A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance - review

The Tate Modern’s new exhibition asks how painting and performance art met – and parted.

Only ten minutes long, Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock painting caused a major crisis of confidence for the American artist. He felt that in explaining his "action painting" methods, Pollock Painting stripped the mystique from his work: Namuth’s step-by-step direction of things he usually did spontaneously led him to believe that the film was “phony”.

The Tate Modern’s exhibition Painting After Performance, which runs until April 2013, takes Namuth’s film as its starting point, placing it and Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A (1948) in its first room alongside David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Jack Hazan’s documentary on Hockney of the same title. The crucial point here is that the "splash" in Hockney’s acrylic painting of a fantasy Californian residence looks unplanned, but wasn’t – he had tried numerous ways to represent moving water, rejecting the possibility of throwing paint at his canvas as some assumed Pollock did to create his works and instead meticulously thinking through every brushstroke that created the striking ‘splash’.

Hazan’s exposure of Hockney’s processes did not cause Hockney any of the existential crises that befell Pollock, and many of Hockney’s contemporaries began to put their performative methods on a par with their finished paintings, if not making them more important. Room 2 offers artists who recorded for public consumption the ‘actions’ they used, with films or photographs and paintings placed alongside each other – Niki de Saint-Phalle shooting paint at a strip of material, Yves Klein using naked female models covered in blue paint and dragged across a canvas (documented in Anthropometry of the Blue Era), Japan’s Gutai artists who used other parts of their bodies besides their hands to paint, and Situationist International member Pinot-Gallizio, whose Manifesto of Industrial Painting led him to produce huge rolls of painted canvas, simultaneously unique and mass produced, sold by the metre or turned into dresses and modelled at Italian galleries.

The room given to the Vienna Actionists, chosen above several other Sixties organisations who devoted themselves to "action art" (the US Fluxus group, for one, are not mentioned here), emphasises both the contrast between the façade of spontaneity and the detailed structuring, and the stakes of certain performances. Günter Brus was arrested immediately after filming his Vienna Walk in 1965 for presenting his ‘potentially disturbing’ spectacle to the public, and the Austrian police frequently apprehended other Actionists. Besides Kurt Kren’s short films in which Kren refused to make "straight" documents and instead played with the time sequences of actions, the most intriguing object here is Brus’s Run-Through of an Action, a blueprint for every movement in an unperformed 56-minute piece in which he intended to move around a room, unsettling the audience with his reactions to recorded sounds.

Striving to weave together major and minor post-war narratives whilst using as much of its own collection as possible (over a third of these works belong to the Tate), A Bigger Splash shows how feminist and queer artists grew tired of being used as props by Klein, the Vienna Actionists and others, leading them to find new directions for autonomous body art. Rooms 4 and 5 incorporate a far larger number of artists, opening with VALIE EXPORT’s Identity Transfer 1, in which she experimented with symbols of masculinity and femininity, claiming control over her female body rather than having it directed by a male artist.

Over half of the artists in A Bigger Splash are women, and the range of responses shown to the objectification of women and exclusion of gender variant and queer perspectives by the Fifties and Sixties performance painters is the exhibition’s most captivating feature. If Cindy Sherman’s photographed self-portraits may be familiar to many observers, Sanja Iveković’s investigations into make-up and the images of beauty promoted by Yugoslav women’s magazines or Helena Almeida’s pictures of herself inhabiting her paintings may offer something new to those aware of those who have traditionally been more prominent in the narrative that this exhibition unpacks.

Such spectators, however, would then have to go away and explore by themselves any of the artists or stories here, offered in great number but without great coherence. The line between artists who continued to paint, on canvas or on their bodies, and those who abandoned painting in favour of video or installation constantly moves, and neither the first five rooms, which explore the overarching story of painting and performance from the Fifties to the Seventies (or Eighties in China, due to the effects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution), nor the rooms given to individual artists using paint to create social or theatrical spaces during the last thirty years, provide a satisfactorily in-depth investigation into those artists’ practices.

For example, we are told that Lynn Hershman created an alternative ‘self’, named Roberta Breitmore, which raised the fascinating question of how far a second persona must be lived before it becomes equally valid as the first (or more), with her "performance" lasting from 1974 to 1978 and being documented by private detectives who followed ‘Breitmore’ and took pictures. All we see, however, is one image – Roberta Construction Chart #1 which colourfully deconstructs the character that Hershman created. But without any other context, how can the viewer meaningfully engage with it?

The individual rooms set aside for Edward Krasiński, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Karen Kilimnik, Lucy McKenzie, Jutta Koether, Ei Arakawa and Slovenia’s IRWIN/NSK groups cannot delve much further into the totality of their outputs, and ultimately the impression is left of an exhibition that attempts to introduce the newcomer to the idea that painting and performance interacted with each other, and provide something new to those already familiar with it. The structure chosen to straddle these seemingly contradictory aims may overwhelm the beginner and underwhelm the connoisseur, ultimately feeling like a way of minimising the risk of presenting avant-garde ideas to an audience: A Bigger Splash signposts art and certain artists effectively but too often fails to dive beneath the surface in the way that exhibitions devoted to any one of them could do.

Painting After Performance runs at Tate Modern until April 2013.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism