Yellow-bellied coward or the new Duchamp?

Your comments, please, on the Rothko defacement.

This Sunday, an “invaluable” painting by Mark Rothko was tagged in plain view by Vladimir Umanets, a manifesto-writer and co-founder of the mysterious and previously unheard of “Yellowism”. It’s an act that has hit a collective nerve. With a runaway comment thread on the Guardian website, this has got to be the most discussed new story to hit the art world since the fresco fiasco. (Though, I’ll warn you, there are those who suggest they were in it together.)

Hundreds of readers have cast in their thoughts on various news sites. “Selfish”, “shameful”, “self-important” and “dull” are just a few of the things Umanets’ act of vandalism has been called. Others have praised his audacity and the questions he raises about the ever-questionable state of contemporary art. “Let me be the first to say: Good on him,” says Rah90. “After all, what is art anyway?” chips in Glenorglenda, both from the Guardian. “Rothko is overrated don't you think?” says WHYGODWHY on New York Magazine’s website.

In his own defence this morning, Umanets compared his act with the Dadaist absurdism of Duchamp, executed with the panache of Hirst. He told the Guardian:

I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did. I was expecting that the security at Tate Modern would take me straight away, because I was there and I signed the picture in front of a lot of people. I didn't destroy the picture. I did not steal anything. There was a lot of stuff like this before. Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by him, or even Damien Hirst.

An article in the Independent has him adding:

I am a Yellowist. I believe what I am doing and I want people to start talking about this. It was like a platform.  It's good people are shocking about what happened, no-one is realising what actually happened, everyone is just posting that the piece has been damaged or destroyed or defaced. But I believe that after a few years they will start looking for it from the right angle. So that's why I did it.

And in his cryptic manifesto (co-written with with Marcin Lodyga), he writes:

Yellowism is not art or anti-art. Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. There is no evolution of Yellowism, only its expansion.

There you have the facts. For what it’s worth, I’ll throw in my two cents below. But mine is just a voice among many. What do you think? Please participate in the discussion by leaving your thoughts and responses in the comment thread below.

An open letter to Vladimir Umanets

From where I’m sitting, your act reeks of self-congratulation. Well, congratulations Vladimir, you got us talking about Yellowism. But with a website high on nudity and low on lucid, engaging information, I doubt you’ll accrue many new fans. They call yellow the colour of cowards. Sorry to say it, but your act of Yellowism doesn’t feel all that courageous.

The joy of the modern art gallery is that it’s still a reasonably democratic space, usually free from barriers, protective casings or overbearing security guards. The relaxed atmosphere that enabled your act is exactly that sort of luxury that your act will destroy. Art is a shared experience and cherishing its communal value is the reason so many fight to keep galleries accessible for all. The unfortunate legacy of your act is unlikely to be an enlightening debate on the state of art, but rather a big glass plate between us and the paint.

You forget that this painting does not belong to you; it belongs to everyone. Stop hogging it for your personal agenda. If you’ve got a message to spread, go and make some art of your own.

And shouldn’t we always be wary of things that claim to “expand” rather than evolve? Sounds a bit like the blob if you ask me. And no one thought the blob was very clever.

Vandals at work? It all seems so civilized... The Yellowism studio in Cairo, 2010/2011 (PHOTO: Marwan Abd El-Alim)

The writing on the Rothko appears to read: "Vladimir Umanets '12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism." (PHOTO: Tim Wright)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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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