Artist Profile 15 – Ian Jehle + Edwina Chen
The Shape of Sound – correlating artistic disciplines of architecture, music, and colour theory.
Ian Jehle and Edwina Chen both hail from Canada but come from diverse backgrounds with a wide variety of skills that combine to make their multidisciplinary project Isometric Humanism possible. At the heart of their vision is a novel way of looking at the world, combining such seemingly disparate themes as colour theory and Chinese medicine, Euclidean mathematics and Byzantine architecture, and 3D modeling and choral overtone singing. Uniting their approach is the belief that sound and shape can be mapped and translated onto one another—with both aesthetic and potentially medicinal benefits to be had through the process.
4SEE was able to go in-depth about their project with the pair on the occasion of their exhibition at GlogauAIR as part of the Vorspiel + CTM / Transmediale Festivals in Berlin. The exhibition traces the research and theory behind the process involved in rigorously translating between these disciplines and is stage one of a project envisioned on a much larger scale (The exhibition runs until 31st of January).
Interview from January 2020
Name Ian Jehle
Medium Medium, Drawing, Installation, 3D modeling
Based in Berlin
Recent/upcoming exhibition (projects)
past: Dynamical Systems, Katzen Museum, Wasington, DC
current: The Shape of Sound, Glogau project space, part of Vorspiel/Transmediale festival, upcoming: Somos artist residency, Berlin
Find more at ianjehle.com // isometrichumanism.com
Name Edwina Chen
Medium Medium painting, sculpture, performance, installation, music voice piano composition, scent, documentary film
Based in Washington DC, Beijing
Recent/upcoming exhibition (projects) documentary Door Poem: Shard Holders Generational Names
Find more at isometrichumanism.com
Did you always know that you were going to be an artist?
IJ: Absolutely not. My Father’s nickname for me, from the time I was five or six years old, was “the absent-minded professor” so I think always thought I was going to be a professor. When I finally went to university I started out in computational computer science and philosophy – so I
really did follow the absent-minded professor track. But I also started going to art museums, which was something I’d never done when I was young. I remember being at the National Gallery when I was 19 and staring at a deKooning painting for almost an hour and I realized that art could talk about a lot more than just beauty; that it was just as serious and meaningful and important as science.
EC: So, I don’t know how personal I should be? After my fourth car accident four discs collapsed in my neck. The operation I needed meant I had a 1 in 5 chance i would lose my voice. My voice teacher had just died so the choice was between my voice or my arm. For two years I chose her, and my voice, over my left arm but when the operation became necessary, I decided to paint music because it was the only thing I had left. I taught myself how to paint in 2012.
Do you find the art world cutthroat and competitive, or is it also supportive and community-minded, or something in between?
EC: My experience personally, has been completely supportive, especially when viewed through the filter of the relationships which my friend Lorenzo Cardim has through his circle of friends. His undergraduate degree at Corcoran College, relations with Red Dirt Studios, MFA at CCA, through Catholic University and now at Otis, all of these people, as teachers were incredibly supportive in his growth as an artist as a student, and now that he’s a professional, his collaborations as a peer. I find it completely inspiring. Then for myself personally, at Glogauair, what I witnessed with Lorenzo, I got to experience with Ian, the level of support he received at residency and then what was conferred on to me. I feel the art world very inclusive and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.
IJ: think it’s both. I’ve seen really really cutthroat stuff happen, by artists, by curators, by gallerists, but I also feel strange complaining about that because I’ve been incredibly lucky and incredibly well supported by the people who have appreciated what I do and how I think. So I think, like anything else, you have to focus on the people that you care about and who care about you, and try to leave the other things behind. At the same time, the cutthroat stuff can be difficult. I was threatened with a lawsuit from a board member of a museum, who didn’t like a portrait that I made of him. So, no, I can’t say that the art world is completely supportive but also, yes, it often is.
What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment so far?
IJ: Honestly, the thing I’m most proud of professionally, is the decision I made 5 years ago to completely change the direction of my work from portraiture into something that represented my inner life much more. I feel really fortunate to have done the earlier work, but it didn’t really represent who I am. The other thing I’m extremely proud of is the work I did with my students and seeing what they’ve been doing since finishing university.
EC: Similarly, the decision to start again, leaving a profession I was comfortable in and starting something where I have no expertise, putting myself in a position where I have to ask for help, for information,- it’s been very humbling. There’s been so much grace given to me, I am very grateful. When you’re uncomfortable, you work that much harder to become comfortable, that is part of the human condition. One of the biggest boosts to me in my work is being uncomfortable.
Does art always need to be relevant? Is there a place for aesthetic indulgence, or do politics come into play in your motivation?
EC: In this context my practice is completely indulgent, the exploration of information that I don’t understand, develop familiarity, to a point where it’s usable and because my process is reductive, part of the goal is not for myself but for everyone. To make processes transparent. We can all use art, we can incorporate everything into our personal practices to various degrees. I don’t know if that act in itself is political, it’s certainly socialistic. It is a very Canadian point of view, my sensibilities are very egalitarian, we’re all the same and we should have access to the same information to create our own experiences.
IJ: First of all I think politics is always part of art making, there’s no way of stepping completely outside of what’s happening in the world. And, of course, politically, environmentally, economically, socially, we are living in particularly difficult times. And so, even though my work focuses on science and math I think there are important things that the sciences can offer right now. The first is to help remind people that there were things that go beyond the time that we live in; physics is physics, it will exist now and will exist long after our current situation. I also think the sciences are great at bringing together different communities from all over the world. Science in a lot of ways is a giant group project that people all over the world participate in. There are of course problems in the sciences like anyplace else, but I do think that it’s something that does transcend borders and reminds people that good work is being done everywhere.
If not politics, then what are the key sources of inspiration for you?
IJ: Well that one’s super easy. In addition to mathematics, which I’m always dealing with, at the moment I am really interested in music and music theory and the science of sound which are of course linked to the multi-phase project we’re currently on. Generally speaking, I think Edwina and I both agree that the research aspect of making art is one of the most, if not the most fun part of what we do.
EC: It’s exciting to have a partner. I’ve been looking at these things for most of my adult life. No one is really interested in what I have to say, I don’t know if it’s because I’m not clear. Part of it is I’m intimately interested in things that I don’t know, the most exciting thing is learning something new, so I’m interested in biological sciences, traditional Chinese medicine, cosmology and the nature of gravity. I feel very fortunate we can expand every direction because this is the age of information. There are no longer gatekeepers. We can reach as far as our minds allow us.
What is it like to live/work in your respective cities?
EC: I live in the suburbs of Washington DC in the United States, I am working on a documentary film project which takes me back-and-forth between Beijing and the US. I went back to the US to establish a nonprofit, write grants, the majority of the filming will be international. Currently, starting shooting B roll – it’s nice to be a citizen of the world I think that’s really what they were hoping for in the Bauhaus, to stop seeing ourselves nationalistically, and instead be international citizens. The international movement of architecture and we are actually putting into practice their dream for us, Gropius, Breuer, Van der Rohe, Corbusier, they created a built environment where we can be at home in all places. This is the direct legacy of the Bauhaus, I am a direct disciple of that school. I feel really fortunate to be working and living in the world they conceived.
IJ: So, I was born in Canada, but I am now based in Berlin. My family is from a small town not far from Berlin, so this city has always felt like a second home. Now it’s my first home and I’m here and working and interacting with more artists. I love it even more. It is the best environment for the types of experimental, research-based projects we are doing. I used to live and teach at a university in Washington DC and as much as I love the university environment I feel like Berlin is even better place to to be an artist who is interested in both art and science. There’s nothing strange about that combination here. It’s actually encouraged so it’s a fantastic place to be. That said, I do miss my students. A lot.
What is next for you, an immediately upcoming project or chance to see your work?
IJ: So in the very immediate future, we’re preparing a lecture that Edwina and I will give this week about our current show and our theories as they relate to music, with an extra piece about Edwina’s interest in polyphonic overtone singing. After that we will focus on the next iteration of our project which will continue to look at the architecture of music. This next works are larger in scale and will also include performance. Edwina and I also have projects outside of our collaboration, so I’m also working with a group of robotics students, 12-14 years old. We are designing robots that will interact with each other while drawing.
EC: There’s also painting for next project. It’s interesting how the painting examines the additive color wheel of pigment where all pigment goes to black and silence is white, and the subtractive colour wheel where all light goes to white and silence is dark. I need to learn how to compose. The next step is to play the Well-Tempered Klavier by JS Bach, to see a palette in every key and generate a set of paintings to learn composition. The sculpture will be inscribed choir illuminated linear sculpture of just intonated polyphonic overtone choral music for 12 singers and 24 voices in even tempered based on the composition.
IJ: Yeah, we’re really looking forward to this project. We have four smaller scale implementations in mind, as we work toward the fully staged version that includes singers suspended within the installation. We just completed phase 1 as part of the Transmediale festival. The immediate focus now is phase 2 and 3.
Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time, where would you like to see your artwork and at what scale?
EC: The direction we see involves a theatrical scale or Cirque du Soleil direction because it is bringing in lighting design, sound, sets, being able to put things up and break it down. Brunellesci went to the building site of the Duomo and referred to it as going to the opera, because the construction site contains all the operations: masonry, woodworking, painting sculpture, bronze casting, that’s why, when we think about music, the opera has everything, a full orchestra, costume, singing, it has ballet. Our operation is really like an extrapolation of all the operations so this is operatic application.
IJ: I think ending with the idea of an opera is a really great way to end so I’m not gonna say anything more. Light, sound, color, space, opera. That’s it.