Saturday, 18 June 2016

Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern, London (18 February-12 June 2016)

Unsurprisingly, given that it was covering over a hundred years of artistic activity in the medium, there was a lot of work on display in this exhibition.  With over five hundred images on display, an engaged viewing required a determination both helped and hindered by the gallery rooms at Tate Modern.  It was helped by my visit taking place on the last day of the exhibition, so there were few other visitors.  Progress was hindered though by the malfunctioning (or switched off) air conditioning, resulting in almost oppressive ‘dead’ air which was very, very uncomfortable.  Exploring the relationship between photography and performance from the invention of medium in the nineteenth century through to digital cameras and social media of today, from its very inception, while examining way to push the boundaries of representation within the media, artists have also strove to push the boundaries of the technology available in their time.

(top) Leap into the Void, Yves Klein (1960)
(bottom)  A Requiem: Theater of Gravity/Self-Portrait as Yves Klein, Yasumasa Morimura (2010)

Yves Klein’s iconic “Leap into the Void” (1960) is an early example of this.  In the photomontage Klein performs a death-defying leap from a rooftop in a Paris suburb.  In fact the image was made up of cutting two negatives – one where on the street below where a group of the artist’s friends held a tarpaulin to catch him as he fell, and the other of the surrounding scene (without tarpaulin).  These were then printed together to create a seamless ‘documentary’ photograph.  This was lovingly re-created 50 years later by Yasumasa Morimura in “A Requiem: Theater of Gravity/Self-Portrait as Yves Klein” (2010).  Klein was also a painter and experimented with various methods of applying the paint; firstly different rollers and then later sponges, created a series of varied surfaces.  This experimentalism would lead to a number of works this artist made in the 1960s which used naked female models covered in blue paint and dragged across or laid upon canvases to make the image, using the models as ‘living brushes’.  The performance/making of such paintings were also documented. 
(top) Yves Klein
(bottom) Carolee Schneemann

At around the same time, Carolee Schneemann was daubing herself with all manner of paint and other materials in her series “Eye/Body: 36 Transformative Actions” (1963).  Seeking to reclaim the female nude from artistic tradition by being both image and image maker, was extremely controversial at the time.  Her images were confrontational, primal, unashamedly erotic and far from passive.  In fact, there is a lot of naked female flesh on display in this exhibition.  This universal motif of artistic expression has unsurprisingly failed to escape the scrutiny of the lens.  From the complicit passivity of the models in Klein’s work through to Jemima Stehli’s self-activated “Strip” (1999) series over 30 years later, the use of the naked female body (particularly by female artists) still severely rankles many 21st century feminist art historian eyes.  At the height of discourse on the issue, Hannah Wilke came under particular intensive criticism.  This exhibition features some of her most recognised work where she featured semi- naked, alongside a lesser known piece “Portrait of the Artist in His Studio” (1971) which is surely a much more effective political statement and perhaps a an influence of Sarah Lucas’s “Fight the Good Fight” (1996), which is also featured. 

Hannah Wilke: (top) Starification Objects Series (1974)
(bottom) Portrait of the Artist in his Studio (1971)
Fight the Good Fight, Sarah Lucas (1996)

Yayoi Kusama also kept her clothes on in the documentation of her happenings at various venues around New York in the 1960s.  Here the artist is portrayed as director of the performance, rather than participant.  However, the very inclusion of her in these photographs does in fact record her own performativity within the happenings, which may have been unintended. 

Yayoi Kusama

An air of naivety surrounds most of the work on display in this exhibition.  From some of the rhetoric by certain artists featured (for example, Jimmy De Sana insisted his nudes photographed in grubby suburban interiors where inherently un-erotic, in part due to the surroundings they were filmed in) to attempts to capture movement and dance by a static medium in the case of Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer.  The capturing of performance work by Babette Mangolte, Marta Minujin  and Stuart Brisley is similarly naïve, but epitomises an imperative to test the limits of both artist and medium.

Lives of Performers, Yvonne Rainer (1972)


(below) Roof Piece, Trish Brown and Babette Mangolte (1971)

As the technology became more advanced and images turned from black and white to colour, naivety is replaced by sophistication, and self-promotion goes hand in hand with self-awareness.  Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures” (1997) demonstrate a wit and intelligence lacking from some of the more recent work in the exhibition.
Erwin Wurm

In the last of the fourteen rooms the 21st century equivalent/re-boot of Schneemann’s Eye/Body series, was Amalia Ulman’s  “Excellences & Perfections” (2014) series.  Reproduced from Instagram postings, it was a four month durational performance taking place directly on her personal Instagram account.  Ulman created a fictional character whose story unfolded in three different episodes - a cute girl, sugar babe then as a fashion and style blogger.  Her idea was to bring fiction to a platform that has been designed for supposedly “authentic” behavior, interactions and content. The intention was to prove how easy an audience can be manipulated through the use of mainstream archetypes and characters they have seen before.  It is clever, provocative and problematic as such representation is still an almost endemic mode of self-expression for young women on social media who seek acceptance and praise.

Excellences & Perfections, Amalia Ulman (2014)

Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp), Man Ray (1921)

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Ai WeiWei (1995)

Personal highlights were Marcel Duchamp’s alter-ego Rrose Sélavy photographed by Man Ray in 1921 which I have seen reproduced many times in academic texts and Ai WeiWei's "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995).  Also, a collection of work by Francesca Woodman, an artist I was completely unaware of, greatly moved me.  While she tread the feminist minefield of featuring young women (including herself) naked, most of the bodies were blurred due to movement and long exposure times in her photographs.  The figures merged with their surroundings or their faces were obscured.  The aesthetic considerations in her compositions were ethereal and beautiful.  Sadly, she committed suicide at the age of just 22 in 1981.  She never gained critical acclaim or attention during her lifetime, and it seems that the inclusion of so much of her work in one group exhibition, attests to a reversal of opinion since her death.

(below) Untitled, Francesa Woodman (c. 1975-1980)

This was an exhausting, but very thought-provoking exhibition.  Ironically at the entrance there was a “no photography” sign on the door which was clearly ignored given that there are to date over 1,000 posts on #performingforthecamera…