The first 10 to 15 years of Jeppe Hein’s artistic career are reminiscent of a mountaineer’s struggle on Mount Everest. The climb to the top of the world’s highest mountain is shrouded in awe, daring and faltering resolve.

When the British mountain climber George Mallory was asked in the 1920s why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he responded brusquely: “Because it’s there.” In that answer lies an all-too-human impulse, namely the impulse to seek the difficult and overcome the dangerous, apparently without any other ambition than to test your limits.

Naturally, it wasn’t Mount Everest that Jeppe tried—and is still trying—to conquer. It was an artistic career that knocked him out in the first round. He lived without compromise, without any deeper contact with himself.

His sense of direction wasn’t yet well-developed. His anchoring in the now hadn’t been established.

The death zone

Mount Everest - "Because it's there"

It speaks volumes that Jeppe was in an airplane when he burned out—in what mountain climbers call the ‘death zone.’

This begins at an altitude of 8,000 metres, where the air is so oxygen-poor that humans can survive for only a day or two. It corresponds to running while breathing through a straw. Even if you lie perfectly still, you’ll become weaker and weaker. In comparison, most commercial flights operate at an altitude of 10 to 12 kilometres.

The ‘death zone’ concept illustrates the existential dilemma that climbing Mount Everest symbolizes. No one can climb Mount Everest alone. Guides, gear and food are needed, just for a start.

On the other hand, no one can climb Mount Everest on behalf of someone else. You’re the only person who can make the climb. The last 848 metres up the mountain’s 8,848 metres are an ascent into the death zone, where everyone is alone in his or her suffering, the suffering that is also part of life.

Some people in the zone must let go, abandon a dream that for most has cost blood, sweat, tears and plenty of money. And, even worse: When mountaineers on their way up or down Mount Everest pass stranded climbers in the death zone, they seldom help them.

The death zone is a moral vacuum in which empathy and compassion are largely non-existent. The closer we come to the highest point on Earth, the less altruistic people seem to be.

There was a time when Jeppe could say about another person, “He’s not important.” Whether the person was important depended on his role, significance and power in the art world.

Jeppe was a narcissist who’d become the object of his own affection—thereby gradually eroding himself. He ended in the death zone in his pursuit of status, prestige, power and love. He wanted to reach the top!

Games, obstacles and challenges

Ambitions are related to what makes a game interesting: the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles, as philosopher Bernard Suits defines game in his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.

By definition, obstacles don’t motivate us. We often take the escalator instead of the stairs. Obstacles must be indispensable, unavoidable, things that can’t be surmounted in life and therefore must be surmounted to become life, crucial to a person’s future existence.

What we’re talking about here is a power beyond the meaningful, understood as a given. For the same reason, that kind of power can’t be considered absurd, devoid of meaning. Rather, it’s the acceptance of life’s inherent variation. We create meaning by surmounting the problem or problems that challenges present.

A person can be condemned to climb Mount Everest, or write, or paint or sing. The moral is: If you’re condemned to paint, then paint!

“Because it’s there!” is a defense for what can be difficult to express in words without sounding pretentious. And so it is with existential revivals or calls: They incorporate a necessity that subsequently can be difficult to live without.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that man is condemned to be free, which can provoke anxiety, namely because man is free and must and shall choose how to live. Similarly, a person can be condemned to climb Mount Everest, or write, or paint or sing. The moral is: If you’re condemned to paint, then paint!

Jeppe has always been determined. He’s a man who will. Why? “Because it’s there!” Yes, but his life crisis made him reflect upon that ‘why.’

The people who try to climb Mount Everest do it voluntarily. That’s a decisive criterion. It’s not only about reaching the summit. There are rules that must be followed. Self-created rules. Flying to the top in a helicopter or parachuting out of an airplane isn’t the right way to surmount an obstacle.

The people who want to climb Mount Everest do it because the obstacles are so treacherous that mistakes and accidents can be fatal. Climbers subject themselves to dangers such as a lack of oxygen, hunger, extreme cold, avalanches, snow blindness, hallucinations and physical collapse.

Certainly, I can see the appeal in testing your own limits through extreme physical and mental challenges. And not because of any latent death wish—on the contrary, to experience life even more vividly.

Most of the games in life don’t require putting your life on the line. They’re more like games for entertainment or development, perhaps with an educational aim.

All the same, I believe that mountain climbing can be considered a game, because a great part of the challenge and honour don’t lie in why but in how the mountain is conquered. And although a comparison with climbing the world’s highest mountain might seem farfetched, very few people become successful in any discipline without hard work and a bit of luck.

The ‘why’ and the ‘how’

Jeppe Hein's Path of Silence sculpture - "Because it's there"

Path of Silence (2016) by Jeppe Hein 

The crucial question is whether those people who throw themselves into wild projects remember themselves. That is, do they have a clear sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing? They could’ve been seduced or threatened into it.

In this consideration is also a sense of how they’ll do what it is they want to do. Here’s where the more existential thoughts arise, since very few people want to cheat or turn into thugs, which can be problematic if their surrounding culture is cynical.

It was precisely this reflection on the relationship between ‘why’ and ‘how’ that Jeppe lacked. In 2005, he very tellingly created a neon piece entitled Why Do we all Keep Looking for Greatness.

At that time, greatness was about fame, success and reaching the top of Mount Everest. Jeppe thought, rather naively, that this form of greatness was what we all wanted.

It took burnout for Jeppe to gain a sense of what life is really all about. As he was plummeting down the steep slopes of the mountainside, he couldn’t breathe and he was frightened. The experience of not being able to breathe made quite an impact, and subsequently influenced his art to an increasing degree: Breathing.

He learned to breathe in the years that followed, and much more consciously. During this process, he understood that something essential was at stake: It was no longer only about him. Everyone breathes. “What if I’m not the only person who has forgotten to breathe?” he thought. Perhaps I can tell others what has meaning through my art. Help.

In recent years, Jeppe has supplemented these strategic and tactical considerations about artistic success with psychoanalysis, Buddhism, Hinduism, mindfulness, breathing exercises and Yoga. No longer is the result crucial, nor whether the journey or the process is pleasant and inspiring.

I like to believe that the top of Mount Everest is no longer the artist’s goal; rather, the goal is the appreciation of the world’s multifaceted geography: the Earth’s depths, heights, breadth and general spaciousness. It’s here that a new form of greatness can begin to take form: a spiritual greatness.

Front cover of When life blooms - "Because it's there"

The text is a slightly modified excerpt from the book When life blooms: Breathe with Jeppe Hein, in which Finn Janning describes the philosophical and spiritual development of the artist and social entrepreneur Jeppe Hein.



image 1: Wikimedia Commons; image 2: Randi Hausken

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