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LONDON — Five figures stand cocooned in the radiating steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge — four of them are naked and covered in painted spots, hanging out beneath a banner that reads “SELF-OBLITERATION.” The fifth figure looks out, proprietarily, at the camera. It is Yayoi Kusama, wearing a diaphanous dress and spotted socks, her kohl-rimmed eyes serious beneath thick bangs. One hand holds a jar of paint, the other a brush poised to apply more spots to the canvas of naked flesh arrayed across the bridge. “Anti-War Naked Happening and Flag Burning at Brooklyn Bridge, New York,” captured in 1968 by photographer duo Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, is a snapshot of art history in action — a postcard from the raucous cacophony of performance art that emerged in the mid-century art scene.
The print is currently on show at the Tate Modern as part of Performing for the Camera. Tracing the connection between photography and performance art from the advent of the camera to contemporary selfie culture, the exhibition includes works by a range of artists, including Andy Warhol, Charles Ray, Cindy Sherman, and Erwin Wurm, and reveals the evolving, complex relationship between the two disciplines. The initial galleries showcase images that preserve for posterity otherwise fleeting art events. Shunk-Kender, as the two collaborating photographers were known, dominate these galleries, their photographs of artists and performers in action — including Kusama, choreographers Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham, and Yves Klein in his seminal “Leaps into the Void, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France” (1961) — making up the only lasting trace of many key works.
Allan Kaprow, who coined the term “Happening,” insisted that such events should ideally be as close to real life as possible, characterized by their ephemeral nature. But the presence of photographers enshrines each performance seen here, turning creative incident into preserved aesthetic. The initial section of the exhibition — in which the camera lends solidity and substance to kinetic performances — seemingly reinforces the notion that photographs make such moments more enduringly meaningful, capturing and transmitting the bold, intentionally transient works of a generation of artists. The subtext — that photographs somehow render reality more real — is interrogated in later galleries, as the idiosyncratic behavior photography elicits becomes the focus. Here, photography becomes a catalyst for performance and an opportunity for disruption, protest, and transformation.
Self-obliteration, the performance of absence and un-becoming, becomes a recurring theme, as artists turn the camera on themselves. The work of Francesca Woodman, to which an entire room is devoted, is breathtaking in its performative ephemerality, its self-assured self-ghosting. The series of small monochrome prints document a romantic attempted erasure of the young artist (who took her own life, aged 22). An insubstantial presence flits through abandoned landscapes and tatterdemalion rooms, face and figure hazed by the slow shutter speed. Lower body bare, she crouches over a large mirror — her upturned face blurred, she is caught but not caught, exposing all and betraying nothing. Slashes of light cut across a torso; two arms, sheathed in bark sleeves, reach up to mingle with a forest; a snake trails over a pale, outflung arm on floral carpet. Woodman, ecstatically struck through with light, seems to be staging a series of elaborate escapes, but remains ultimately trapped by the camera.
Samuel Fosso takes a different approach in “African Spirits” (2008), slipping in and out of other people’s skin — impersonating Martin Luther King, Miles Davis, a diva, a general — to temporarily shuck off his own (“It’s a way of freeing me from myself,” he explained). Post-modern notions of the performance and multiplicity of identity, the unstable, ever-shifting “I,” emerge in many of the later works. As appearances alter, the artists insist, personalities and realities can too; the camera becomes an opportunity for rupture and renewal, the locus of action rather than a tool of passive documentation. Tomoko Sawada’s “ID400” (1998) is four year’s worth of photos exploring self-identity, taken regularly by the artist in a booth outside her local train station. In each, Sawada looks radically different: a new person staring from the same set of eyes, ad (seemingly) infinitum. Which is the real Sawada? Could it be possible that they all are?
Elsewhere, artworks reveal an opposing inclination in photography: its objectifying, essentializing gaze. Artists such as Hannah Wilke, Dora Maurer, and Jemima Stehli posit questions about the oppressive, exploitative potential of the frozen image, revealing, in a series of feminist works, the power inherent in controlling the shutter. In Stehli’s “Strip” (1992–2000), the artist is the main model for the series: facing away from the viewer, she appears in various states of undress, sometimes stripped down to her stilettos. In each frame, a different man faces towards the lens, watching Stehli disrobe and clasping the camera shutter. He will choose which moment in the striptease to immortalize. In this staging, the power of the male gaze is subtly undermined; the male subjects’ discomfort becomes central to the image, their voyeurism exposed.
Hans Eijkelboom similarly questions photography’s anodyne tendencies in “With My Family” (1973), where he subverts the concept of the saccharine family photo to great effect by inserting himself into his neighbors’ homes to pose with a series of wives and children not his own. Viewed en masse, the large color prints are eerie: the same smiling male face laying claim to four separate households, effortlessly slipping into the guise of a new father figure each time the shutter clicks.
Here, as elsewhere, the artist uses photography to capture a carefully constructed moment of violation, interrogating and defying sociopolitical norms and structures. Ai Weiwei deliberately lets a priceless vase smash to smithereens in “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995), his nonchalant gaze making the viewer complicit in this pointed act of cultural destruction. Across the room, the bounds of Morrocan propriety are broken through in Hicham Benohoud’s “The Classroom” (1994–2000), as Marrakesh school kids adopt audacious, ridiculous poses amidst their oblivious classmates and in front of their photographer-teacher (the deferential student-instructor relationship riotously discarded, as the shutter clicks), while Boris Mikhailov’s “I am not I” (1992) challenges and explores Russian masculine ideals by way of self-exposure.
The very act of recording “real life” (or performances of real life) becomes, in the final gallery of the exhibition, a disruptive commentary on the way we live. Romain Mader enacts a mail-order bride fantasy in “Ekaterina” (2012), mocking the truth value assumed inherent in photography as a documentary tool; his surreal self-portrait in front of a maniacally meringue-esque bride is a repudiation of the “I was there” claim of selfie culture. On the opposite wall, Amalia Ulman’s “Excellences and Perfections” (2014), a performance piece hosted unwittingly by Instagram, could be extracts from the social media accounts of any number of women. In three life-size square prints, Ulman pouts and poses for the mirror, her camera (an iPhone) prominently displayed. The diaristic performance takes the immediately recognizable tropes of Instagram perfectionism and effectively embodies them, curating the photogenic life of an LA-based character.
Who are we performing for? This final piece makes one wonder. And can our performances of our selves (infinite or singular) ever truly be extricated from the “real life” that photography is primed — and often expected — to capture? Most performances, after all, rarely end once the camera stops recording. It’s this slippage between life and art, authenticity and performativity, being and acting, that lends many of the artworks on display in Performing for the Camera their thought-provoking allure.
Performing for the Camera continues at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) through June 12.