Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Performing for the Camera - Tate Modern

Sarah Lucas, Fighting Fire with Fire, 1996
Performing for the Camera is at Tate Modern until 12 June 2016.
The camera invites performance: the lens turned towards us compels, at the very least, an adjustment of expression and gaze. It may be that the camera doesn’t lie – but we do, when we create these little fictions for photographs. The contemporary apotheosis of this performance is the selfie where we become director, subject and audience. (I enjoyed David Bailey’s recent comments on the topic: … somebody said ‘what do you think of selfies?’... I thought it meant masturbation. And then they told me what it was, and I realised it is masturbation! – see short video here.)
The publicity for Performing for the Camera, featuring images by Romain Mader and Amalia Ulman, suggested that it was this narcissistic trope of the selfie that was the exhibition’s subject (albeit, that both Mader and Ulman self-consciously construct fictional identities). 
Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014
However, the exhibition is broader and more interesting than that, taking as its main focus the documentation of Performance Art as well as performance enacted for the camera.
The exhibition opens with Yves Klein’s well-known Leap into the Void (1960).  The photograph shows Klein in mid-flight from a first floor ledge with, apparently, nothing to prevent his inevitable fall onto the street below except for, presumably, his faith in immaterialism and transcendence - and the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. It is obviously a trick: a composite photograph – but very persuasively done. Here, however, it is ‘explained’ with the display of the photograph showing Klein’s friends waiting below with a tarpaulin to catch him. Klein (who died in 1962) was insistent that the trick should not be revealed, so it seems a little sad that is it so bluntly revealed here.  Once the ‘magic’ is explained – it is gone.
Leap into the Void is unequivocally Klein’s ‘work’; however, the photograph was made by Harry Skunk and János Kender; as were the many, many photographs of Klein gleefully directing his ‘living paintbrushes’ (naked women smeared with blue paint); in fact, one of the revelations of this exhibition is that the photographs of Skunk/Kender were key to much Performance Art of the 1960s and 70s – here we see their work with  Niki de Saint Phalle, Marta Minujín, Eleanor Antin, Yayoi Kusama, Dan Graham and Merce Cunningham, besides Klein; typically, in such instances, the photographer is effectively merely a technician in the archival process. Clearly this raises questions about who the artist is and where the art is – this is intrinsically problematic with performance given that, in these examples, it only really exists in the ‘live’ moment; another section of the exhibition looks at events/performance which is made specifically to be photographed. (Sometimes the point of the photograph is ambiguous – I looked with pleasure at Babette Mangolte’s gorgeous, misty rooftop view across New York dominated by that city’s, characteristic quirky water towers for some time before I realised that I was supposed to be attending to the individual figures from Trish Brown’s Dance Company distributed across the roofs.
Much of this exhibition presents familiar material – given that reproducibility is a defining characteristic of the medium this is often a potential problem for photography exhibitions: when work is exhibited as small, framed black and white prints (as much in the first few rooms, here, is) I can’t help feeling that seeing them in a book (such as the excellent catalogue) would be more effective; when those pictures are arranged in rows that begin near to the floor and rise to considerably above head height (as with the display of Stuart Brisley) it is just irritating.
However, there is work here that looks fresh and work that is displayed at a quality and scale that makes the most of gallery presentation.
Work that I particularly enjoyed included David Wojnarowicz’s series Arthur Rimbaud in New York; Jemima Stehli’s Strip; Hans Eijkelboom’s creepy portraits of himself posing with other people’s families; and Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits (his self-portraits as Angela Davis, Malcolm X and other significant figures make a refreshing juxtaposition to Cindy Sherman’s more familiar Untitled Film Stills.)
I also loved the wall of Joseph Beuys posters!
Read reviews by AdrianSearle, Waldemar JanuszczakMark Hudson, Rachel Spence.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, 1960 - photograph by Skunk-Kender
Yves Klein, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960 - photograph by Skunk-Kender
Babette Mangolte, Trisha Brown: 'Roof Piece', 1973
Hans Eijkelboom, With My Family, 1973
David Wojnarowicz, from Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-9
Francesca Woodman,  Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Jemima Stehli, from Strip, 1999-2000
Samuel Fosso, African Spirits: Angela Davis, 2008

Joseph Beuys, La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, 1972

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