Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern – OCA study visit 2.4.16

I must confess I found yesterday’s study visit rather overwhelming. There were so many different artists, themes and ideas that I hit sensory overload about two thirds of the way round. The premise is quite difficult to characterize and I am really not sure how well the different threads hang together.  However there is some superb work included and I was exposed to a lot of new artists and ideas.

From the Tate website:

“Serious performance art, portraiture, or just simply posing for the camera? What does it mean to perform for the camera?

Photography has been used to capture performances since its invention – from the stars of the Victorian stage to the art happenings of the 1960s, and today’s trend for selfies.

With over 50 seminal photographers on display, the exhibition explores the relationship between photography and performance, engaging with serious, provocative and sensational topics, as well as humour, improvisation and irony. It shows how photographs have captured performances by important artists including Yves Klein and Yayoi Kusama, and ground-breaking collaborations between photographers, performers and dancers. It looks at how artists including Francesca Woodman, Erwin Wurm and others have used photography as a stage on which to perform, and how figures from Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke to Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Fosso have used photography to explore identity.

From marketing and self-promotion, to the investigation of gender and identity, to experiments with the self-portrait, Performing for the Camera brings together over 500 images shown in series, including vintage prints, large scale works, marketing posters and artists working with Instagram. It is a wide-ranging exploration of how performance artists use photography and how photography is in itself a performance.”


For ‘wide-ranging exploration’ read: ‘unwieldy beast of a show’.  Most of the work is featured in series, rather than individual images, which creates some immense narratives.

Sean O’Hagan sums it up well: “Performing for the Camera is less a survey than a slice through the thousands and thousands of images produced between artists and the camera. There’s no end to it. It’s about self-exposure and self-dramatisation,the dynamics of confrontation: between photographer and subject, image and spectator. Photographic space becomes a theatre. Sometimes the photographer is witness, sometimes collaborator, sometimes the one in front as well as behind the camera.” [1]

If I were to go again, I would allow a lot more than 90 minutes and would spend much less time in the first half. One thing that did amuse me is that whilst very few of the images are erotic but there is lots of nudity and I heard several kids giggling as they went round.

Rooms 2-5 – Documenting Performance

I have a natural aversion to performance art. When it is good, it is breath-takingly spectacular but, most of the time, I find it to be extremely pretentious and quite boring (basically a bit wanky). Many of the images in this section are straight documentary recordings of events which otherwise would have disappeared from history, images which can also help an event be understood.

One set I really liked was Aaron Siskind’s divers (The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation) – set in a 3 x 3 grid, this almost looked like calligraphy or astrological symbols, abstract but very human and with a fantastic futurist feel.

Another set which caught my attention was Pier 18 in NYC in 1971. Here the artist Dan Graham was part of the performance using a ‘spin-off body press’ approach to keep the camera flush to the contours of his body from feet to forehead capturing the cityscape while other photographers (Harry Shunk and Janos Kender) concentrated on the rest of the performers more objectively. This added a 360 degree feel to the event.

A similar idea is followed through in the images of Trisha Brown rehearsing for Roof Piece (1971) on the rooftops of Manhattan which, we discover, would have been seen by very few people and there was no one single viewpoint from which to watch it all. Photography to the rescue!

With the Merce Cunningham photographs, Shunk and Kender were more expressive with some prints being solarized. The distortions and blurring create a kinetic feel and compliment the straight documentary.

Room 6-7 Staging/Collaboration

This section was for performances that exist purely for the camera so the photographer is collaborating closely with the performer.

There are some beautiful pictures by Nadar of Sarah Bernhardt as Poirot and an insight into the 19th century trade in picture postcards of stars.

Kamaitachi (1969) is featured in a room with red walls to heighten the sense of theatre. This was a dance experience where photographer Eikoh Hosoe and dancer Tatsumi Hijikata improvised scenes in the Japanese countryside taken from mythologies about a malevolent spirit (a sick-toothed weasel). More info here:

When this was published a photobook Hosoe and Hijikata were given equal billing as authors but this is quite unique.  Collaborations inevitably raise the question of authorship and where does the defining skill come in to play.  This show doesn’t attempt to discuss that.

Rooms 8-10 Photographic Actions

By this point on the visit my patience with some of the performance art was definitely wearing thin. Many of these images were about the action of painting (on skin, walls, floor) and the process being as important as the final work. I began to suspect that there may have been some mind-altering chemicals involved for some of these artists.

I found myself liking the Stuart Brisley images more that I expected – great textures and brash dark images.

An interesting quote from Boris Mikhailov to accompany a series of self-portraits (many including dildos and where he looks rather like Harvey Keitel):

I also liked the witty Supercomfort for Super People by conceptual artists Komar and Melamid. This satirizes how the soviets imagined the glamour culture and western consumerism in the 70s. They created an imaginary mail order catalogue full of Superobjects.

Francesca Woodman is afforded a whole room (with grey rather than white walls, interestingly) to herself and I could have spent most of the visit there alone. Incredible delicate images where she is half-hidden, blurred, merging with her surroundings, disguised by tree bark. Some of the photographs have her spiky handwriting with mad messages. In one photograph she seems to want to hold a shaft of sunshine in her hand like a light sabre. The introductory text describes how the series is relentlessly introspective, evasive and claustrophobic. It feels very contemporary and yet timeless. Hard to view without being conscious of her suicide though.

Room 11 Performing Icons

This room explores role-playing and identity, poses, costumes and disguises to look at ideas of race, religion and gender. Cindy Sherman is featured prominently with some of her stills for non-existent movies where she challenges the conventions and clichés underlying cinematic representations of women.

Everyone loved the Samuel Fosso self-portraits which are large and impressive.

He talks about how he borrows an identity as “a way of freeing me from myself.”

There are also some lovely Man Ray portraits of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy (“a game between I and Me”)

Possibly my favourite set of the whole show was Orphée by Tokyo Rumando. This considers spectatorship and the relationship between the act of looking and objectification. The use of photomontage and a mirror to convey different personas or memories is often used as a device but these images are dark and beautiful and the repetition works perfectly.

I also loved David Wojnarowicz’ Arthur Rimbaud in New York set. More about the background to the project here: It seems like photographing someone in a mask would not work but somehow it does. I am not sure exactly why yet but will continue with my contemplation.

Another highlight in this room is the Yasumasa Morimura Yves Klein self-portrait which led to a group discussion later about the positioning of this image within the show and the curatorial decisions.

Room 12 Public Relations

This room contains self-portraits which have drawn on mass-media techniques such as advertising and press shots to discuss the relationship between artists and the marketplace and also to challenge assumptions about gender and sexism. Featured artists included Jeff Koons (meh), Hannah Wilke, Joseph Beuys and VALUE EXPORT and the work covers fliers, posters, magazine covers and paid-for ads for mass-distribution. By now, unfortunately, I was the pressure of time as I had lost sight of all the other students on the visit and so didn’t spend long here.

Room 13 Self/Portrait

An exploration of notions of identity with examples right back from the invention of photography. According to the Tate blurb: “In the twentieth century, the problematic relationship between appearance and identity has come under closer psychological scrutiny. More recently the rise of feminism and gender politics have led artists to reveal and undermine roles imposed by society.”

Lots of great work here including Claude Cahun, Linder (Live Montages), Dora Maurer (Seven Twists), Hannah Wilke (Super-t-Art), Adrian Piper, Norio Imai (Time Clothing), Jemima Stehli (Strip), Masahisa Fukase (Bukubuku/Bubbling), Lee Friedlander, Tomoko Saward, Martin Parr and Thomas Mailaender.

Room 14 Performing Real Life

The final section looks at the ubiquity of photography in documenting everyday life. “The artists in this room have responded to the developing visual language with which we photograph ourselves and our surroundings, exploring the elements of performance that inevitably seep into these ostensibly factual images. In some cases they adopt the conventions of the snapshot to chronicle real lives. In others, they have used similar conventions to construct an imaginary life, portraying experiences or relationships that never took place.”

Here we have some more Mikhailov (Crimean Snobbism), Romain Mader’s Ekaterina [the cover image for the show; Mader creates a fictional Ukrainian city based on sex tourism where he stages his own search for a bride], Keith Arnatt (Gardeners), Fukase (From Window – obsessive pictures of his wife in the street as she leaves for work) and finally the Instagram sensation Amalia Ulman whose Excellences and Perfections tracks a fabricated alter ego via 175 selfies and snapshots from innocent girlhood to a druggie sugar baby having a breakdown and eventually to her moving back home for recovery and hitting on a winning formula for life. The series satirizes the Kardashian ‘ghetto aesthetic’ as well as the Gwyneth Paltrow ‘girl next door’ mythology but also aims to show that femininity is a construct.

All in all I am delighted to have had the opportunity to visit this exhibition as it features some fantastic work. I found the curation to be haphazard but much of the art was inspiring and educational.

Interesting ideas

  • Using bodies as sculpture (Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures)
  • The Fluxus/Gutai ideas of the process being more important than the finished object
  • Twin viewpoints juxtaposed/360 degree approach (this reminds me of Gus Powell’s advice in the Photographer’s Playbook: “Whenever you find something that gets your attention, make your picture(s) and then take a 180 degree turn and photograph in that opposite direction with equal or greater vigor. Never forget that things are happening behind you and that whatever you are photographing sees both you and all that is behind you.” [2]
  • Minimalism and an obsession with everyday gestures
  • Man Ray’s use of the body as a component – a nude but partly veiled by the copper plate press and the shadow of her limbs. One arm has been painted to echo the lines of the shadow.
  • Hicham Benohoud facilitated improvised sculptural performances in his classroom to show students how they could break the rigid patterns imposed by society and religion
  • Adrian Piper – Food for the Spirit. It was almost impossible to discern anything in these images which I found to be gimmicky at first glance but then quite took to the idea and may have to steal it for something
  • Thomas Mailaender – Gone Fishing (2010) – superimposed his face on found images from the internet and included fictitious letters to create a man-cave themed story of someone wanting to hang out with his friends rather than take on responsibilities as a new parent. Presented via a video inside a tree (!)
  • The camera is a very limited tool to capture performance so must be used creatively but it is also a perfect tool as it can freeze a split second and add to the moment (eg Keiji Uematsu’s Stone/Rope/Man)

For further research

  • Ai Weiwei (Was the urn really 2,000 years old? Amano says not. Does that make the work invalid?)
  • Hannah Wilke (images of her demise)
  • Jemima Stehli (participating in own objectification)


  2. Fulford, J. and Halpern, G. (2014) The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 assignments and ideas. United States: Aperture. (p274)
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One Response to Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern – OCA study visit 2.4.16

  1. Pingback: Assignment Two: timeline | Gesture & Meaning

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