under the influence of "the rend" / by Nicola Chalmers

(to) rend –

(to) tear (something) into pieces;

(to) wrench (something) violently;

(to) cause great emotional pain to.

Last week I went to the Tate Britain to see Sue Tompkins perform her new work MOB DE MOB. I was early so I spent some time wandering around the permanent collection. In display room 1840 I was stopped in my tracks by a painting I'd never seen before: the first in Augustus Leopold Egg's triptych, PAST AND PRESENT, 1858. A Victorian morality picture is not the sort of piece I’d usually stop for, but despite the drawing-room fuss and sermonising, this one left a scratch. Not the scene itself – a suffocating depiction of a (the epitomic) fallen woman – but the composition and immediacy of gestures, afloat in my eyes from the rest of the picture and constellating a meaning that surpassed the painter’s subject.

A collapse, yes, still a collapse, but –   

Nic Chalmers, THE REND (after Egg), 2018

Nic Chalmers, THE REND (after Egg), 2018

On the table, a knife.

The knife cuts an escape, returning for heads, hands, hair, a closed fist. Turning its blade on the hand (male) that grips a letter so tight it might be trying to hold fast the complaint – to ensure the canvas remains taut, the image unequivocal. But no use. Now cut, now held asunder and not-now harnessed, the image is situated elsewhere.

In the direction of the mother, a child’s gaze.

The rotation of her head, turned-unrewindable on the second cervical vertebra of her spine; her axis now, an imaginary line around which she spins. The line against which she’ll measure herself in the still-arriving moment of collapse. A pang, a sting, transmitted through the mother’s fingers, now clasped in the all-is-lost.  

It went on stinging for some time after I left that room. 


The original image: the first in Augustus Leopold Egg's triptych, PAST AND PRESENT, 1858. 

The original image: the first in Augustus Leopold Egg's triptych, PAST AND PRESENT, 1858. 

Later, on entering Tompkins’ performance, I was given a pamphlet entitled THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT RIPPING. 

Sue Tompkins

Sue Tompkins

To write lengthily about Tomkins’ performances would be to defy their nature; she works with space, gaps, and a brevity of speech akin to the making of isolated gestures. To borrow from someone else’s work, hers are “words to be looked at”. Suffice to say it chimed uncannily with events in display room 1840.


To continue the strange symmetry of that evening, the next day found me reading Jenn Joy’s THE CHOREOGRAPHIC:

"Didi-Huberman speaks of the work of representation as a dialectical engagement of distortion, conflation and repetition, breaking with art history as a series of categorical imperatives based on style, period, or history, to instead conjure "open structures full of holes, of knots, of extensions impossible to situate, of distortions and rips in the net". For Didi-Huberman it is gesture that reveals the gaping impotence of representation. The gesture arresting representation is the "rend", the ripping of the net or what he describes as an opening or break within the image itself... To write of images under the influence of "the rend" is to call attention to the difficult distorting choreography at work in the image and simultaneously to the moving relations between image and viewer."