The performance, usually, is thought as something with no aim apart from the reaction of the public to it. Tate Modern, however, changes our perspective upon the performance – as something that is staged purposefully to be recorded, in this case with photography, with the exhibition Performing for the Camera.
The camera is the conducting thread through the all fourteen rooms of the exhibition, representing the only stable part of the performance itself. However, even if the look of the camera is ‘fixed’ upon reality we can see how, sometimes, photographers twisted the final result and its credibility by working in the darkroom; this concept is evident as soon as we walk in the first room. Yves Klein’s ‘Leap into the Void‘ is the final result of two images merged together. In the first one Yves, the performer, shot by Harry Shunk, leaps into a bed-sheet held by a group of men to soften his fall while in the second picture there’s the same environment, but empty, with only a cyclist in the distance. Shunk merged these two images together in the darkroom in order to create the illusion that Yves had no protection while jumping from the cornice of a building.
After the introduction of Performing for the Camera in the first room, the visitor walks through the category of Documenting Performance in the following four rooms, witnessing other works of Yves Klein (especially the that of the performance ‘Anthropometries‘ of the Blue Period in which women used their naked bodies as brushes to paint onto giant canvases – directed by Yves Klein). In this part of the exhibition it is important for the viewer to understand that the photographer has more of a background role, even if his or her contribution to the performance is fundamental; in these rooms the photographer doesn’t count as an individual. Klein’s performances could have been carefully planned beforehand in order to reach the desired outcome, but as we start to approach the following category [Staging/Collaboration] we start to see how capturing the performance becomes the key of the performance itself. Minoru Hirata’s goal with ‘Hi Red Center Dropping Event at Ikenobo Hall‘, Tokyo, October 10th  was to document the act of dropping objects from different camera angles – Marta Minujín’s ‘The Destruction‘, as the title suggests, focuses on the representation of the destruction of her own artworks.
Among all the artists, however, Tate dedicates the seventh room to the photographer Eikoh Hosoe and the photographs featured in the photobook “Kamaitachi” of which he’s the author with the dancer he collaborated with (and shot): Tatsumi Hijikata. Finally, the photographer and the performer reach balance not only in the consideration they have for their work, but also as human beings – this eden between photographer and performer however, is already destroyed in the following category: Photographic Actions.
In the first five rooms the photographer had no importance as a human being of her/his own, in this new category the body almost becomes part of the environment surrounding it in the photographs we see from room eight to ten; Erwin Wurm’s ‘One Minute Sculptures‘ is a clear demonstration of this concept. Different people pose with everyday objects, often relating to them in an absurd and dangerous way. As the title suggests, the images do not represent solid sculptures but dynamic acts designed to last for a very short time that cannot happen again in the same way, even if repeated. His project met Vogue Germany in 2009 when Wurm shot Claudia Schiffer with the same concept: the supermodel was only wearing a beige trench-coat as she passively engaged to hold objects with different parts of her body. The playful, yet grotesque, vibe intensifies with Jimmy DeSana’s photography from the book “Suburban”, in which the body is entirely represented as an object. Naked bodies are lit with flashes covered in vibrant coloured gel, twisting reality with a dreamy, yet violent, environment, while they are entwined with everyday objects. The difference between Wurm’s and DeSana’s projects is that while the first one represented dressed, average people (most of them with their faces visible) and a supermodel, hence a celebrity well known among the public, Jimmy DeSana ripped away the identity of the people who posed for him by not making their faces visible: to him, and to us, the only thing that separates those bodies from actual objects is their anthropomorphic figure.
The photographer and the performer meet as the same persona in the last room – Photographic Actions with Francesca Woodman’s photography. Her art is suspended between the self portrait and the performing action as it doesn’t make a statement of her own identity nor she is completely detached from it as a person. She’s elusive, managing to keep herself hidden while showing her naked body. Her photography is a smooth transaction to the next category: Performing Icons – which is observed only in room eleven and considers the detachment from identity and body in order to reach new identities. The whole area is introduced by Samuel Fosso’s series of ‘African Spirits‘ photographs, making a tribute to the figureheads of the Black movement in Africa and in the US by dressing himself up as them for each picture. In these photographs we may recognize his features, but apart from them, there’s nothing else showing us Samuel Fosso.
Cindy Sherman is known in the history of photography for dressing up in front of her camera, recreating images that seem to be taken from film stills (she encouraged this by titling some of her images ‘Untitled Film Still‘ with a number to identify their sequence), and Tate largely features her work contemplating it from the seventies to her more recent productions. The impersonation of somebody else continues with the artist Yasumasa Morimura and his tribute to ‘Leap into the Void‘ by Yves Klein [as discussed in the first paragraphs] with the photograph ‘A Requiem: Self Portrait as Yves Klein‘ – in which he reenacts the the original photograph, but only in a different environment.
Photography gives people the chance to build a new identity that only exists within the photograph – such role-play, however, does not consider only the outward appearance of them but could also lead the artists towards the discovery of themselves. In Performing Icons, especially with Cindy Sherman the visitor can see how some portraits were drawn to the world of Hollywood, but they only reach a completely Hollywood-like appearance in the following room, which regards Public Relations. Every self-portrait depicted in this room has been carefully staged according to the mass-media and advertising techniques, giving a new purpose to the image within this exhibition: the market. The image is meant to be spread widely and such thing can happen when it is put in a flyer, or a poster. Differently from Photographic Actions, the visitor can see the person posing for the camera and acknowledge the identity and the role in society it has, but, as it is planned, it does not aim to deliver the identity of the person in the image. In this room Jeff Koons‘ ‘Art Magazine Ads‘ [1988-9] catch the visitor’s attention, showing a world on the edge of the bizarre and the kitsch, embracing pop-culture with playful images.
Self-portraits concern one of the most fragile sides of photography, especially when they’re used to make a statement regarding the inner being of the artist. With Self / Portrait we finally see the photographer becoming the performer and allowing him/herself to be completely transparent before the camera. The visitor can actually witness how painfully vulnerable some artists appear in their own self portraits: Adrian Piper took fourteen self portraits in front of a mirror with a belly-button hight – this change of perspective let her look at herself from a different point of view, making sure that she actually existed. This series (later called ‘Food for the Spirit‘) is the consequence of the intense study of Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of the Pure Reason’, which led Piper to question reality and her very self. Jemima Stehli, on the other hand, gives the power to decide when the shutter is triggered to the audience she’s performing to: ‘Strip‘ is a series of photographs representing the artist facing her back to the camera and stripping in front of a male critic that holds the shutter and decides when the take a picture. The aim of the performance was to see how men reacted to her stripping and the visitor can see how wile a few of them were, clearly embarrassed and awkward, others behaved as the alpha-male by staring at her, sitting with their legs spread apart. Even if Stehli seems to be in a weaker position compared to the men because she’s taking her clothes off and she’s not controlling when the shutter is triggered, she has, actually, a strong role over the them: with the aim of showing herself naked she creates an immediate reaction, unveiling their personalities – at this point it’s natural to wonder whether if those are self-portraits of Jemima Stehli, or of the men looking at her.
Entering the last room of an exhibition means to already sense the “real” world right out of the exit doors, and Tate Modern prepares the visitor to finish Performing for the Camera with Performing Real Life. Amalia Ulman’s project was made for an invisible audience: ‘Excellences & Perfections‘ (Instagram update: 8th July, 2014) features Amalia herself taking a selfie in front of a mirror while wearing lingerie. We could consider social media as a huge performance of real life itself, as it encourages the user to keep on posting and broadcasting his/her own private life; however, it is only a mere representation of what real life is. The audience is invisible and represented by the number of the followers interacting with that person by expressing their appreciation hitting the like button. As soon as the image is liked, the performance is a successful.
With Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern unveils another side of photography, leaving the visitor to eventually wonder what is the real and what is the performance. The exhibition will be available to see until the 12th of June 2016 at Tate Modern.
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Written by Ludovica Colacino. Featuring photograph is by Francesca Woodman [Untitled, 1980], her work is now on display at ‘Performing for the Camera‘ exhibition at Tate Modern in London.