This article was originally intended to be part of a review for Performing for the Camera, an exhibition held at the Tate Modern, which ended 13th June this year. The article remained unfinished because while I was writing it, I realised that what I really wanted to talk about was this particular work. It deals with the key ideas explored in the exhibition, including those of authorship, photography as its own artistic medium, and the implications of using photography as a method of documentation. So instead of the exhibition as a whole, I present you with its key work.
Q: What happens when instead of being used as a means of documentation for another art form, photography becomes an artistic medium in its own right?
A: Something exciting.
Le Saut dans le Vide/Leap into the Void (1960) is by French artist Yves Klein (1928-1962), a prominent post-war figure and co-founder of Nouveau Realisme, a movement dedicated to showing ‘new ways of perceiving the real’. The bulk of his work focuses on articulating emptiness, or to put it another way, materialising the immaterial. Leap into the Void is a photomontage showing the artist jumping from the first storey of a house into emptiness, with nothing but a lone cyclist in the background. It could be seen to reflect his interests in mysticism and the symbolic; from an early age he claimed that he possessed the special power of levitation (which we see him enacting here through his art). It also relates to his interest in emptiness and the infinite nature of space – a term he coined ‘le vide’ or the void.
His fascination of the immaterial can be seen in many of his works, but particularly in Le Vide/The Void (1958), and Blue Monochrome (1957). He is thought to be a figure whose work pre-empted performance art; by elevating the sense of ceremony when unveiling a work, the artist creates specific conditions under which the work is intended to be experienced. In this, the artwork and performance of the artwork become interlinked. This can be seen in his Anthropometries, in which he uses paint-covered women as living paintbrushes on huge canvases. He directs their movements in a suit and tie, acting in a master of ceremonies’ persona playing host to a select invitation-only audience. The overall pomp of ceremony and the formal attire of Klein and the audience contrasts with the slow and steady rhythm of the performing bodies.
Leap into the Void is no exception to Klein’s habit of framing works with performance: on the day of its release he distributed a mock newspaper, sold on newsstands in Paris on 27th November 1960. It appropriated the form of the four-page broadsheet and was titled Dimanche – Le Journal d’un Seul Jour, translating as ‘Sunday – The Newspaper for Only One Day’. Whilst another of his works Theatre of the Void took the headline, the secondary story showed Leap into the Void with the title ‘A Man in Open Space!’. This framing of the work is an early example of conceptual art and contributes to the notion of placing an artwork in the real world, a technique used by many conceptual and performance artists since.
Unlike many of his famous works, Klein chose to dabble in photography for Leap into the Void. The work itself is a contradictory presentation of freedom and constraint. It appears as a stark act of defiance against convention, the body, and the very laws of nature. We see the artist leaping without a care into open space, seemingly unconcerned and indifferent to the imminency of his fall. The contrast between the mundane and sublime is stark – on one hand we see a dismissal of the norm, nay the laws of nature: a man is flying, people! But the setting undermines this mystical feat. Life carries on, the cyclist silently recedes through the quiet French suburb without so much as turning a head: a sublime act rendered ordinary.
Klein’s leap feels endless because the medium has frozen him in time. I think the work is so striking because it is the presentation of the crucial moment between action and reaction. He has taken the leap, that much is certain, but what next – will Klein fall or fly? This is left open to the viewer to interpret. Through his art, Klein has rendered himself immortal because he will never drop to the ground – he has fixed this moment of weightlessness forever in film. At first I was drawn to this sense of freedom imbued in the work, but was consecutively reminded of the inevitable pain of the fall. Whilst the art captures a state which does not comply with the logic of our world, as the viewer we know all too well that Klein must fall.
Of course to manufacture this work, more than one image was required. Leap into the Void is a composite of two images, overlaid to give the impression that Klein is jumping into empty space. The first is of course Klein leaping from the roof, but this time into a tarpaulin held by his friends. The second is the empty street with the lone cyclist in the background. Together, these two photos aren’t remarkable. They are of this world, comply with our rules. But combined they create something unreal, something unnatural. The notion that a picture can lie to us isn’t new, but through this photo Klein shows a way to transcend reality through a medium designed to capture it. He is using the medium to create something impossible to execute in real life, but with the facade of being rooted in reality. He is not so much performing for the camera, but through it. Now how good is that?!
As I’ve said before, what Klein was doing wasn’t new. Hundreds of artists prior to him had overlaid photos to give the effect of something else happening (like those spooky victorian photos where it looks like there’s a ghost but really it’s just two photos overlaid), but why I find Leaping into the Void so exciting is because he’s not utilising this technique as a cheap illusion, he’s using it to assert an artistic statement. We know the photo to be false, but because of the medium we invest some trust in its genuineness.
Through Leap into the Void, Klein evokes not only questions about the boundaries of the human body and the photographic form, but also the reliability of photography as a means to capture reality. And Leaping into the Void implies that both are wider than previously thought.