We queued for white pyjamas and then changed into them in hurried silence in the Whitechapel's lecture theatre. With this awkward task accomplished, we each found a mat in the gallery, which was installed with Liam Gillick's show 'The Wood Way', and waited to take part in 'Participating at the Same Time', an-ongoing project that claims to be simultaneously yoga and art.
The mats were coated with glitter, and when we were asked to sit on them, cross-legged, it felt like primary school. Glitter stuck to our faces and our matching white uniforms. Benita-Immanuel Grosser are a two-person artistic team whose practice consists of travelling from gallery to gallery with their yoga/art lessons, like peripatetic teachers. They were distinguished from the rest of us by their sunny yellow shirts, their superbly honed physiques and their glowing complexions.
Immanuel stated simply that the class they would teach was also an art work. The white clothes were, he explained, carrying the energy it had taken to get them so clean, which was now passed on to us as we wore them. As we lay with our heads to the east and our toes to the west, Benita and Immanuel sang, chanted and talked about yoga. Benita described it as a mental discipline for developing self-knowledge. The physical exercises are merely a means of improving concentration and self-awareness, she said. A yogi aims to work through the set sequence of postures, fully focused on them, but at the same time to maintain a contemplative distance: participating, at the same time as not participating.
And then we did breathing exercises: lots of vigorous snorting, breath-holds and breathing through alternate nostrils. But by this time my mind was wandering. I think I should have been observing that my mind was wandering in order to bring my focus back to 'slow, cleansing breathing', but the yoga was making me reconsider Gillick's show.
In the lecture theatre Gillick had covered each of the usually matching seats with a different, brightly-coloured fabric. This disrupted the bland uniformity of the theatre and with it any sense of the audience as a homogeneous block. Benita-Immanuel, on the other hand, by clothing us in white and positioning us cross-legged down on the floor facing our teachers at the front, had created a dynamic that was the opposite of Gillick's.
I wondered about the semiotics of whiteness as we started sun salutations: a sequence of bending and stretching that connected different postures, of which 'mountain' was the first. A forward bend, lunge, then 'plank', 'caterpillar' and 'cobra' followed before we swung into 'downward dog'. Then more lunging, bending and stretching skywards and the sequence started again. The yoga, with all its careful concern for positioning ourselves precisely in space began to sensitize me to the gallery and to Gillick's installation.
B-I G's insistence on whiteness made me acutely aware of the white walls of the gallery, evoking Modernist purity and utopianism. Gillick had inscribed one wall with a description of the brutal death of Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia (1516), who died in the name of religion. B-I G's concern for easterly orientation within the building recalled the way churches are laid out. It made me aware of the church-like nature of the space with its high roof, its scale, its tone of uplifting and improving institutional worthiness.
I began to wonder how these things had affected my behaviour and my responses to the art I'd seen there in the past. From being acutely aware of myself in a physical space I had gone to being aware of myself in a historical, and art-historical, space and a context of art-world politics. This sense of context was further underscored by the yoga precisely because it was so clearly removed from its original context. The Sanskrit chanting and B-I G's explanations, which drew on Eastern philosophy, religion and tradition, were beyond most of the baffled-looking novices in the Whitechapel.
But where was all this heightened awareness of surroundings and context leading? Certainly not towards a grand conclusion or a unified experience. The yoga never became art and the gallery never became a good place to do yoga, particularly as it started to fill up with visitors picking their way between our flailing limbs. The two sets of values just kept bouncing and grating against one another. But the mismatch between the two provided some distance to observe both.
Could you plonk a Folk dancing or a karate class in a gallery for the same effect? Perhaps. But the point is that B-I G know enough about yoga to set up this double decontextualization, with neither the yoga nor the gallery allowed to work entirely as it was intended.