In March of this year I took a trip to a small town called Stroe located 1 hours’ drive from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I was going there to participate in a two-day event that explored the capabilities and limitations of the human body and mind.
As an artist I have always been interested in the human body, not necessarily as a figure to be drawn, painted or sculpted but as a subject to be examined and referenced. This interest bordered on an obsession when I became fascinated by the world of extreme male bodybuilding back in 2013. I spent quite a lot of time learning about the rites and rituals involved in this extreme activity. One thing that continues to resonate with me is the fact that this group of individuals push their body to the absolute extreme, solely for aesthetic purposes. There is no reward for how much weight an individual can lift or how quickly they can run, in this world, the only thing that is important is how they look at the end, the appearance of the end ‘product’. I like to imagine how that parallels the art world and the production of art works. Within my practice, I have referenced these extreme bodies and the activity itself in many ways, most recently in the form of abstracted painting or sculptural objects. The process of making my work will also often connect to some of the activities involved in extreme bodybuilding (repetitive actions, physical pressure etc.). When presenting my finished works for exhibition I would describe the process of making them as ‘unseen performances’, to reference the physicality involved in their production. In 2018 I decided that it was time to consider making the unseen, seen, and that I would begin to develop a piece of live or recorded performance work. This shift in my practice is what prompted my application for the Engine Micro Bursary and to give me the opportunity to kick start this new chapter of research and development.
The combination of mental dedication and physical effort demonstrated by bodybuilders is the main reason I have continued to stay interested in it. The effort required to achieve and maintain these extreme bodies is almost incomprehensible. When considering how a performance piece involving the body might exist, I think about this combination of extreme physical and mental activity. I often seek out examples of individuals or groups who push things to the limits. One such individual is a 60-year-old Dutch man called Wim Hof, also known as the Iceman due to his infinity with all things cold. I first encountered Wim and his antics when I watched a documentary exploring his seemingly humanly impossible feats. At one point, he held 26 separate individual Guinness world records for extreme human activity, including the furthest swim in ice water, the fastest half marathon barefoot on snow and the longest time in direct full body contact with ice. All of this led people to believe he was a one off, a freak of nature who did not feel cold in the same way other people did. Wim claimed that he was not unique but was merely optimising the capabilities of the human body and he could teach anyone to do it. To prove it, Wim began what has now become known as The Wim Hof Method a system that combines regular exposure to the cold, breathing exercises and meditation. This method, however, was not just a frivolous venture into record-breaking but rather had some significant physical and mental benefits. Wim claimed that by practising the techniques of the method you could improve sports performance, reduce stress and strengthen your immune system. I was hooked, I wanted to know more. I discovered that a number of scientific studies had been carried out on not only Wim himself but also a group of trained individuals. It appeared they were able to consciously activate their autoimmune system, something that was previously believed to be impossible. I found this all so fascinating. Could it be that a slightly peculiar Dutch man had unlocked some new potential in the human body?
I started to imagine how the things Wim was doing might relate to performance art. I was reminded of the endurance performance work popularised in the 1970s by people like Marina Abramovic, Stuart Brisley and Vito Acconci who pushed their body, mind and public perception to the limit. But it also brought to mind how materials can be used to evoke certain responses. I thought about transience in relation to ice and how it has been used as an art material in the past, with the obvious example of Marc Quinn and his frozen blood head piece, Self. The idea of referencing aging via the changing state of a material is something I referenced previously in my latex works, a material that quickly shows signs of wear and tear when pulled taut. I was confident that this could translate in other ways.
I discovered that there was an event-taking place, which might shed some light onto the specifics of the Wim Hof Method. It involved a series of lectures, workshops and participatory activities, so I signed up and booked flights to the Netherlands.
There were a group of around 30 participants and a team of four Wim Hof instructors who would guide us through the weekend. The morning started with a detailed introduction into the background of the Wim Hof Method. It transpired that this was much more than an activity simply to impress your friends with how long could stay in cold water. It appeared that the health benefits of the method were vast and yet all that was required was some conscious active breathing along with some exposure to the cold. It seemed too good to be true. As the day went on, we were introduced to the science behind the method. One of the trainers, Bart Scholtissen, a former neuroscientist from Amsterdam who found the method after suffering from poor mental health, introduced how active breathing and cold exposure can alter the way our bodies react to physical and mental stress. He discussed how in a contemporary world being endlessly stimulated by technology had resulted in a mass amount of people being stuck in the fight or flight response mode which can result not only in mental anxieties but also physical ailments. Through breathing, we could return the body into a resting state to allow us to relax fully and recuperate from daily stresses. It all seemed very reasonable and I remained as open but a sceptical as possible.
After morning lectures, we began some participatory activities that included going through the breathing exercises. These exercises, known collectively as ‘breathwork’ are based on ancient yogic techniques of conscious and deliberate airflow into the lungs. The aim, as explained by Bart, was to increase the amount of oxygen in our blood and to decrease carbon dioxide. By doing this we encouraged the cells in our blood to flow through our circulatory system in an active and efficient way, the result being an almost paradoxical increase of energy and the general feeling of relaxation. Afterwards we broke for lunch and I had an opportunity to speak with some of the other participants before returning for a series of discussions in the afternoon. Learning about the other participants, why they were there and their experiences was very interesting. Almost every person I spoke to, described how these breathing techniques and cold exposure had significantly impacted their life. From those with mental health issues and even mental illness to others with physical problems such as autoimmune diseases, each one described how the Wim Hof Method had help them deal with their difficulties.
Day two started similarly to day one with some more lectures into the science behind the method but also a bit of background to Wim himself, who also made a surprise appearance in the morning and give a motivational talk. He’s an extraordinary character and I can see why people are drawn to him, but also how he could be a target for sceptics. For me, I was happy experiencing all of this without judgement and an open mind. Today we would explore the cold exposure aspect of the method first hand. After a couple breathwork of sessions and we collectively prepared to enter an ice bath. For some this seemed to be no big deal but for most, including myself I was quite anxious about the prospect yet I had a sense of inner confidence perhaps feeding off the more positive members of the group. We gathered around the (ironically named) hot tub which had been previously filled with cold water and ice and were invited to enter at our own pace. I watched on to observe both how people dealt with the cold but also how the instructors guided them through it. What became immediately apparent is that by controlling the breath you controlled your ability to resist cold. Our body’s natural response to a sudden drop in temperature is to breathe quickly and shallow, to increase the heart rate and pump blood around the body to generate heat. This is also the sensation that triggers our in-built fight and flight response. By actively controlling the breath and slowing it down, people were much more able to deal with the cold water. When it came to my turn I could feel my heart racing before I even step foot into the cold water but I was confident that by applying the same methods as others, I would be able to do it. As I stepped into the ice, I immediately took a sharp intake of air, a gasp, and could feel my heart racing even faster. As I lowered down into the water my breathing rate increased and I felt an almost overwhelming urge to get out. At this point I tried to focus also on my breath trying to be more conscious, taking control and slowing everything down. As I gained control of my breath I felt my heart rate slow and the urge to get out dissipate and before I knew it I was fully emerged in the ice water being joined with five other participants. I had never experienced anything like that before, that sense of taking control of your body and your mind to overcome something physical like this was a new and exciting prospect. I sat in the ice for probably two minutes before getting out. As I emerged I felt amazing and in a way I’d never experienced before, my body felt energised, I was tingling from head to toe. It was genuinely a moment I would never forget. Eventually we had all had our turn in the ice bath, we made our way back to the main area for some warm tea, and a final debrief.
On my journey back from the Netherlands I reflected on my time there, considering all that I have learnt and experienced. It struck me that learning is not always a cognitive brain centric activity and that we can also learn through physical experiences via the body. I started to think about how I might begin to produce artworks informed by the information I had received but also, and perhaps more importantly, the physical and emotional experience I had. Up until very recently, my working methods would primarily consist of extensive theoretical research. Reading about a specific topic until I felt I knew enough about it to represent it via image or object making. Whilst the body would often play a part in the conceptualising of the work, I had not always considered it as truly embodied practice. Moving forward, I want to try to produce works that are more responsive to physical urges and feelings rather than explicitly cognitive ones.
Taking this experience back to the studio has been an interesting one. I have been determined to spend less time in my head and more time in my body. That’s not to say that I’ve stopped thinking critically but rather allowed my body to also have a say in the decision-making. Recently I produced a series of performance to camera works, which reflected this new approach. I can’t exactly say what these photographs are, what they do or how they might be conceptualised within the context of an exhibition but I feel positive about that. I have a sense of freedom around my art making that was arguably not there prior to my Wim Hof experience. I feel as though I can try things now I would have otherwise talked myself out of doing, for one reason or another. In parallel with the feeling I had on leaving the ice bath, I feel energized and excited about this new development chapter ahead.
Brian J Morrison