The Bizarre Happenings of France's Art Scene in 11 Artists

Abraham Poncheval during his performance of 'Ours' Musée de la chasse et de la nature in 2014 │ Courtesy of Palais de Tokyo
Abraham Poncheval during his performance of 'Ours' Musée de la chasse et de la nature in 2014 │ Courtesy of Palais de Tokyo
Photo of Paul McQueen
27 February 2017

France’s art scene is a media whore, the outrageous antics of which are never out of the news: a mammoth acquisition one week, a billionaire’s pet museum the next; the odd €100 million heist and feuding families providing regular servings of scandal. But it’s the nation’s performance artists (and occasionally foreign invitees) that are the best at grabbing headlines. Long may they continue!

Yves Klein

This French artist, best known for inventing International Klein Blue and his fascination with the color, pioneered performance art in the late 1950s. He conducted his most stunning act in a quiet Parisian suburb in October 1960 with hardly a soul around. Captured in a black and white image entitled Saut dans le vide (Leap into the void), Klein jumped from the upper story of a building as if taking flight. The photomontage hides the fact that his friends were waiting below to catch him in a tarpaulin. Nonetheless, it went as viral as any image possibly could at the time and remains one of the century’s most captivating.

Matthieu Laurette

Laurette made his artistic debut in 1993 on, of all things, the French version of Blind Date, having beforehand invited the French art elite to tune in. Since then, his media appearances have been numerous and varied. For example, with Apparitions (Appearances, 1993-present) he regularly showed up in the audiences of TV shows and with Produits remboursées (Money-back Products, 1991-2001) he attracted international press coverage of his strategy to live for free by exploiting product guarantees on everything from food to electrical equipment. In his words, ‘By merely systematically operating an advertising gimmick, [he] symbolically challenges the capitalist mercantile system.’


ORLAN (always capitalized) is one of France’s most internationally renowned contemporary artists, a practitioner of sculpture, photography, performance, video installations and pretty much everything that has the power to shock and challenge ‘ready-made thinking’. Her most famous work to date is the series of live plastic surgeries she undertook beginning in 1990 whereby she remade her image in the likeness of famous beauties from Western art like Botticelli’s Venus and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. She also had horns – real, permanent horns – way before Lady Gaga thought they’d be a super-cute way to market Born This Way (2011).

Olivier de Sagazan

Olivier de Sagazan’s performative series Transfiguration has been disturbing, captivating, and uplifting people in equal measures since he started it in 1999. This work of body art (a sub-category of performance) involves de Sagazan caking his face and body in layer after layer of paint and clay. In doing so, he disfigures, deconstructs, and transforms his ‘natural’ form into a whole new one, a sort of human-animal hybrid. This process, and the exploration of identity it entails and provokes, is filmed and shared online, where the French artist has gained a global cult following.

Pierre Pinoncelli

Pinoncelli has performed (some might say ‘committed’) over 70 happenings in his 50-year career. Among his most audacious are when he paint bombed André Malraux in 1967, robbed a bank at gunpoint (of 10 francs) in 1975, and cut off his fingertip in 2002. However, his two most notorious performances targeted fellow Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (the signed urinal and pivotal work of 20th-century art). In 1993, he relieved himself in the 1917 original and then took a sledgehammer to it and then in 2006 he cracked a 1964 replica at the Centre Pompidou. For damaging the €2.8 million copy, he was fined €200,000.

Paul McCarthy

Admittedly, controversial American artist Paul McCarthy’s Tree installation in the Place Vendôme in fall 2014 wasn’t so much a ‘happening’ as a ‘scandal’ that shook members of the French art world (in most cases with laughter). The monumental artwork which resembled a cartoon Christmas tree and/or giant, green butt plug, depending on your persuasion, caused a furor among conservative Parisians. After less than a week, the 25-meter inflatable sculpture was deflated by vandals and McCarthy decided to remove rather than replace it. This may also have been motivated by his being slapped by a passer-by outside the Ritz Hotel. Talk about artistic impact!

Boijeot Renauld

Laurent Boijeot and Sébastien Renauld (known professionally by their surnames) caused a sensation in New York in October 2015 when they spent a month camping from 125th Street south to the Financial District using their impressive set of pine furniture (which they sell through their design agency 2M26) and bedding. The project, which they have since replicated in Tokyo and Paris, is not a statement on homelessness as some might expect but an attempt to slow the pace of city life, encourage people to stop and interact with each other, and ultimately to make new friends.

Anish Kapoor

Foreign artists exhibiting in historic locations really seems to rub the French up the wrong way. At Anish Kapoor’s summer 2015 show at the Palace of Versailles, one sculpture caused two separate scandals. First, Dirty Corner was deemed reminiscent of female genitalia by critics (in their eyes this was seen as a criminal offense) and the French press mockingly referred to it as The Queen’s Vagina. All mirth fell away when it was twice vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. After the second attack, Kapoor, with presidential backing, chose to leave it intact. This only landed him in court for inciting racial hatred.

Deborah de Robertis

If sensitive critics suffered because of Tree and Dirty Corner, de Robertis’ happenings at the Musée d’Orsay must have finished them off. The Luxembourgish artist is making a name for herself by reenacting 19th-century paintings in front of the works themselves. In May 2014, she posed nude before Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866) and in January 2016 she repeated the act with Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1865). In both cases, she was arrested for indecent exposure. Rather than exhibitionism, de Robertis insists she is demonstrating the ‘gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze.’


French photographer and street artist JR is gaining increasing appreciation for his black and white pictures, which frequently take the form of selfies and exploit people’s relationship with social media. Indeed, his first retrospective will be held in Qatar between March and May 2017. One work that brought him significant international attention was when he made the Pyramide du Louvre disappear in May 2016. By covering one side of the pyramid with posters that at a distance resembled the architecture behind but up-close were made up of black dots on white backgrounds, his optical illusion simultaneously hid and highlighted the glass structure.

Abraham Poincheval

Poincheval, the thinking person’s David Blane, is the undisputed champion of French happenings. So far, he has crossed France in a perfectly straight line, rolled over the Alps in a metal barrel, navigated the Rhône in a plastic bottle, spent a fortnight inside a bear, and sat on a tiny platform 20 meters above a Parisian train station for a week. In 2017, he is taking endurance to new heights by entombing himself in a boulder for a week and incubating eggs for up to a month. But he has also set sights on what Yves Klein could only simulate: human flight.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"