Friday, 10 June 2016

I am a camera.

I'd left it fairly late to get along to Tate Modern's 'Performing for the Camera' exhibition but on the Friday before it closed I finally got down there. The concept behind it is that it examines the relationship between photography and performance. Works made by artists who use the camera as a tool to produce their own performative images. From serious works of art to snapshots. To be honest it didn't fill me with confidence but some of the names involved were ones I liked so I gave it a go.

First up we're introduced to artists who've used their own bodies as props. Charles Ray employs a plank of wood to precariously prop himself up. To what ends it's not clear. Aaron Siskind, more interestingly, fakes levitation. Yves Klein (who knew he was a photographer?) does similar with 1960's Leap Into The Void, below.

Although it looks death defying Klein actually had a team of helpers waiting to catch him in a tarpaulin. Klein being involved it's not long before we're shown photos of naked ladies smearing paint all over themselves. Naked ladies and....judo!

There's more boobs, willies and bums too, in Yayoi Kusama's 1968 'happenings'. Her use of polka dot already in place back then. Though, maybe thankfully in this instance, they're less colourful than her later work.

Although credited to Kusama and Klein these photos were mainly taken by Harry Shunk and James Kender, underrated mainstays of the Paris art scene from 1958 to 1973.

Other performance related shots show Minoru Hirata's capturing of the 1970 protests against the Fukuoka World Fair, Marta Minujin (c/o Shunk & Kender again) and her discarded mattresses burning on the streets of Paris, Dan Graham's NYC cityscapes, and some stills from Babette Mangolte's dance events - which you'd probably need to have been at to really appreciate. Or maybe not.

The spectral shapes, lit by Robert Rauschenberg, of Merce Cunningham's choreographed routines fare better. Taken, of course, by Shunk & Kender, they evoke some of the spirit of Man Ray. The dancers certainly seem to have had their Ready Brek.

Gaspar-Felix Toucharon, known as Nadar, didn't wait for a happening or performance to photograph. He staged them purely for this reason. His pierrots are predictably irritating. Sarah Bernhardt kitted up as a character from MacBeth marginally more interesting.

Equally pretentious, though aesthetically more pleasing, are Eikoh Hosoe's contributions. Hosoe and the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata travelled to a northern Japanese village and improvised a series inspired by the legend of a malevolent demon that haunts the countryside.

There's lots of dancing, lots of jumping, more tits (obvs), and some really rather beautiful edgeland photography. Halfway through the exhibition before you see, naked bodies aside, a photo that's actually enjoyable to look at!

Luckily things pick up. The next room alone features Man Ray's Erotique Voilee (1933) and Warhol's Grace Being Painted By Keith (1986). The former showing Meret Oppenheim supposedly evoking the unconscious. The latter Keith Haring making use of an unusual canvas.

People, mostly women, being smeared in paint is something of a leitmotif of this exhibition. Being injected in the eye whilst your head is completely bandaged up less so. But that's the Vienna Actionists for you. Rudolf Schwarzkogler's 3rd Action still has the power to disturb 40 years on.

Erwin Wurm's photos of Claudia Schiffer fixing an orange between her legs certainly stand as a contrast. So much so that poor old Ai Weiwei has dropped his Han dynasty urn.

Ai's action was seen as powerfully provocative in China although it's the action, rather than the photo, that is the real artwork.

Less so in the case of Central African Republic's Samuel Fosso. A highlight for me is his 2008 African Spirits series. They're all him in various guises, mostly of a civil rights bent. The way he manipulates character and takes on multiple roles is genuinely thought provoking.

Cindy Sherman, too, employs 'dress up' creating imaginary publicity shots for non-existent films. Fosso and Sherman both escape themselves and, simultaneously, become themselves. Marcel Duchamp's take on this was to invent a female alter ego and get his mate Man Ray round to take a few snaps.

Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons were others who were happy to use their own image in their art. They brought a flash of colour to proceedings and, in Koons' case particularly, lots of scantily clad women. He even married a porn star. Touched by the hand of Cicciolina.

The rampant objectification of women Koons so readily enjoyed was called in to question by both Lynda Benglis, who posed herself naked wearing a giant prosthetic cock, and VALIE EXPORT who, in 1969's Action Pants:Genital Panic (yes, really) walked into a cinema wearing these crotchless jeans.

Feminists were split over this (is the exploitation of one's own body the same as having one's own body exploited etc; etc;?) as they were over Hannah Wilke's willingness to pose nude. On her own terms and with vague political statements accompanying the end results.

Linder of Ludus took a different route. In a series taken by Christine Birrer she obscures her face using various materials.

Martin Parr doesn't cover his face but stares out at you in full gormless technicolour! His intentionally retouched Autoportraits no doubt making points about banality and uniformity of culture. I liked them when I first saw them but I've grown weary.

In Ekaterina Swiss artist Romain Mader explores Ukrainian 'mail-order bride tourism'. Ekaterina is a made up city so, pleasant though the photos are, it's hard to see the point.

Much the same could be said of many of the works here:- a Japanese man in his bath with a pan on his head, an intensive study of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a 100 year old plane tree. All distracting enough but none of them really adding a great deal to the end product.

There's further Ukrainian pretending from Boris Mikhailov. Known more for his grim Russian street portraiture his Crimean Snobbism series from 1982 sees Mikhailov and his wife enjoying a 'holiday'. A fake one. In the way that Soviet citizens were forced to live fake lives. It looks a little clunky now but this show works best when it follows a political narrative.

The biggest pretender here, though, is Amalia Ulman whose Excellences and Performances series of Instagrams from 2014 told the untrue, but only too believable, story of an innocent blonde who moved to LA, got a drug habit, kicked it, before finally discovering healthy living. It's a great spoof of motivational posts and posters and created a lively, and no doubt overheated, debate.

So, overall it was good but it wasn't great. I saw more breasts in a couple of hours than I've probably seen for years. They balanced this out by telling, or half-telling, a story about feminism. It may've worked better if they'd simply done a show explaining how women have moved from in front to behind the camera. How they've taken control of their own images and how far there still is to go on that score. It's possible that the remit for this show was a little too large. A good effort nonetheless.

They say the camera never lies? You'll leave the Tate thinking it hardly ever tells the truth.

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