What does it mean to perform for the camera?

In collaboration with Georgia Nelson

Photography has always, since its invention, been considered as a medium for documenting performance whether it be taking a selfie or performing on a stage. The Performing for the Camera show at Tate Modern until 12 June 2016 is ultimately concerned with looking more closely at the slippage between photography and performance, bringing together over three hundred images by more than sixty international artists, all concerning how performance artists use photography and how photography itself can be a performance act in itself.

The first section of the exhibition, as the viewer enters, is a critical part of the show containing historical and notable works, crucial for the viewer’s understanding of what performing for the camera is at it’s most obvious. Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void is one of the most celebrated pieces in the history of performance art, this was a revolutionary work of its time, part of the creation of this performance based medium. Harry Shunk and Janos Kender photographed Klein jumping off of roofs in Tokyo and in the photographs, Klein is surprisingly content with performing this act. This series shows how performance in front of the camera would not exist if the camera apparatus was not present. As Klein’s performance was live, without the camera to capture it in a still image, the performance wouldn’t be accessible to a viewer unless you were present at that physical location, at that time. This performative act demonstrates the intrinsic link between photography and performance to document performance and create art that relies on performance as a form of communication.

Another piece of work that features in the first room is Aaron Siskind’s Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, which is a performative piece, capturing acrobatic divers in mid air. Siskind eliminated all context of the photos leaving just the divers and the shapes that they created in the air in the frame. This, just like Klein’s work, uses the camera to make the performative act into something more. The camera is arguably the only mechanism that can transform an act like this just by capturing it.

Finally, Charles Ray’s Plank Pieces which is a sculptural performance where he photographed himself in the pinnacle moment of successfully balancing his weight on a plank in his studio. They are the results of his experimentation but they are also single moments in a time frame of his whole performance, which is Ray achieving his position, photographing it and then releasing his position.However, he only chose to capture the moment of him perfectly balanced. This was he was most intrigued by. The key link between all of the works, exhibited in the first room to set the scene and in rest of the exhibition is the that all of these acts are frozen in time because of the apparatus of the camera being in situ, and if the camera wasn’t there to capture the moment, the moment would simply not occur. 

Looking more broadly at performance art, particularly for the camera, many artists and photographers from the early 1960s, when performance art was only just being recognised as an art medium, used the camera and performance in many different forms. The exhibition, perhaps questionably, separates these works into seven distinct categories. We are going to explain and summarise the other crucial works that best show the explorative and interesting nature of Performing for the Camera.

In the section Staging and Collaboration, the photobook Kamaitachi created by Eikoh Hosoe and Tatsumi Hijikata in 1969 plays a very important role in the history of performance art. The images were an improvisational performance made with local villagers, inspired by the legend of kamaitachi, a weasel-like demon who haunts rice fields and slashes people with a sickle. Hijikata was acting and dancing in a series of photos that were only destined to exist within the series that Hosoe created because he made it a limited edition publication.The book is a work in which both the photographer and the performer are equal authors. They work together to create the performative art instead of a photographer documenting a performance or a photographer using themselves or someone else to create a performance to be photographed. 

Many photographic actions performed include everyday objects and materials, allowing for a playful nature with the objects. Looking in particular at Erwin Wurm’s work which appears to be a studio or gallery-based approach to performance, uses objects in a very remarkable ongoing way in his series titled One Minute Sculptures which is essentially people posing spontaneously with everyday objects including pens, oranges, teacups and suitcases amongst others, for sixty seconds. Wurm’s work questions the nature of how we use everyday objects within art as well as questioning the potential of the studio or gallery setting, inviting viewers to do more than just observe the work in the gallery space but also inviting the viewer to become a One Minute Sculpture.

The Public Relations section of the exhibition seeks to observe the performative nature of portraiture, which has been used by artists to construct their own self-image. Joseph Beuys created various posters which fills a whole wall in the exhibition, showing his identity by using film like posters. Beuys was considered an extremely important figure in the history of performance, the posters exhibited often promoted his shows and projects, usually focusing on the cult of his personality. His personality was instantly recognisable and demonstrated with his distinctive look. This is a key point to focus on in his work because he used the look on the posters to add to his status as a knowledgeable figure.

The Self / Portrait room traces the use of the self portrait by photographic artists, using the notion of identity through different areas of performance, considering the potentially problematic relationship between appearance and identity. Martin Parr has had ‘auto portraits’ created throughout his photographic career, being intrigued by sample portraits displayed in the windows of local photo studios. He then passed responsibility for his portrait over to commercial photographic studios and photo booths, getting into the habit of stopping for a photograph to be taken whenever the occasion arose. The Autoportraits work is less about being a personal exploration of Parr’s own practice but more about creating a global catalogue of commercial photography, exploring Parr’s own self-representation and expression.

Performing Real Life is a group of works that is centered around the use of the camera to document people’s lives. The section includes things like the family portrait, holiday snapshot and the selfie to explore the unconscious performances that people carry out in everyday life. Masahisa Fukase’s From Window is a series of images of his wife leaving for work every morning. He has captured her in many different poses and actions. Viewing them all together shows a range of gestures and emotions including happiness, frustration and sadness. This demonstrates what a photographer would ask a model to do in a photographic studio. In contrast, this is a natural real life demonstration as she isn’t posing or performing an act for the camera like you would be asked to in a photoshoot. The work demonstrates, subtly, how our emotions change on a daily basis and it represents an attempt to “show” his life through the representations of a female other. 

Pier 18 exhibition (18 June 1971 – 2 August 1971) was commissioned and curated by Willoughby Sharp, who envisioned twenty-seven site specific performances to be presented in a museum setting at the Museum of Modern Art, asking Shunk-Kender and Liz Ligon to photograph the works as a series of black and white photographic documentations. The works take a variety of forms but all relate to the pier, site specifically, in some way. One work of particular interest to me was Dan Graham, creating a series of photographs which is governed by the camera angle, always being positioned against parts of his body, from head to toe, in a way, using his body as a tripod. In doing this, Graham is challenging the idea of perspective and confining perspective to that which can only be achieved through doing these actions to create only what he can see. This was a performative aspect to his work because he chose to take the photographs in this way, he didn’t just take a photo of the landscape like we normally would. The interesting aspect to this work, and also more broadly to the Pier 18 collaborative project, was that the actions performed were never meant to be public performances, the acts were only staged for the camera and then documented in sequence to suggest the importance of duration. The camera was the only means of documentation.

She/She (1981) consists of fourteen black and white photographs, nine of which are portraits of Linder. The remaining five are photographs of short sections of text written in a typewriter font. The prints are presented in black frames, with the text pages interspersing the portraits. The works explore notions of female identity and people might view each other. The photo display shows Linder distorting her face through varying methods, for example, holding up torn pieces of photographs up to her face. This is a type of performative act that she terms a ‘live montage’ because Linder is layering multiple identities on top of one another in real time, instead of in post production of the images. Another image in the series is of Linder, again covering the lower half of her face but with cling film, pulling it taut across her mouth. In the next picture, it features as a veil that covers her entire head. Linder also covers her face up with bandages and an image of her admiring her photograph in a hand mirror. The words interlaced within the self portraits are lyrics from songs that Linder released on a six-track cassette tape with the work, when the work was first produced in a booklet. The photographs were taken by Christine Birrer, who Linder has worked with frequently in collaborations prior to this piece. Her deconstruction of the feminine ideal represented by the media is unique but, the fact that she chose to show using the act of live montage and the captured performance of the song lyrics written out, is a very new form of performance.

The photograph is perhaps, arguably, the poorest way of documenting a performative act, the photograph doesn’t allow us to see the result of the act. We are confined to the frame, as described by Stephen Shore in The Nature of Photographs ‘the objects, people, events, or forms that are in the forefront of a photographer’s attention when making the fine framing decisions are the recipients of the frame’s emphasis’. We are only able to see what was present at that given time. We will never see the fingers of the gentleman in Ray’s piece Plank Pieces touch the floor, Klein will never hit the ground and Siskind’s divers will never end up in the Lake Michigan waters.