Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

The OCA quota for this visit is full up but at the last minute, the college email me to say that a place is available! I pay £10 for the privilege; the days used to be free but the college found themselves buying tickets for people who did not show up. The £10 covers not just the exhibition entry fee but also a group discussion over lunch guided by Russell Squires, an OCA tutor, which is what makes such a visit as this worthwhile.
I watch a video Tate have made about this exhibition in which one of the exhibitors talks about his photography that centres around his finding a wife in Eastern Europe; one is struck by the apparent amateurishness of his approach which mirrors that of the multitudes that take selfies everyday.
A review in The Guardian by Adrian Earle gives a brief rundown of what the exhibition covers; it is not a plaudit! I wonder what this exhibition is really about, what the intent of both the Tate and the curator might be. Possibly, the exhibition could be seen as a cash cow as photography has become enormously popular and hence effective at growing people in. Before seeing the exhibition for myself, I can not help question what the subject, Performing for the Camera, might contribute towards a better understanding of photography as a medium other than introducing us to a number of leading players in the field.
Meet with a fellow OCA student before going in and we discuss the large size of this exhibition, 14 different rooms, which seems typical of the Tate Modern. Sometimes, small is better because there is more time to absorb the work rather than the mass of images presented by large exhibits that contain work by many different photographers who are being considered in regard to the topic of the exhibition rather than in their own right.
I start reading the article in the Tate Etc magazine about the Performing for the Camera exhibition to which it devotes more than 10 pages of text and photographic reproductions. This is a brief resume of the exhibition that picks out items of interest. It is the kind of writing that may make more sense after seeing the exhibition yet it is also good preparation.
The exhibition itself is ticketed and photography is not allowed. We enter as a group and are soon riveted! The first two photographs facing one are of someone pinning themselves to a wall with a plank; looks like a form of self-impalement and conjures up the idea of crucifixion.
Seeing the photo by Yves Klein leaping into the void, one that is being used to publicise the exhibition, one realises the way the print stands out from the many copies seen in newspapers and on the internet. The print is remarkably more impressive, being much more well defined and better lit.
Aaron Siskind is known as an author hence it is good to see his photographic work for a change. His subject is levitation! Presumably, these images were made with the model on a flat plain surface rather than in mid-air (apparently though, as I later learn (see below in comments) they were made in mid-air!! Curator Simon Barnes comments “he sought to reveal the formal capacity of the camera to transform actions into shapes.”
The next room contains images inspired by Yves Klein. They were made of an art performance held in 1960 when bodies were painted. How much are these images about photography? They seem to be more concerned with the subject matter which also includes judo and handling a gun. Once again, these prints stand out and hence emphasise that these are photographic reproductions not merely record shots.
 “Photography has been integral to the history of performance art, often providing the principal means by which an action can be documented, remembered and understood.” The above quote is from text on the wall of the third room and this continues by outlining photographic considerations such as the unpredictable, the chaotic, and creative decisions involving camera angles, processing and printing. I am reminded of my own work in relation to photographing Tibetan Sacred Dance.
A couple of photographers stand out. Harry Shunk and Janos Kender who both died in the first decade of the present millenium; they worked with a number of artists. Minotaur Hirata born 1930 in Japan is another photographer who worked in this way. Photographers vary in their use of abstraction and objectivity. Some of the performers are better known than the photographers (Merce Cunningham for instance) yet there is a feeling that photographers and artists are not really working together; the photographer is documenting possibly interpreting but working for the artist. In the next section, the photographer plays a more pivotal role.
Nader was a famous photographer; described as “the most celebrated portrait photographer of nineteenth-century Paris”. The photographs seen here are of subjects the photographer has deliberately set up; Nadar is collaborating with his subjects which include the mime artist Paul Legrand and Sarah Bernhardt.
The next room, the walls are red while the previous 4 rooms were white, features work by Eikoh Hosoe. Here we see the photographer collaborating with artists to make narratives about their lives. Results include a Photobook called Kamaitachi from 1969, a collection of 48 photographs that were reprinted in 2010. There is a striking quality here also seen in Simmon: A Private Landscape from 1971, printed in 2012, that details a journey made by the actor Simmon Yotsuya while in androgynous character.
The next room, it seems we are back to white walls, is titled “photographic actions” and makes me feel nauseous. Man Ray is one of the photographers featured. What is the cause of the nausea? Perhaps my failing to understand what this room is about.
The next room continues the subject but with the large photographs of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, dropping what the caption says is a Han Dynasty Urn and hence presumably priceless, adds a sense of amusement. In this room, we start to see colour photography for the first time. I notice that my hour and a half here has only 15 minutes left so I sense the need to move on barely glimpsing at the work of Mikhailov.
It is good to see the exquisitively made photographs of Francesca Woodman. These feature her in various poses and guises; she features herself in “deserted interior spaces, in which her body almost merges with its surroundings, half-hidden in doorways and alcoves, or crouching in shadows.” Woodman began her work at age 13, taking her life at the age of 22.
The next room is concerned with “performing icons” and features work by Cindy Sherman among others. There is a rephotograph of Yves Klein’s image discussed at the beginning of this visit; the setting is in Japan not Paris and the photographer is Yasumasa Morimura who made the image in 2010.
Andy Warhol features in the Public Relations section. Here there are advertisements on display being presented as artworks.
The next section is about self-portraiture and features the auto-portrait series by Martin Parr of which I saw a larger version at Wakefield last month; in the context of this exhibition, I am struck by the originality of the approach.
Performing Real Life is the final section. What is the work of Amalia Ullman saying other than the fact she is a pretty blonde except when she dies her hair another colour.
Romain Mader’s series about his Ukrainian “mail-order bride” is an interesting comment on love as well as contemporary society.
Keith Arnatt who “engaged with ideas around photography” has work that shows people and their relation to their gardens. Masahisa Fukase has photographed his wife from an upstairs window on many occasions as she goes to work.
Russell introduces the day! Welcomes any new students and people from different disciplines.
Way the exhibition is divided up into different sections … is the effect continuous or meaningless!?
R struck by rephotograph by Yasumasa Morimura of Yves Klein image of man falling from window. The scene is different but the man on the bicycle looks very similar.
Photographs from man with camera on his head.
Performance piece with Japanese photographer running through panels.
One student comments on Strip because of the way the photographer was engaged with the work. Circular process.
American sounding student comments on model who held a mirror in different ways. Dora Maurer.
Another student commented on the Klein photographs which she felt were records of the events being staged rather than the performance. Is taking away a notion of what performance is.
How much is the photographer influencing the event? We automatically react to the presence of a camera. Are the performances just performances or being constructed as a result of the camera?
The clinical nature of the photograph!
One minute sculptures is discussed; I don’t remember seeing them. Neither do I notice the Claudia Schiffer images.
I comment on the main image used to promote the exhibition.
Arguement about the Ai Wei Wei images of him dropping an urn. Surely it is a real Han dynasty urn! I am sure it is not.
What are Tate Modern trying to say with this exhibition? Is it about photography, performance art, perhaps both, a cash cow to bring in lots of people so they can see what art is really about? Russell sees it as an experiment in curating but the format of Tate Modern photographic exhibitions is of many photographers contributing to the topic. One student suggests that the exhibition is for people with no artistic understanding! Making art accessible to many people.
Everybody knows about the selfie and this exhibition traces the origins of the current social phenomena. Marketing wants an image that looks out to the viewer as that attracts people hence the choice of the main advertising picture!? It might also have been chosen because of it’s contemporary nature.
Maybe the exhibition is about exhibitionism!?
What is performance being done for? For money, for attention … possibly for art whatever that might be! What came first … photography or performance art? asks tutor Russell. It seems they both emerged around the same time unless one wants to include theatre in performance art in which case photography is the latecomer that merely helped to mould the course performance art has taken.
UCA and OCA merge about the OCA experience of distance learning which is highly regarded.
Russell has no news about the forthcoming OCA conference; I am not the only one objecting to the fact it clashes with PhotoLondon.
After the OCA meeting is over, I decide to see the exhibition again and buy another ticket. This time, I shall start the exhibition at the end and slowly work my way back, lingering over work I want to see more of.
The last room includes work that feels more accessible perhaps because of it’s contemporRy nature. One can relate to this kind of work even if it does require some attention such as the reading of captions. Boris Mikhailov has made photographs by the Crimean seaside in which subjects act out roles. As usual with Mikhailov, there is a comic element that tinges the darkness. This room is called Performing Real Life. Romain Mader’s photos of the dream wife made real are strangely striking yet the the black and white images from 1974 but printed in 2015, of Fukase’s wife leaving for work are deeper.
In the previous room, Self Portrait, Fukase has a set of images of himself blowing bubbles, made in 1991, after his wife had left him not just for work but for good. Some 79 images explore the way one might make self-portraits in the bath while blowing bubbles. Another example of humour in photography which is evident in much work on show here including Parr’s Auto-portrait and the Dutch photographer, Hans Eijkelboom, picturing himself as the father of different families.
Strip in which the photographer, Jemima Stehli, with back to camera strips for a variety of male viewers is an interesting and visceral exploration of voyeurism since one can see the face of the viewer and his reactions.
Lee Friedlander’s images are cleverly constructed and being made over 40 years have a durability. They are seldom particularly attractive.
Public Relations is not so much about the photograph but the way photography is used in media. Apart from Warhol, Joseph Beuys also features. There is a portrait of Imogen Cunningham photographing a nude that has been made by Judy Dater; it is a clever contrast between a young naked model and an elderly woman between whom there is a tree trunk.
Hannah Wilke makes a comment in 1977 that “Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism.”
Sometimes the performance is just about dressing up for a photograph as in Man Ray’s Rrose Selavy made in 1921 in which the model is not in fact a lady but the artist of the readymade, Marcel Duchamp. Cindy Sherman’s work I have become familiar with and it is remarkable in the way she morphs herself into different characters. F.Holland Day’s self portraits as himself on a cross in the guise of Jesus are a direct reference to the crucifixion; other images here perhaps hint at it.
A room full of Francesca Woodman’s photographs half way through the exhibition provides a contemplative space! What are these delicately made self portrait photographs about? Light, shade, movement, the human form … Beauty! Sexuality! Although Focusing on form, they remain abstract. They are part of the Photographic Actions section which is about creating “a unique space within which an action can be performed or captured.”
I like the Ai Wei Wei photographs of the ancient urn being smashed! There is humour here and innuendo. The caption suggests that the urn is real but it does not need to be for the idea to work. Destroying a unique object is not what is happening here (even if it us) rather it is our tendency to cling to the ancient.
Some of the work does not resonate with me such as the emphasis on the male view of the naked woman particularly when colour is being used.
Mikhailov’s self-portraits of himself naked are humorous in a bawdy kind of way. Clearly he is making a statement of some kind!
Sometimes photographers and artists collaborate as in the pictures of Carolee Schneemann; the work was made in 1963 but not printed until 1973.
By the time I reach the red room, number 5 out of 14, I am back on ground that I was able to consider at length on my first visit.
Returning to the first room, I read that the exhibition “sets out to explore a rich and varied field of artistic practice, discovering that performance art is often more photographic, and photography more performative, than their usually seperate histories suggest.”
Walking slowly through the exhibition, I am aware of the spacious white walls in which the photographs hang almost diminutive ly until one approaches closer and is drawn into their individual worlds.
The fourth room contains only photographs by Nadar and the walls here are light grey as they are in the Woodman room. These objects from the very early days of photography feel like precious objects; they would surely be worth a lot of money on the market but their real value can be sensed in this exhibition space.
Much of the printing in this exhibition is remarkably done, something that many visitors are likely to be unaware of.
After the exhibition, I read about a photograph of Man Ray’s depicting Adam and Eve in the manner of Cranach the Elder’s painting of 1528. An interesting discourse but the photograph itself was not one I remember seeing at all. The large exhibitions that Tate Modern holds are not easy to absorb owing to their size and the different meanings they embody.
The next day I rise early and make my way across London to an active meditation. A film company are there to record us for a series they are making about spirituality. Performing for the camera!? Not really. Some people ask not to be photographed while I am happy to be. Media needs to know about such events and although they are not the reason for my going, I am aware that I am being photographed. For one or two moments, one is acting with the awareness of the camera and possibly responding yet after awhile, this superficial awareness disappears and one starts to find a more authentic version of oneself, one that the photograph might reflect but never truly capture.

2 thoughts on “Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

  1. Thank you,
    I love reading your posts. As usual you put so much detail into them that I feel like I’m along for the ride (I’ll never get to the show, being in Australia)…and you went through this massive show twice! If only all my students had been as conscientious as you.
    Strange that Tate do not include Hippolyte Bayard’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man’ 1840, which rates as the earliest ‘performed’ photo. It’s in both the Société Française de Photographie and Getty collections and has appeared in UK shows, but great that they devote a whole room to Francesca Woodman. I like the way you set Ah Weiwei’s vase-drop against the reverent grey walls reserved for Nadar. So much here! One minor niggle…yes, Siskind did photograph his divers in mid-air.
    I especially enjoy your insight into being photographed while meditating, an act in which one is meant to ‘lose oneself’. For many artists, the only time ‘self’ disappears is in the throes of a creative act, and then one is left to wonder who/what made the art!

    • Thanks James; it is good to know when people are reading one’s blog and especially good when intelligent feedback is given. I think, as a student, I am quite fortunate to be living within reach of London and so able to see a lot of work in the original. Gallery prints may or may not have an aura about them but what they actually are is the best representation one is likely to find of an artist/photographer’s work.
      Presently, there are a couple of blockbuster photography exhibitions running in London (“Performing for the Camera” and “Strange but Familiar”), the kind of exhibitions that one can pay a number of visits to! Focusing on one or two photographers might be the best remedy if one wants to avoid being over burdened. I think they are designed for the visitor who will only spend a few seconds looking at an image rather than reading it.
      I think you are right about the Tate falling short in not including Hippolyte Bayard’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man’ 1840; not sure of the reasons for this perhaps I might find out if I can schedule a visit for a curator’s tour. Nice to see the image on the front of G.Batchen’s Burning with Desire: the Conception of Photography.
      Yes, loosing oneself can be part of the artistic process, yet my understanding is more about loosing or finding oneself before creating a work of art whereby the work of art is a product of that process rather than a clever idea.
      Thanks very much for making the point about Siskind! My blogs are part rumination, part accurate account of what I am seeing. Intellectual judgement can cloud the mind!?

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