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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

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

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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