Destruction & Ownership: A Kiss is Just a Kiss

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On October 8th, 2012, Vladimir Umanets tagged Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Maroon) at the Tate Modern in London in dripping black oil paint, later declaring the act the creation of A Potential Piece of Yellowism. Umanets is a member of a movement he calls Yellowism. The Yellowist philosophy draws no distinction between art, anti-art, or even non-art objects. Umanets claims the act was something akin to appropriation; that by signing an artwork not made by him he was making it into a more valuable object. However, the value attributed to A Potential Piece of Yellowism seems to be entirely monetary. “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,” Umanets said (Quinn).

His tag is not a comment on or an interpretation of Untitled (Black on Maroon). Unlike other works that have employed mark making on or appropriation of an earlier work by another artist, like Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, the work does not say anything about art or about the work being altered. Additionally, the destruction does not comment on the act of destruction itself, a primary tenet set forth at DIAS. The act is completely self-referential and almost entirely devoid of concept

When the circumstances are altered even slightly, how do our feelings change toward actions toeing the line between vandalism and destruction art? The case of the arrest of French-Cambodian artist Rindy Sam in 2007 at first sounds similar to that of Umanets, and it would be easy to write it off as crime, as the French police did. Upon further inspection, the incident is more complicated. In July of 2007, Rindy Sam planted a kiss on a white part of one of three canvases comprising Cy Twombly’s Phædrus at an exhibition of his works in Avignon. The kiss left a lipstick print on the canvas, for which Sam was fined for property damage. ”I just gave it a kiss… It was an act of love; when I kissed it, I wasn’t thinking. I thought the artist would understand.” (“A Kiss Is Just a Kiss.”)

The interesting thing is it was not the act for which Sam was tried and fined, but the mark left by the act. She said the kiss was spontaneous, that she was overcome (“Kiss For a Twombly “). If we are to believe this, it is possible that had this spontaneous act occurred on a day she had not applied lipstick, she may have avoided the controversy entirely. From where does the destruction come? If the kiss itself was not destructive, why is the mark recording the occurrence of a loving act destructive? Agnes Tricoire, the plaintiff’s lawyer, brought up an interesting point in retort to Sam’s professions of love. She stated that both parties must consent in order for the act to be in love.

Just as there is a social contract of consent between the artist and the viewer resulting in engagement and conversation, according to Tricoire it seems there must also be agreement between artist and material or artist and subject. Though it certainly has not always been so, perhaps the lack of consent on the part of the subject constitutes a kind of assault on the part of the artist. Once a physical or visual act crosses into the realm of assault, is it still art? In Rindy Sam’s case, it is unclear whether it is a destructive mindset or the mark-making and physical record that deems an act destructive.

(Continue reading about Rindy Sam and Robert Rauschenberg here…)

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Megan Udell

Megan Udell lives in San Francisco, spending the majority of her time writing, sharing her love of art with anyone who will listen, and drinking entirely too much coffee.

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