Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void of 1960, like many performance art works, is only known through a photograph. The sight of the painter, sculptor and judo-enthusiast mid-air, back arched and head pointed skyward to suggest flight, apparently oblivious to the law of gravity and ground below him, still embodies a spirit of child-like abandon. It epitomises the artist’s fascination with levitation and was meant to commemorate a leap made a few months earlier but which, significantly, no one had witnessed or recorded. However, this photograph is less the straightforward documentation of an acrobatic gesture, than the product of an expertly realised photomontage. This is a performance that exists solely within the photographic image.
While many photographs of live art are viewed as records of an ephemeral event, Leap into the Void complicates this understanding and questions where meaning resides by using the medium to construct the message. This doctored image is all at once a representation of a real jump, a conceptual artwork, a portrait, a publicity still, and the product of collaboration and technical skill in the darkroom; in this case by Harry Shunk and János Kender (known as Shunk-Kender), who took the photographs and created the montage.
Klein had previously worked with the couple, who documented many of the most exciting artists of the sixties and seventies, on his performance Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue (Anthropometries of the Blue Period) at the Galerie internationale d’art contemporain on 9 March 1960. Standing in a tuxedo, in front of a specially invited audience dressed in evening wear, Klein directed three nude female models as they applied paint to their bodies and pressed themselves against paper that lined the wall and floor. Far beyond the realm of art exhibition or the presentation of an artist at work, it was closer to the world of theatre. By having the event documented, Klein not only ensured that there was evidence that would outlive it, but placed the act of making and complete mise-en-scène of audience, model, and orchestra (who played Klein’s Monotone Symphony) at the forefront of the work. Shunk-Kender elaborated upon this dramatised setting by approaching the action from both behind the audience so that the dark silhouettes contrasted with the white of the paper and models, and from the side of the ‘stage’ to provide intimate access to action that could only be experienced through the photographs.
In mid-October 1960 Shunk-Kender went about documenting Klein’s leap from the stone wall pillar of 5 rue Gentil Bernard in the quiet Parisian suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses. János Kender, using a 35mm Leica with a telephoto lens, took action shots of Klein at various stages of flight in a similar manner to their documentary practice, while Harry Shunk, using a Rolliflex camera positioned on a tripod, was responsible for taking the two photographs that would later be combined together. The first image that made up Leap into the Void depicts Klein’s jump with a group of figures from the local judo school standing ready to catch him with a tarpaulin sheet, and even features Kender crouching in the bottom left-hand corner poised to capture his descent. For the second image, Shunk suggested to Klein that they include Kender as a cyclist and wait for a train to pass on the tracks in the background, referring to a reproduction of a 16th century painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicting the fall of Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun. In the landscape painting, Bruegel chose to place the moment Icarus crashes into the sea on the periphery of the canvas and a ploughman in the centre foreground who, along with many other figures, is oblivious to the tragic event. This suggestion of everyday activity set against a mythic and dramatic narrative served as the perfect comparative for Klein’s work. While the artist is definitely the focus of Leap into the Void and in no apparent danger, the cyclist, along with the strong perspectival line of the street, draws the viewer’s attention toward the train, and in doing so creates two force fields and types of activity that dramatise the contrast between Klein’s extraordinary act, and the mechanical, everyday labour of life.
Leap into the Void formed a part of Klein’s participation in the Second Festival of Avant-Garde Art in Paris. His contribution consisted of a self-published broadsheet titled Dimanche that mimicked the conventions of such publications, and used the same typeface as the real newspaper Journal du Dimanche. The photograph was accompanied by the headline ‘Un homme dans l’espace! Le peintre de l’espace se jette dans le vide!’ and followed with a caption that read: “Today the painter of space must actually go into space to paint, but he must go without tricks of fraud, and not in an airplane, parachute, or rocket. He must go there himself… In a word, he must be capable of levitating.”
Set against the context of the space age and Klein’s interest in zen meditation and judo, Leap into the Void was not merely a daredevil act, but a definitive statement on his belief in the transformative power of art. Across the four pages of Dimanche, Klein included 17 proposals for the ‘Theatre of the Void’, which included a play with no actors, scenery, narrative or spectators so that, “for one entire twenty-four-hour day, life would become the theatre … a veritable spectacle of the void.” The desire to dramatise everyday reality was reiterated when on 27 November 1960, the date of the festival, Klein drove around in his Deux Chevaux car with a group that included a young Hans Haacke to distribute the pamphlet to newsstands. While it was only placed in three locations, it too was photographed so that this fictional paper became a part of the real mass media. This was followed by a press conference, organised by Klein at Galerie Rive Droite, where he explained his project and distributed additional copies of the publication.
The image that became known as Leap into the Void soon took on its own life. A few months after Dimanche, Klein published a version of the image that omitted the train and cyclist in a catalogue for the exhibition Yves Klein: Monochrome and Feuer at Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld in Germany. Then a few months later he chose to feature the bicycle montage again in the Zero Group’s exhibition catalogue. By readily using two different compositions (although never the third, which included Klein’s car in the background), he dramatised the act of reading and looking at art, so that it became impossible to locate an authentic art object or reality. Instead, what remains is his original concept, which continues to be reimagined by other artists including Yasumasa Morimura who, 50 years after the original, created his own version of Leap into the Void set in Tokyo as part of his series A Requiem: Theater of Creativity, and Ciprian Mureşan’s Leap into the Void: After Three Seconds (2004) which depicts a similar scene only with the figure lying flat on the ground.
However Klein never descends from his grand leap. With the invention of the photographic medium, and darkroom trickery, it became possible to fly closer to the sun and to remain there. Klein seems to have been aware that any subsequent representation of a live performance would evoke an absence, and so he transformed what previously would have been considered the trace of an event into the form. Just as the void was meant to embody a state where the material facets of the physical world dissolved into the ether, so too does this image, and its subsequent dissemination, erase any necessity for an original ‘truthful’ act, be it performance, documentary photograph or art object. Subsequently, the work can be placed within a narrative of performing directly for the camera that includes The Seven Words (1898) by F. Holland Day who reenacted the final moments of Jesus Christ, Man Ray’s photograph of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, and the carefully constructed film stills of Cindy Sherman.
In Leap into the Void Klein created an image that speaks to both his own theatrical artistic life, but also to the constructed nature of reality in an increasingly media-driven age. Today, with the advent of social media and tools such as photoshop, the original strain and effort that people encounter in their lives can be hidden, so that truth only resides in the (altered) image presented to the world – performing our ideal selves for a camera, hoping to escape from the muddy gutter of the street and up towards the stars.
Leap into the Void was part of the exhibition Performing for the Camera which ran 18 February – 12 June 2016 at Tate Modern, London.
Fiontán Moran is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern and editor of the zine Death Becomes Herr.