Artistic research as a form of performance

Francis Picabia, The Adoration of the Calf, 1941–42. Oil on board, 106 × 76.2 cm. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle, Paris.

Merve Ünsal

I have the habit of going through retrospective exhibitions reverse chronologically. This approach has the logistical advantage of avoiding to have to flow with the crowd (I’m a bit of an agoraphobic) as well as the pleasure of seeing people’s reactions as they exit a space that you are about to enter. There is also the kick I get out of seeing the “result” of a practice before seeing the phases that led up to it.

The linear narratives of most retrospectives, moving viewers from gallery to gallery within institutional spaces, is a problematic way of looking at artistic practices. At the same time, as an artist, I do seek comfort in the thought or notion that I’m moving towards something, a simplification, a result of sorts that will make everything that I have done with my work feel futile and incredibly useful at the same time.

In his essay “Timeliness and Lateness”, Edward Said discusses this notion of progression as one nears death and how it affects one’s work. In the end, would it be possible for a style to age and die, the same way a person ages and dies?

I recently saw Picabia’s retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zurich – an epic homage and narrative of the artist’s work that is at once contentious and deeply layered in the readings it offers of the artist’s work. Following my reverse approach, I started the exhibition with the section, “Points and Last Pictures.” There was something tender in these works that seemed to only acknowledge the bare mechanics of painting, distilling and portraying planes of colour in a way that was familiar yet eerie. There were traces of other artists whose works I knew more closely – a blend of styles and things that I thought I recognised. Seeing the paintings that used pornographic stock imagery to create dynamic collages of bodies, the adoration of a cow, the anti‐heroic doctor portrait, the protocinematic transparencies as well as the more familiar Dada works made no sense together. It seemed that every time Picabia got comfortable, he switched gears and picked up something that was just bonkers. And this lack of narrative and linearity in his work is exactly what makes him an interesting figure to study from the perspective of artistic research as a form of performance.

What I mean by artistic research as a form of performance, which then becomes a medium in and of itself, is the lack of “form” or more accurately, a specific style. And this contemporary condition of constantly shifting, shuffling, hustling to get to the form, which may or may not be a continuation of what you have done before.

The word tuhaf in Turkish – translated as strange, weird, peculiar, funny, bizarre, in that order – is a word that a friend uses often to describe many things ranging from girls’ outfits to contemporary art to inappropriate behaviour. Thinking about this word, I wonder about specificity. Or rather, specificity in language, as I’m interested in the relationship between description and that which is described and how one can be both loyal and subjective. With loyalty, I’m referring to that relationship between the description and the described – perhaps, the gap between the understanding, perception, created by the description and that which is described is exactly where the subjectivity of the speaker resides. In other words, what is the potentiality of subjectivity created by the very act of description?

To return to tuhaf – an adjective – the first sentence in the Turkish dictionary exemplifying the word refers to, “a state [that Nahit was in], which had never been observed,” before.

The implications of this sentence are:

a) Nahit is observed;
b) Nahit has different states that can be observed;
c) The observers had never observed this particular state that he was in;
d) This state that they were observing for the first time was tuhaf.

Following these premises, I think about the relationship between not having observed something before and being tuhaf. Is it possible that the reason the observers thought Nahit’s state was tuhaf was because they had never been exposed to him as such? Without previous exposure, affinity, familiarity, and maybe intimacy, does the observer lack specificity?

In the first few pages of Le Petit Prince, the protagonist’s first depiction of an elephant, eaten, intact, by a snake resembles a hat, according to the consulted adults. The second depiction, in which the snake is made transparent and the elephant is seen as a whole, the contours of the snake traced around the elephant, facilitates the viewer’s understanding of what just happened in the image. However, the drawing is less accurate than the first one, as the snake is seen as transparent, which is not the case in real life. But one could argue that in the absence of any real possibility of accurate representation of a three‐dimensional phenomenon, the boundaries of accuracy – and specificity – become permeable.

I propose that the space between tuhaf and its object of description, is exactly where artistic production happens.

Image‐making is a form of description. It is non‐verbal – quite different from what I am doing right at this moment. Shapes are sometimes central in images. Shapes, or lack thereof, nod to the very way in which things are formed and processed in the world around us. The functionality of shapes, in architecture, seems to embody that which becomes while already having become. Is there any way that a triangle can be described as a triangle without having enclosed and described a space that is both hollowed and filled by that shape?

The shapes of letters form words; words express thoughts, which can all essentially be placed under “description” as thoughts can maybe only exist when they can be described. Thoughts are thus divided from emotions in their expression.

The organization of images to both talk and listen to words is a form of communication that directly involves the viewer/reader and this is perhaps the ultimate form of production, if the words can talk to the images in an infinite number of ways. The constant re‐construction of that which seems to be a mirroring, direct relationship between the word and the image is the triangle without the vertex. The vertex, following this logic, seals the descriptive potential liberated by linear relationships, and this is exactly why a triangle hosts, while a line frees.

It is thus possible to deduce that the linear narratives built around images is exactly what frees up artistic production. The relationship between the image and text, the described and the form of description, are all means by which relationships are built and the potentiality of these relationships, which seem to be limited, bracketed, by two things, is actually opened up. The phrase “drawing a conclusion,” at this point in time, is quite apt as this text is completed in a full circle; drawing, a most basic form of image‐making, of describing and formulating, is a means by which we make sense.

If artistic research is a mode of drawing, then could I also propose that Picabia’s circumvention of styles of painting and drawing offer a means with which we can look at works as performances of ideas best expressed in language? If visual language and verbal language fail to coincide with each other, then how do artists negotiate the assumed space between the two? Is Picabia’s work best presented in the form of the semi‐verbal, semi‐visual language of a retrospective exhibition at a museum or do we, as viewers, perform the movement through temporalities for and with Picabia?

Originally published in Performance Society, Books From The Future, July 2017.

Merve Ünsal is a visual artist based in Istanbul. She is the founding editor of