LONDON — On a sunny Saturday afternoon earlier this month, a young woman stood in a gallery at Tate Britain, running her fingertips over a small marble sculpture that represented—how to put this?—a piece of poop.
This “Plop Art,” as one tabloid called it, is by Paul Noble, the hot favorite to win this year’s $40,000 Turner Prize, the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art award, whose winner will be announced Dec. 3. Other nominees at the Tate show include a woman named Spartacus Chetwynd, whose rustic, post-apocalyptic performance piece culminates in a human oracle whispering non sequiturs into people’s ears (mine was: “Eat more than meat”).
Once a year, every year, the Turner Prize finds new and creative ways to raise a single question: “You call that art?” During its 28-year run, the prize has given us pickled farmyard animals, unmade beds, pornographic statues, and more excretions than you can shake a stick at. And, in what has also become an annual ritual in Britain, the public rises up in a collective bout of indignation.
The head shaking arises in part because awarding an artist whose primary medium is elephant dung (Chris Ofili, 1998) feels like an attack on the very idea of art. But there’s also a sneaking suspicion that the Turner is some kind of elaborate practical joke, played by a smug elite on the tea-drinking masses.
Critics, too, have made a sport of lambasting the Prize. “The Turner is based on the misapprehension that modern art, if it’s any good, will shock people,” says retired gallerist Julian Spalding, who has gained notoriety here for his spirited denunciations of the Turner and the artists it anoints. “In time, the winners of the award will be seen as the nadir of British art. The judges have revealed an instinct for selecting the absolute rock bottom.”
This year, however, the nominee-bashing has felt a little half-hearted. There have been no rowdy demonstrations outside the Tate. Nobody’s pelted any of the exhibits with eggs, as the artist Jacqueline Crofton did to “The Lights Going On and Off” (an empty space in which the lights went on and off) in 2001. Banksy hasn’t stencilled “Mind the Cr*p” on the museum’s front steps. Even Spalding, asked what he thinks of this year’s nominees, gives a little verbal shrug. “Eh.” If you’re going to get the Great British Public frothing these days, you’re going to have to do a lot better than a poop-shaped piece of marble.
But then a funny thing happened: The day after that young woman had fondled Paul Noble’s “Small Three Prone” at the Tate Britain, a young Russian guy walked into the Tate Modern, a few miles west, and created the biggest art-related stink this country has seen in years. Suddenly, important questions were being asked about ownership, aesthetic value, and the limits of artistic freedom. And the man who shook things up did so with little more than a permanent marker and a burning desire for people to look at his blog.
PIECE OF YELLOWIS
When Vladimir Umanets scrawled this message on the bottom right-hand corner of Mark Rothko’s revered abstract painting “Black on Maroon” on Oct. 7, he wasn’t only launching an assault on this particular piece; he was attacking the mighty Tate itself, and by association the Turner Prize. In this regard, he was hitting at the heart of British contemporary art, even if he wasn’t aware that the Turner was going on at the time, nor that he would encounter a Rothko when he walked in.
In the days after the incident, the media denounced him as a vandal, an attention seeker, and a nut. Posters on his website called him worse. “You should get your [expletive] hands severed for touching that painting,” wrote one. “It would have been a better statement to have blown your [expletive] brains out on the canvas.”
Sitting with his friend and collaborator Marcin Lodyga at a Shoreditch coffee shop, the 26-year-old art school grad doesn’t come across as a mad anarchist. Slight of build, crop-headed, and sporting a pair of chunky-framed glasses, he looks like a guy who has found himself in a deep pile of trouble, which is understandable given that he’s just been bailed out of a high-security prison.
The Yellowists, as the two friends describe themselves, have an online manifesto, a dense, absurdist-sounding treatise that Umanets summarizes thus: “Art has become useless; Yellowism and art are both useless.” For all their revolutionary bluster, though, there is something endearingly naive about these guys. Explaining the finer points of the marginal (“there are two of us”) intellectual movement they founded a couple of years back, they come across as being so serious, so earnest, that you find yourself wanting to pinch their cheeks.
“We have resigned from art,” says one.
“There was no evolution, no progress,” adds the other.
“We want to set up a new context, a new territory.”
“In the Tate Modern I produced another work of art; it’s a work of art about Yellowism.”
It’s like an Andy Warhol film starring Bill and Ted. But at a time when British contemporary art has seemingly been reduced to an annual cycle of shock, reaction, and dutiful repeat, it is also possible they are onto something. The “new territory” proposed by Yellowism, when you pick apart the impenetrable prose and navigate the conceptual blind alleys, boils down to this: The only avenue left open to the art world is to strip art of meaning; to make it into junk. Which, interestingly, is exactly what the Turner Prize has been accused of doing, as it elevates a procession of young provocateurs into Britain’s Next Big Thing.
In defacing that Rothko, Umanets revealed that even the most transgressive art has its limits—you can take a cudgel to people’s most dearly held beliefs, but leave the £50 million paintings alone.
Nobody would deny that what Umanets did to that Rothko was a bad thing—the museum’s conservation department is working on restoring the canvas, but says that even if it can be restored it’ll take about a year.
The act was also, though, part of a long tradition. Curator Stacy Boldrick, who coincidentally has been helping to put a Tate show together about the history of attacks on art, points out that the impulse in Britain dates back at least to Tudor times, and the systematic obliteration of Catholic artifacts. “It’s about power,” she says, “the struggle over ownership of these images.”
In the modern era, some acts of defacement have come to be seen as more defensible than others. When the suffragette Mary Richardson hacked Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” in 1914, she did so in the name of protest, and today her act is viewed with more sympathy than, say, that of Pietro Cannata, the Italian painter who took a hammer to the toe of Michelangelo’s “David” in 1991, and who had no discernible reason for doing so.
It’s only relatively recently that these attacks have been perpetrated in the name of art itself. In 1974, a young artist named Tony Shafrazi walked into New York’s MoMA and sprayed “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s “Guernica,” calling this an “art action.” In 1994, an artist named Mark Bridger expressed himself by pouring ink into a Damien Hirst tank containing a pickled sheep. In 1996, at MoMA again, an art student vomited onto a Mondrian as part of a performance piece he called “Responding to Art.” Earlier this year, a Houston street artist tagged a Picasso at the Menil Collection.
In Britain, the most infamous example of so-called appropriation occurred in 2003, when the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, drew clown faces on a series of rare Goya prints and called the work “Insult to Injury.” For the most part, the critics and curators responded to this transgression in much the same horrified way they have to Umanets, even though the Chapmans, who bought the prints first, hadn’t broken any laws (one critic went so far as to call the act “evil”).
The reason for this response stems at least in part from a basic principle of democratic society: We are allowed to attack each other’s ideas—we may even have an obligation to do so—but we are not allowed to mess with each other’s stuff. It seems a bit deflating that the anything-goes avant-gardists should also abide by such a ploddingly conventional rule, but there really is no other explanation for the violent revulsion they reserve for people like Vladimir Umanets.
Or maybe there is. In today’s art world, the Yellowists’ impulse to deprive works of context, to strip away the names, accolades, and enormous sums of money changing hands (Hirst raised $198 million at a 1998 Sotheby’s auction) may represent the ultimate act of vandalism, a violation of the last taboo. After all, in the flattening light of Yellowism, Hirst’s “Mother and Child Divided” becomes little more than a dead cow and its calf. It’s just too bad Umanets had to ruin a perfectly good painting to publicize this point.
As much as Spalding disapproves of what Umanets did—“It’s just wrong”—he also suggests that the art world has brought this upon itself. “They’ve created this situation, with this desire to shock,” he says. “The Tate bought a can of [human excrement] for £22,000. And once you’ve bought a can of [human excrement] for £22,000, what else can you do?”
Spalding goes on to point out that the Tate exhibited the Chapmans’ “Insult to Injury,” which he believes leaves them on shaky ground with regards to this latest incident. “If they accept that the Chapmans can take a Goya print and stick clown faces on it, then they’ve validated Mr. Umanets, too,” he says. “They should not only drop the charges against him, they should have an exhibition about Yellowism.”
As for Umanets—when asked about the prospect that his act may inspire imitators, and what he might say to anyone looking to embellish an artwork, he slumps into his seat and doesn’t speak for a while. “I’d say, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” he responds finally. “That it’s a stupid thing to do.”
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.