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Laurel Nakadate, “Lucky Tiger #151″ (2009). Chromogenic color print with ink fingerprints. 4 x 6” (10.2 x 15.2 cm)

MoMA photography curator Roxana Marcoci knows that we are experiencing a “renaissance of performance”. The show she has curated in collaboration with Eva Respini, Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960, will explore the role of the photographic image in this surge of performative work, both as a document of the performance and as art work on its own.

Fortunato Depero’s “Autoritratto, Roma” (1915) is not in the show but is an early example of performance photography. (click to enlarge) (via livejournal.com/adski_kafeteri)

The MoMA exhibition, which opens this Friday January 28, begins in the 1960s at a time when performance began to emerge as a singular field of art based on the carrying out of actions. Marcoci recognizes that this type of photo-based performance has many older art historical precedents, including Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero’s 1915 recording of his cynical laugh for the camera and transformed his photograph from an image document into a “photo performance,” or Duchamps’s drag enactments as Rose Sélavy for Man Ray’s camera. But contemporary performance art really traces its origins to the 1960s, when movements like Fluxus, which sought to blend art and life, began to change mainstream thinking about what constitutes art.

It is no coincidence that for their show, Marcoci and Respini are drawing from the large Silverman Fluxus collection that MoMA acquired in 2008. The collection, the largest Fluxus archive anywhere, will provide a number of key early photographic examples from the movement, some of which will be seen for the very first time.

The theme of the exhibition may sound heady, but it comes at a perfect moment when the value of the photograph is beginning to be reexamined as the ease of online video has started to compete with the dominance of the photograph in contemporary life.

What differentiates the works in Staging Action with photojournalism is, according to Marcoci, that “the camera is an accomplice to the performance.” These works also set themselves apart from self-portaiture, they “are still rooted in very specific events,” Marcoci says, “so I feel they are less abstract” than other bodies of photography.

“Performance itself is an impure art,” the curator says. “It uses the other arts as a starting point. In this case, photography is the starting point for the performances… these performances resist classification and point out the cross-disciplinary nature of the [performance] work… these works are performative, and not just performance.”

Ai Weiwei, “Study of Perspective – Eiffel Tower” (1995-2003). Gelatin silver print. 15 5/16 x 23 1/4″ (38.9 x 59 cm)

The works the curators have gathered together vary a great deal, though they all appear to be very much influenced by conceptual art and its love of iterated series and nuanced differences. Ai Weiwei’s renowned Study of Perspective series, which captures the artist giving the middle finger to some historic landmarks and objects, is included, as are works by Bruce Nauman, Valie Export, Gunter Brus, Robert Gober, William Pope L., and even a collaboration between Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince.

Rong Rong, East Village, Beijing, No. 81″ (1994). Gelatin silver print. 21 3/16 x 13 1/8″ (53.8 x 33.3 cm).

One of the works that piqued my interest was Laurel Nakadate’s Lucky Tiger series, in which the artist dresses in a bikini and does cheesecake poses for the camera. She then takes the pictures, places an announcement on Craigslist for middle-aged men to look at her photos with inked fingers, and then hands over the photos to the anonymous accomplices who leave their fingerprints on the photographs. The resulting objects go beyond the performance itself and become ambiguous records of experience and representation.

The show also includes a heavy dose of works from the East Village art community of 1990s Beijing, a formative period in contemporary Chinese art. The work of the Beijing East Village group also raises another contentious question, namely who should be credited for the photographs themselves, particularly as they often are collaborative and cross-disciplinary. Many of the East Village photos are by photographer Rong Rong, who published a book in 2003 called Rong Rong’s East Village, 1993-98, but the works themselves are of performances by other artists in the community. The Beijing East Village scene was quite collaborative, so over the years some images from the same performance have been exhibited with a credit to the performer while other times the photographer is highlight. As this exhibition is staged by MoMA’s photography department, it is only natural that the photographer will be getting most of the credit, but it’s an issue worth considering when looking at the images.

Another point that makes these images different from a run of the mill photo show is that most of the artists included in the show are not photographers in the strictest sense of the term. Sure, none of these images are snapshots, and they are carefully constructed for the camera, but they are not the more professionalized work we see from contemporary photographers. They are the products of artists who see the ubiquity of the camera and use its power to capture a type of transformation that only a photograph can fix in time.

Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960 opens this Friday, January 28 at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, midtown Manhattan). The show closes May 9, 2011.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

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