Performance art is a story of falling in love with the lens

A new exhibition at Tate Modern invites us to explore the ways we play for the camera.

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People behave differently when there’s a camera around. Everyone performs, putting on their happy face, their soulful one, their attractive one or their jokey one. Artists have always understood this and the camera has long been part of what they do. Take Hans Namuth’s instantly recognisable series of photographs of the black T-shirted Jackson Pollock splashing and flicking paint as he prowls round the canvases laid out on the studio floor. The photographs are almost as potent in their complementary way as the paintings: they are a record of the artist at work but they also carry with them the sense of Pollock performing the role of Pollock.

Tate Modern’s new exhibition “Performing for the Camera” looks at both these strands: the camera as archive, recording artistic performances that would have happened anyway, and the camera as a participant, complicit in a performance staged for its benefit and that wouldn’t have taken place without it.

When in 1960 Yves Klein invited an audience dressed in formal evening wear to witness a group of naked models – his “human paintbrushes” – cover themselves in blue paint and press themselves against blank canvases (to the accompaniment of a string ensemble playing a single chord for 20 minutes) he also invited the photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender to take pictures of the happening. The body-print paintings still exist; and thanks to Shunk-Kender, as they were known, so do the means and circumstances of their creation.

Klein took things a stage further when he had Shunk-Kender photograph him throwing himself off a high wall on to the pavement below. They captured him like a diver in mid-air, his feet just having left the parapet: it is the viewer, though, who takes the next shot – a broken and bleeding Klein crumpled on the tarmac. Except that this image remains imaginary. Shunk-Kender’s original photograph shows a group of men beneath the flying artist with a stretched tarpaulin ready to catch him. They took a second photograph, of the wall and street, empty except for a cyclist. Back in the darkroom they combined the two, removing the safety net and leaving just Klein as Icarus. Here the photographers were not witnesses but participants: no camera, no jump.

Add in subgenres such as self-portraits, PR imagery, real life and assorted other incarnations and the topic becomes a particularly complicated one. This, in part, explains why there are more than 500 photographs in the Tate exhibition – most of them small-scale and in black and white. It is far too many to take in, even though many are supposed to be seen in sets, and they are of very variable interest, too. The curators might have done better to build a show around either the documentary or the performative strand rather than seeking to make sense of both, as well as their offspring.

The pictures on display range from Nadar’s 1854 studio images of the mime performer Charles Deburau as Pierrot to Amalia Ulman’s self-portraits as an LA blonde enacting a Hogarth morality tale that were posted solely on Instagram. Ulman is in the minority in the exhibition, in that she has a clear subject and a narrative. Many of the other works subscribe to the belief that art need be nothing more than a striking image. It is not enough: for instance, Erwin Wurm’s 2009 photographs of the model Claudia Schiffer playing with food in a luxurious interior have the stylishness and vacuity of fashion plates. Consequently they are equally unmemorable.

By way of contrast is the Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase’s From Window series of 1974. Every morning he leaned out of his fourth-floor window to photograph his wife as she emerged from their apartment building on her way to work. As he pointed the lens down she would look up – in some of the pictures she hams it up, striking poses and sticking out her tongue, in others she sulks, resenting his intrusion.

The performance here, wittily and tenderly played out, is that of their very marriage. Perhaps his wife had enough of it: Fukase took another series, Bukubuku (“bubbling”) – 80 photographs of himself, post-divorce, in the bath, half submerged, or perhaps half drowning.

If Cindy Sherman plays the role of the heroines of Hollywood movies and Jeff Koons apes the glamour of album covers, Samuel Fosso, a portrait photographer from the Central African Republic, takes on the public images of celebrated political figures. At the end of a working day, he would use up the end of rolls of film and photograph himself dressed as, say, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Haile Selassie. The care he put into his pastiches and the formal clarity of the photographs belies the playfulness of his inspiration.

While artists and cameras is an omni­present combination it is not always a happy one, because the line between self-indulgent lens-doodling and creativity can be perilously thin. This exhibition, though baggy, still has enough of the latter to leaven its flatness in giving rather too much leeway to the former. 

Performing for the Camera runs until 12 June. For more details, visit: tate.org.uk

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming