready-made joint for him, which he begins to smoke with an almost tangible sense of relief. It makes me think of a quote from Cronenberg’s celluloid vision of Naked Lunch, stolen by Bomb The Bass to introduce their 1995 album Clear: “I think it’s time we discussed your, ah, philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavour.” So I ask him why he smokes pot, and what happens if he doesn’t. “I don’t like finding out, because the time before that it was, yeah… so messy,” he says, taking a long drag. “Since I was 20, I haven’t really wanted to find out too much what life will be like otherwise, because it’s become such a way of…” He breaks off, thoughtfully, then leans into the screen and animatedly asks me if I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Thankfully, I have, and it helps me make some sense of his next metaphorical leap (spoiler alert: at the end of the 1972 sci-fi classic, we leave its astronaut protagonist wandering inside a facsimile of his childhood home on Earth drawn from his own memory, safely floating somewhere in outer space, surrounded by the gentle rain of a sentient ocean). “I guess I like to think of this cloud being around my head, just like this kind of rain around the house in Solaris, and that kind of keeps everything in; otherwise, I can feel like things are happening too fast, or emotions or thoughts are maybe going too fast… I don’t know,” he says, breaking off to further ponder the creative value of the psychoactive herb. “I’ll smoke to write a song, and then, when I start recording, I won’t smoke anymore. By the time I’m done recording, I won’t be high. I edit sober and then I get high again, so then I have to re-edit again. I feel like all those things need to happen, so that other things can happen – there’s no time that goes to waste, as long as you’re, you know, doing it.”

There being no time to waste seems to be absolutely key to Landry Jones’s creative drive, and it’s clear he is for a no-holds-barred approach to creating, rather than one defined by preachy pseudo-moral parameters. “I think it’s becoming more and more important for people to get out there and make stuff and not give two fucks,” he says. “I think it’s vital. I was kind of ranting a bit about this to my girlfriend last night, but I do think there is this responsibility that we have to keep pushing ourselves to keep doing whatever we think is right for ourselves; I mean… what’s beautiful?” There is another pause as this sudden questioning self-reflection ricochets across his skull. “Some people, like my brother, believe there is beauty, and then there’s ugly, and that is definitive, you know? Just like there’s good and evil. But I don’t believe that. I know that sometimes I look at things and I go – that’s beautiful, but it’s also disgusting. I tend to then think back to the Greeks, and how you were not allowed to play this note or play that note because it would rub someone the wrong way. How far does that go?”

It’s a salient and refreshing point of view in an era seemingly defined by wannabe celebrity and fear of social-media censure. In fact, it seems for Landry Jones there should be almost no constriction to the limits of self-actualisation, which might go some way to explain why he is drawn to playing anti-heroes on-screen, and making music that is genuinely impossible to pigeonhole. “You know, I’d like to think that everything happens for a reason,” he says, when I ask him if he is fatalistic, or believes in a random sequential order of things, as we draw to the close of what has been nothing less than an exhilarating rollercoaster of a conversation. “But then some things happen and you go, Okay… if that happened for a reason, then what the hell am I supposed to get from it? There is probably always something that I’m supposed to learn, though, from everything.” These final thoughts, before we amiably wave goodbye across the digital stratosphere, call to mind the sentiment of another outsider with a penchant for exploring the vast inner landscapes of the human soul – that one need only to buy the ticket, and take the ride.

This story is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Jones wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello SSS21 throughout

Photography Rahim Fortune

Styling Jai Midgette

Grooming Heather Fitzgerald

Production The Production Factory NY & Red Roan Productions

Modern Spectacle

Port catches up with creative polymath JP Pryor to discuss shared cultural touch-points, consumer capitalism and the joy of writing

  

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself…This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

– Abraham Maslow

JP Pryor is a renaissance man for the 21st Century – part poet, post-punk, journalist, creative director, philosopher, filmmaker and musician. For all the fields he has turned his hand to, writing is the thread that runs through them all. Acting as Dazed’s Arts and Culture editor for a number of years, Pryor has also written for Flaunt, TANK, AnOther, and most recently, is the cultural director of Mortimer House in London’s Fitzrovia. There, in addition to overseeing the Art Deco private members club and workspace based on psychoanalyst Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation, he runs the newly launched publishing arm The Notebook, featuring interviews with and essays from photographer Miles Aldridge, poet Robert Montgomery and actor and film maker Greta Bellamacina, among others. His debut novel Spectacles might well contain one of the best blurb recommendations I’ve ever read: “a Kafka-on-viagra-esque vision of a universe perverted and impotent to change, interspersed with measured Keatsian romanticism – open nerves drenched in tears”.

He is a mischievous, wry and measured subject, adept at answering questions because he is the one normally asking them, having interviewed cultural icons such as David Lynch, Howard Marks and Werner Herzog. Together over coffee, we tumbled down a rabbit hole that covered purposeless capitalism, technological alienation and the joy of interviews.

Photography Easton Schirra

The phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, is a potentially outdated adage. Do you think it’s necessary to be a polymath in today’s creative industry – are you?

Everything I do creatively, at the core of it, is writing. It comes from communication, the written word. If you’re trying to create a character or brand or identity, language is the first and most important place to go. It comes before visual identity. I’ve become more zen, or at ease with the fact that all the different pathways I’ve followed have coalesced into an acceptance of that. I’m most interested in people and the exchange of ideas. Even with my commercial projects, there is an element of bringing some subversive cultural element into it. Previously, you could punctuate culture. To actually inspire people, you have to punctuate or get into the mainstream. That was probably more plausible ten years ago, but now, how do you actually cut through the noise these days?

We live in a heavily media-saturated environment

We have all these micro cultures and sub strata’s of culture – there is no real mainstream now. If you took the Bill Grundy Sex Pistol’s moment in the 70s, where they called him a dirty old fucker – that classic bit of TV – the only reason that galvanised an entire movement was because millions and millions of people had a shared cultural moment when they saw it. The message or anti-establishment stance – glib as it may have been – had the opportunity to resonate with lots of young people. It’s almost impossible to do that now. If you look at entertainment culture, you don’t have shared cultural touch-points anymore and I don’t know what the long-term effect of that will be on society.

What role has technology had in this?

One of the biggest side effects of a social media culture is the flattening of all information so there’s no hierarchy to what you’re receiving. Without curated information it’s just a sea of data. The enhanced individual of the near future, is already being guided by cookies into certain echo chambers or things we’re told we like or don’t like. There’s no accidental discovery, or very little, anymore. Which is propaganda by any other name. In this era of consumer capitalism in overdrive, there’s something absurd about the pursuit of profit. I’m by no means the first to say this, but the notion of an unending need for ‘growth’ is implausible and impossible to sustain. What’s going to stop this gargantuan appetite for more and more and more? I find it very tricky to get my head round it. It’s a purposeless purpose.

We’ve become disassociated with the act of making or understanding how things work. We’ve been able to silo and separate the means of labour to grow quickly but to the expense of really understanding. People have essentially become more and more isolated units of consumption. Everything is also going through a cipher of smartphone culture so now we have a generation having less sex than any previous to them. Smartphones might be disrupting intimacy because we no longer have three channels forcing us to confront each other’s physicality, responding to physiological urges. We’re getting our dopamine hits in an isolated bubble now

Photography Easton Schirra

This is something my generation struggles with – we have to fill moments constantly, we’re terrified of dead time, waiting, being with ourselves

My generation, people in their 40s, we’re carrying this density of the era before the digital natives, over. Just the appreciation of the moment or simply being, without feeling like it has to be art directed into some digestible piece of information that has to be uploaded into the digital sphere, is very weird.

These are weird times. I’m not sure whether every generation goes through this luddite cycle, but nothing has come close to this technological intrusion or revolution, has it?

There hasn’t. The only thing you could point at was the Walkman in the 80, zombies walking around with their own soundtracks!

Disruption, like innovation, fast became a byword for anything particularly new. How would you personally define it, or do you have any practical examples of disruption done well?

It’s difficult in the advertising or media sphere. Disruption is still valid though. The Nike advert with Colin Kaepernick – those sorts of things are politically disruptive, so there’s definitely still room for it. There was a great quote from Alan Moore about the revival of the tv show Twin Peaks though – “if everything is weird, nothing is weird.” You could say the same about disruption in the world of media. If there are no traditional parameters you’re working within, how can you disrupt them? Trump and Brexit – we’re living at a time of complete political disruption – the whole thing is turning on its fucking head, goal posts being shifted. In the long term, we may see the changing of the rules of the old guard may be a necessary tangle. Once these words become glib buzzwords though, they do lose real meaning, but you can still pinpoint disruptive acts within society.

It’s sometimes uncomfortable when a brand acts like they stand for something beyond profit, or co-opt a cause, but then again, maybe there are positive consequences?

It’s posturing to a degree, for sure, but there may also be an element of them stepping up to the mantle because some of these corporate bodies are worth more GDP than certain countries. If we are living under corporate overlords, they’re going to have a political voice regardless. Cynically you would say it’s still false, only there to sell x product. The true rebellion at the moment I suppose, is to switch off, unplug and withhold your engagement.

Photography Easton Schirra

When & why did you join Mortimer House?

I started working at Mortimer House from the beginning after meeting the founder, Guy Ivesha. I began working on the communications after he said he wanted to create a space based on the hierarchy of needs by Maslow. The building is intended to have an ‘unplugging atmosphere’, even though lots of people work here in their computers. We have lots of interesting people here, Dr Stephanie Kuku, for example, is currently working on an app that offers affordable healthcare.

I’ve worked in Fitzrovia myself for the past five years, it’s an interesting and peaceful place to be

It’s always been a no man’s land, strangely empty part of London. Very quiet. When I initially started working here, I wanted to celebrate the literary history of the area, inviting people like Clare Conville from Conville & Walsh, a well-respected publisher, to run a book club. I brought in people like Stoddart Martin to run a poetry speakeasy, Joy Lo Dico from the Financial Times does her Trouble club here. All of these things are very much about the exchange of ideas. I’m extremely happy and lucky to be working here. It’s nice to have a place that brings people together, that feels down-to-earth and unpretentious. 

How hard is it to build an offline or online community?

It’s easier to build an offline community because an online community is so often fraudulent. Instagram is a misnomer, it’s the greatest trick the devil ever pulled. It’s definitely the Emperor’s New Clothes. Even if you’re Bella Hadid, most of those gazillion followers are bots. What does it mean? What’s the fucking point of it, really? There are huge bot farms creating fake profiles. It’s much more meaningful to create an offline community, because if you physically meet and talk with people, you have all the nuance of the physicality of being, you have rapport. To maintain it is hard, but bringing people together in real-time, it’s quite rewarding. It’s more honest, more immediate, more compassionate.

What have been some of your most illuminating interviews via The Notebook?

It’s a young publication, but the idea of people talking about things not necessarily their discipline, but things that inspire them, is a nice angle. The artist Charlotte Colbert was very interesting – she talked about her meeting with the Kogi tribe in Colombia and how they have a radically different view of reality. They’re a remote, isolated tribe and have an almost aboriginal dream-time view of things. Another example would be Tamara Arbib, the founder of Rebel Kitchen. Her focus was ayahuasca and plant medicines, the mycelial web of tissue that interconnects all living beings. Most interviews I’ve done over the years have been focused on the subject’s conception of what being human is, their own definition. Whether it’s beauty or compassion or grace. Being an interviewer, that’s what really drives me, there’s an element of seeking and collecting these perspectives, pooling so many different opinions. It sounds naff to say, but it expands your mind, broaden your horizons.

It also makes for great dinner chat because you’re relatively well-schooled in a number of different things at surface, shallow level. But it does lead you down these avenues where you get lost and uncover a subject you previously knew nothing about

You always need to keep learning in order to truly feel alive, rather than be static. In my career, I’ve been part of a world in transition, in which you no longer join a company and remain there for 30 years, unchanged. My working life is pretty multi-faceted, so I’m always juggling a lot of different balls.

Would you describe your work as inter- or multi-disciplinary?

To a degree. It all comes back to the core of writing though. I’m very visually stimulated so I like to create visual work and produce occasional short films. The Generation OS13 film I did with Michael Oswald was a great experience. We created an Adam Curtis-esque documentary that had Billy Childish and Saul Williams in it, all about the banking crisis. I’ve also always loved music – my band The Sirens of Titan have an album coming out soon, produced by the wonderful Luke Buttery. 

Do you find yourself, like me, distracted by ten different projects at a time, cursing yourself for being a magpie?

That affliction is a double edged sword – I definitely have that though. I follow different routes at different times. I spent three years studying acting, a lot of time in my early 20s playing in rock n roll bands and the writing and editing came later, creative direction after that. It’s nearly ten years since I wrote my novel Spectacles and it’s time for me to write another novel, but you just have to allow things to happen when they happen.

Where did Spectacles come from?

I had a happy childhood but my best friend suffered a great deal, so much so that he came to live with my family. Around the time my mother passed away, someone else close to us had a breakdown and ended up sectioned, which did not end well. Also, my high-achieving girlfriend at the time had anorexia nervosa, so, there was a lot of darkness around me. I saw a lot of self-harm growing up, despite growing up as a lower-middle class kid in North London. I definitely got side-tracked by some wrong turns very early on and I’ve always had a fascination with the cruelty and dark side of the human animal. I’m curious about how awful and vindictive and manipulative people can be. How violent we can be to one another. We must be operating at a very low frequency for all of these things to be happening in the world. Some of the things that happen on this planet are completely beyond comprehension. I guess I’m fired by the idea of catharsis and redemption. If there’s some light that can come though at the end of the violence, that fascinates me.

Charles Zana: Think About the Future

In the wake of his highly acclaimed show Utopia at Tournabuoni, Paris, the celebrated architect Charles Zana talks to JP Pryor about the power of multi-disciplinary creativity, and the need for collective action in the contemporary paradigm

It could be argued that in the age of post-capitalism and multiple streams of information we have lost a vitality of cultural production that shares a common mission to transform society, be that one that is conscious or unconscious in nature. The incredible speed and pressure of the art market par example leaves little room for radical multi-disciplinary departures that collectively challenge the fabric of society in the way that artists and designers did in a past that, perhaps, had a simpler clarity. The insurgent collective spirit that was, for example, apparent in art, design and architecture in post-fascist Italy could be argued to be as the last great utopic art project of the modern era, and something that can never now be repeated. 

Artists and designers such as Gaetano PesceEttore Sottsass, Lucio Fontana and Alighiero Boetti, created a radical departure from a bitter history of fascist rule, radically transforming the cultural landscape not only of Italy, but the entire Western world. In our accelerated era of commercialism could we ever witness the same kind of mass movement–one that forwarded entirely new ideas of utopic cultural production? This was exactly what the AD1000 architect Charles Zana approached this year in Utopia, an exhibition that conceptually rewired the collection of the Tournabuoni Gallery pairing artists, designers and architects in strangely affecting contemplations that juxtaposed creatives who sought to tear down every conceivable boundary between art and design in a moment of utopic defiance. Here, at the closing of one of the most interesting exhibitions in recent years, the architect who holds the distinguished Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres talks excusively to Port about the collective creative unconscious, and the importance of collective creative hope in our own challenging era.

Concetto spaziale, Attesa, by Lucio Fontana, 1965. © Tornabuoni Art

In what sense do you consider the cultural production of artists, architects and designers in the Post-WWII era to share a utopic aspect?

If you look at Italian art in the 50s, 60s and 70s there is a huge story around utopic art, architecture and design, and all of those people really were breaking down the rules and frontiers between the disciplines. The period was just uniquely important for cultural production in terms of the political and cultural scene. Because so many of those architects and designers in that era were much more like conceptual utopian artists than what you might consider a straight architect or designer. I mean, obviously, it is always great when you can create dialogue between art and design, but to bring some of the best Italian artists and architects together–well, this is my idea of really exploring utopia, to create a dialogue that is not about art history, but about raw emotion and new juxtapositions that create change. 

Photography: Matthieu Salvaing

Why do you feel the period was so unique?

It was, of course, a very strange period in in Italy because people were still trying to break from those memories of Mussolini, and a lot of groups were burgeoning into life, such as the arte povera movement – very radical movements, you know – very, very important groups in terms of how society is now viewed. And those groups were not working on function, they were not working on aesthetic, they were not working in commercial pursuit–they were much more working on what is behind the frame; what is behind the construction; it’s almost something I cannot describe but it was utopic, in that in both design and art, all of these people were working on ideas, very radical ideas. 

Why do you refer to the period as one defined by emotion over aesthetic?

Because I consider the feeling in all the work to be very important–in that period of cultural production, architects, artists and designers were thinking much more about the power that lives within a symbol. There was an intangible collective unconscious at work, in a way, because not all these people were even aware of each other, but at the same time they were pushing boundaries in similar ways–from the aesthetic to the politic, from the metaphysical to the communistic. They were all engaged politically at that time, and there was a kind of unspoken manifesto trying to break a systematic way of thinking, or break with the past. There was a link between heart, art and design in many ways that was utterly unique.  

Rare cabinet Barbarella by Ettore Sottsass,1966 with L’addio dell’amico che parte all’amico che rimane, by Giorgio de Chirico, 1950. Photography Jacques Pépion

Do you think that spirit has been in some way swallowed up in the modern by capitalism and commercial pursuit?

Well, throughout history people like Picasso were always in the market–art and design has always been commercially led. But I think the point is more that today there are just so many artists, so many fairs, and so on, that it’s much, much more complicated for an artist or architect today to emerge and make a point. I think it is for this reason that it is hard to see a real school or movement emerge, and, for me, that has maybe been true for the last 20 years. And, of course, when you don’t have a discernible movement, as such, it’s complicated to see the way certain things knit together, or to witness all those people working for a common idea or cause. Having said all of that, I think it is often only in retrospect that you can see the interesting associations in art and design come to the fore. There is also the reality that the accelerated pressure of the contemporary market makes it very difficult for the opportunity for an artist or designer to have a long time of maturation that way they could in the past. 

Photography: Matthieu Salvaing

Are we lacking that radical, or if you like, utopian, spirit in art and design in the contemporary paradigm?

It’s a very interesting question. These days are certainly very crucial but I think that from the period I have examined, there is a difference in the political sense, yes. I think it’s a very complicated time now to be engaged politically, and I don’t think that architects and artists are still engaged in the same way as they once were. There are people engaged conceptually for change, of course, but they don’t want to be political, with a few exceptions. I think that people like Formafantasma are perhaps carrying that multi-disciplinary baton in the modern era, and are perhaps working in the same mood, in that they first think about the Earth and climate before design, so, although, the subject is different, the need to be aware of the planet in the work first and foremost follows the same kind of logic. Personally, as an architect, I’m always contextual. I always begin from the culture of the place where we do the project, but I strongly feel it is the responsibility of an architect not to simply be part of the culture and reflect it. I always try to convince my colleagues that we have to in the front seat of the culture. We all have a responsibility to look towards change.  

Deep Breaths

JP Pryor talks to artist Jeppe Hein about his travelling art activation Breathe With Me, overcoming an emotional breakdown and why art is therapy

What is the purpose of art if not to connect individuals to consider the deeper profundities of existence – and how is that best achieved in an era increasingly defined by digital distraction, in which we are all moving closer to that post-capitalist paradigm of being isolated units of smart-phone-fuelled consumption? The prolific Berlin-based Danish artist Jeppe Hein thinks he might just have the answer – take a breather, and slow down. Hein is recognised all over the world for his site-specific interactive sculptures – perhaps, most of all, for his swirling mazes of tall free-standing mirrors, which have graced environments as globally disparate as the Desert X Festival in Nevada and the permanent sculpture park at the Carmignac Foundation in Porquerolles. He is widely celebrated for his poignantly humanistic approach to art practice, and his somewhat voracious desire for human connection actually led to him suffering a chronic breakdown a decade ago, which he documented in the nakedly vulnerable The Happiness of Burnout. Since his recovery, he has devoted much of his time to meditation and employing his art practice to promote the practice of mindfulness.

In Hein’s Breathing Watercolours series the simple act of breathing and painting are inextricably tied together, with a painted blue line lasting precisely as long as a single exhale. It is a practice that he initially employed when mentally unstable to bring himself back to the world, and last month he shared his discipline, quite literally, with the world. The travelling art activation Breathe With Me began life at The Youth Climate Change Summit at the UN General Assembly in September before moving on to Central Park, where it had the honour of being the largest public art activation in the park for some ten years–consisting of a giant curvaceous wall upon which diplomats and public alike were invited by the artist to take a moment to slow down and, very simply, paint their breath. This act of artistic democratisation, designed to bond us all in the knowledge that we all breathe the same air, share the same planet, and are not as alone as may think, is effectively the artist’s antidote to the dystopian fast-paced avalanche of the information age. Here, he speaks to us about the genesis of his global art activation, overcoming crippling emotional breakdown and tells us why all art, is essentially a form of therapy.

Where did the idea for Breathe With Me come from?

I started to create small lines of watercolour just three days before I had my first anxiety attack, which led to total burnout. I had become very scared on an airplane and thought I would die. I lost complete control of my body and of my mind. I really couldn’t feel my body. As I later recovered, I continued to do create these small lines while inhaling and exhaling, trying to control my breathing. Burnout is like a hardcore flu without a fever–you’re dizzy, you feel sound is too much, you feel like you have no balance. You’re filled with fear and everything hurts. My mother helped me to breathe every night – she was counting my breath, one, two, three, inhale… four, pause. I started to write about the experience, and now, I’ve created something like 7,000 or more line watercolours – it’s become like a diary. This personal crisis, which was ten years ago now, where I couldn’t breathe, happened because I was looking for love and acceptance all over the place, while travelling around doing lectures, doing openings, and always trying to be present, because I thought my art couldn’t be alone, or stand alone, without me present. I would start to slip into performing because I wanted to convince people with all the tools I had that they liked me. I think the burnout came from this need to feel loved, and, of course, in those situations, you’re not getting accepted, you’re not feeling love for real.

Why is it important to you that art connects, or is interactive in some sense?

I think it’s just who I am. I grew up trying to connect with people in many different ways. Maybe I learned it, in a way, because my parents’ split-up. My father was living in a hippy collective with a lot of people and there was always a fight in me for attention. My parents helped a lot of people in need when I was young – drug abuse, alcoholic people; they worked in a school for kids who had problems. I’m not complaining because it made me who I am now, but, of course, as a small boy you get very good at creating attention for yourself. When I got older, I figured: how do you get attention? How do you get contact with people, how do you touch people, and so on? I think because of all that, I ended up in the art world. I’ve always been interested in how people behave with each other, and how you get people talking to each other. I think the big thing for me, after ten years of finding the spiritual aspect of my work, is that I’m not trying to put myself on top of it any more. My awareness of what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, has changed. I don’t have that ego-driven notion that I’m a genius artist any more. I think inspiration and awareness is just there all of the time and you can open up for it, and be a cipher for it. At a certain moment, you can be opened up to this kind of cloud of energy or ideas that is around us all.

How do you feel about the future and climate change?

I’m an optimist. Being in the UN for two days doing Breathe With Me gave me goose bumps – you really feel the energy of how many young people were invited, and they make a change; they do something. I met a 15 year-old football player from the middle of Africa and whenever he has scored a goal, from very young, he has bought a tree from his own money and he planted that tree. How beautiful is that; a young boy finding out how to do something like that? There were so many young people there with energy and self-motivation. I think we are in a moment now where Greta Thunberg and a lot of other people want to make older people much more aware, and I think it will happen. I really believe that. With my Breathe With Me project I hope to make people more aware that we can really change a lot. If I can inspire someone, and just make them aware what one or two inhalations and exhalations of mindfulness can bring in their own lives… Well, I hope they can bring that little moment within their everyday life, and that can change big things, I think.

To what degree, for you, is art therapy? 

Breathe With Me definitely started as a therapy project; because it’s starting point was to help my body and my mind to come back to a new life. I don’t think it’s therapeutic, though. I think it’s just more about awareness. I suppose, if you look at old artists’ paintings, then I do think a lot of that was therapy. If you look at a figure like Picasso or Bacon, then I think that’s the highest level of therapy. Not like therapy therapy, but more a way of surviving. I think a lot of my colleagues and me, are using art as a way to say something and get something out emotionally, because we can’t do it another way. The playfulness in my work is really there to make you open up your heart. This is the biggest dream of my life right now, and if you try to inspire the world to be happier, no, not happier, more empathetic, and open up people’s hearts – what more can you do?

Is it only by going into that dark space of burnout that you felt inspired to connect with others in these ways?

Well, it’s a modern expression burnout, but it is real. It is as though your mind, your body, your organs… everything is just burnt from top to bottom and that can’t just be repaired in two weeks. Of course, when it happened, a lot of people like my mother and my wife were saying, ‘Hey, maybe you’re going too fast…’ and I was like, ‘Yes, yes… I’ll take Saturday off’. But my mind was just going constantly, and if I didn’t have anything to do, I would start five projects, or call someone and say, should we do that book, should we do this, or that? I felt fear, and I got anxiety attacks and, of course, I looked into myself and thought, what’s going on? I went to a Buddhist monk who wrote a lot about stress and anxiety, and she told me, ‘You just have to take a note of everything you do here because you’re very ill.’ It was just what I needed to hear, and I couldn’t hear it from someone close to me. 

Who inspires you spiritually?

I’m a very big fan of Gandhi. I often think of that story when he walked by a dead body and said to a person nearby, ‘Who died?’ This person said, ‘Look, he’s almost rotting. It’s very disgusting,’ Then Gandhi said: ‘But he has really beautiful teeth.’ Something about the story is very beautiful, because it always depends on how you look at the beauty and the darkness, in a way. I think we can find beauty in everything. There’s always a lot of light. There’s always darkness, but there’s also a lot of light. I think Breathe With Me brings a lot of light to a lot of people, and to myself as well.