The Telegraph JUNE 26, 2003 - by Mark Blacklock


Has the world gone intervention crazy?

When a piece of art causes in you a powerful feeling, perhaps making the bile rise in your throat or the ulcer in your stomach pulse angrily, are you ever tempted to do something about it - do anything, as long as it's a response? If so, you might find yourself among the ranks of the Interventionists.

In a number of recent and high profile instances, certain individuals, card-carrying artists and regular civilians both, have acted upon the urge to respond critically with a physical intervention into a piece of art.

Last month Aaron Barschak, who gatecrashed Prince William's twenty-first birthday party, attending a talk by Jake Chapman even 'intervened' into an artist, throwing a pot of red gloss paint over the Scot in protest at the Chapman brothers' reworkings of Goya's The Disasters Of War. This reworking is itself an intervention, an incredibly powerful retouching of a rare set of Goya prints owned by the brothers, where they painted cartoon and clown faces over the tortured Goya originals.

Before that, back in April, Cornelia Parker's The Distance: A Kiss With Added String was "attacked" with scissors.

It would appear that the art world has gone intervention crazy. You could blame it on Guy Debord and the Situationist International with their fondness for challenging the gallery environment with dynamic interventions. But that's too obvious. As usual, I blame Brian Eno.

In his 1995 diary-cum-essay collection A Year (With Swollen Appendices), Eno confessed to a clever wee joke he had played with Marcel Duchamp's seminal readymade, Fountain. Eno, never short of wit, had taken it upon himself to urinate into the urinal. Being the godfather of ambient music, however, it obviously would not do for him to be seen relieving himself in full view of the punters in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Eno therefore took great pains - some would say quasi-psychotic pains - to prepare for his prank. Bottling his urine in a vessel which he could readily secrete about his person and attaching to it a tap and a length of plastic tubing which would fit through the casing protecting the urinal, he was able to approach the piece and apply the ambient urine seruptitiously.

Clearly Chinese performance artists Yuan Cai and Jian Ji Xi had not encountered Eno's Swollen Appendices or, if they had, felt Eno's work worth improving upon. In 2000 when Fountain came to Tate Modern, the pair stood either side of the piece and, according to BBC reports, "urinated for a minute in front of bemused onlookers".

A subsequent statement revealed the motivation behind their actions: "to make people re-evaluate what constitutes art itself and how an act can be art" and "to broaden the context of the iconic urinal, celebrating the spirit of modern art."

This act, which makes Eno's seem as sedate as his music, was achieved without the knowledge of the Tate or its security guards. So the next time you find yourself caught short on Bankside, you know where to go.

Cai and Xi are rather better known for another performance piece, 1999's Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey's Bed, in which they broadened the context of Tracey Emin's My Bed for a full fifteen minutes, bouncing around with "isms" (most notably "anti-stuckism", the movement which grew as a reaction to conceptual art such as Emin's) painted on their torsos before being apprehended by security staff at the Tate and handed over to the police.

Gamely, Emin declined to press charges but presumably she was wooed by Mr Cai's post-performace reflections: "I was going to pull off my Calvin Klein pants and put Tracey's knickers on, but I didn't have time to do a proper performance." And even better: "I tried to scare the guards by pretending to be a kung fu artist."

Less articulate than these interventions (and sharing more in common with Barschak's illucid attack on Jake Chapman) have been those perpetrated upon Marcus Harvey's now restored portrait of Myra Hindley and Neil Simmons' statue of Margaret Thatcher.

Harvey's infamous piece, for which he employed children's handprints to paint the iconic press image of the Moors murderer, was attacked with eggs and ink. The Thatcher statue suffered blows from, first, a cricket bat and then, when that wasn't enough to inflict any serious damage, a conveniently nearby scaffolding pole. If your response to a piece of art is "knock its head off", it seems fair to say you're not trying hard enough.

Certainly, the law seems to think so. Paul Kelleher, the thirty-seven-year-old theatre director who attacked the Thatcher statue has just cooled his heels for three months at the pleasure of Her Majesty. In his unsuccessful mitigating speech against the charge of criminal damage Kelleher said his act had been a political statement.

"I am becoming increasingly worried as to what sort of world I have brought my son into," he claimed, apologising for his actions and citing frustration as a motivating factor. Plainly it would be unwise to stand next to Paul Kelleher on a tube platform, but more importantly this is a stark warning to those who would allow their critical faculties to be clouded by political opinion.

Hopefully the as-yet unnamed thirty-six-year-old from Notting Hill (note to self: doesn't Eno live in Notting Hill? How old is he?) who intervened into Cornelia Parker's The Distance: A Kiss With Added String will find the artist as broad-minded as Tracey Emin. Parker's piece, according to the artist "a comment on the claustrophobic nature of relationships", is nothing more than Rodin's sculpture The Kiss wrapped in a length of twine. The unnamed man, on bail pending further police inquiries, simply cut the rope.

To this humble observer, this intervention is the most eloquent of all those considered here and seems to advance the original piece, bringing to it a sense of completion. Parker's "comment" is at its best obvious and at its worst reductive. It surely invites intervention. If indeed the artist finds relationships claustrophobic, shouldn't she find the cutting of her string, metaphorically at least, a liberation? By freeing The Kiss from its bindings the unnamed Notting Hillian has offered a ray of hope to the artist. There seems little doubt that they should get together for dinner. I'd suggest a bowl of spaghetti.