> A walk through ‘Performing for the Camera’ at Tate Modern

Philomena Epps / A walk through ‘Performing for the Camera’ at Tate Modern

March 2016

In Tate Modern’s current exhibition, Performing for the Camera, 500 images spanning 150 years are used to tease out how performance has been an intrinsic part of photography. Moving from the invention of the camera in the nineteenth century, to the stream of images taken daily in the twenty-first, ‘performance art is often more photographic, and photography more performative, than their usually separate histories suggest’. It seems pertinent, particularly in our contemporary environment of multidisciplinary and cross-media practice, that curators of large-scale exhibitions are beginning to consider relationships between separate mediums and ways of working. This has also been demonstrated by recent overhauls of permanent collections; museums are eschewing chronology in favour of trans-generational parallels and contrasts. This too has fed into the editorial sphere; Aperture magazine recently collaborated with Performa for their Winter Issue 221, exploring how the mediums of photography and performance are capaciously linked. The issue naturally featured an essay from Simon Baker, Senior Curator of Photography at Tate, about the show.

Performing for the Camera opens with work from three well-known male artists. Yves Klein’s Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void), photographer Aaron Siskind’s Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, and Plank Piece I-II by Charles Ray, who primarily works in sculpture. The relationship between the individual works establish how artists working in various disciplines have used the camera, and the photographic image as performative, to record, enable or frame their work. Klein’s work in particular leads into the first theme of the exhibition, ‘Documenting Performance’, which demonstrates how photography has been an integral feature in the history of twentieth-century performance art. Photography became the fundamental way to document performance, one of the crucial ways to record live and ephemeral situations, which took place in the gallery, the studio, or often on the street. However, rather than just rehashing the entrenched notion that these photographs were simply records, the curatorial approach demonstrates how these photographs were often consciously staged, and are works in their own right. Harry Shunk and Janos Kender (whose archive was recently donated to a group of institutions, including Tate) are renown as two of the most important official witnesses to the artistic milieu in 1960s and 70s New York and Paris. Often involved in situations where they became active participants; it was Shunk-Kender who shot, and then manipulated and arranged Klein’s infamously staged ‘leap’. Their documentations of Kusama’s erotic and hallucinogenic anti-war Happenings are more straightforward however, taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, whereas the images of Niki de Saint Phalle are far more staged.

As Baker points out in Aperture, these images don’t actually function as documentation of the performance itself. We don’t see her shoot, in action, but rather just pose stylistically with the gun. This goes one step further in the photographs of Merce Cunningham’s 1964 performance of Nocturnes in Paris. Using extreme focus, the bodies of the dancers are blurred into abstraction, reduced to glowing orbs on a dark sphere. Shunk-Kender’s documentation of Dan Graham’s performance for the Pier 18 group show in New York foregrounds the degree to which their photography was key to the conceptual make up of the creation and documentation of performance art. Pier 18 was commissioned and curated by Willoughy Sharp, who envisioned the end result of the twenty-seven site specific performances to be a photographic museum presentation at MoMA, featuring Shunk-Kender’s photographs. Perhaps, they could even be perceived as the twenty-eighth/ninth artist in that group.

The importance of the ‘documentary photographer’ to the narrative of art history is also exemplified by someone like Kiyoji Otsuji, who documented the performances undertaken by the Gutai group in Japan, or Babette Mangolte, a cinematographer who moved to New York in 1970 as respite from the misogyny of the French film industry. Mangolte soon became involved in the downtown performance scene. Her photographs of Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and other members of the Judson Group are established as the defining record of that period. Kirsten Poor writes about Mangolte in the same Aperture issue, ‘For Mangolte, the context of the site and the experience of the spectator of a given performance were paramount in photographing dance, and photography served as a means of understanding what she was seeing…For Mangolte, dance and performance photography “requires improvisation, daring, and immediacy”.’[1]

Like Shunk-Kender, Mangolte’s sensitivity to the medium, and the pursuit to do more than bear witness, is what makes the photographs both an iconic document and so evocative of the performance itself. This notion feeds into the next theme of the exhibition, which focuses on more overt examples of staging and artistic collaborations. Nadar (Gaspar-Felix Tournachon) was the most celebrated nineteenth-century portrait photographer. He invited the leading actors of his contemporary Paris to restage scenes from their plays, and these photographs were then sold as cabinet cards to fans. Sarah Bernhardt and Charles Deburau’s performances of Pierrot are exhibited together, representing how their stage performances were transposed into the studio, and the relationship between actor and audience shifted to actor and photographer.

The next room, painted a vivid red, exhibits various photographic series by the notable Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe. It is akin to the collaborative relationship evoked by Nadar’s work, except Hosoe moves the dynamic between photographer and performer outside of the studio into the streets and fields of Japan. The 1969 photobook Kamaitachi was the product of collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of the Ankoku Butoh dance movement. Rather than being represented as an object, Hijikata became an active subject, creating improvised performances with local farming villagers. Hosoe then documented these spontaneous interactions between Hijikata, the people, and the landscape – the relationship between performance and photography becoming inextricably linked.

In ‘Photographic Actions’, the focus is on the artist as the mediator of their own image, the performer as object and subject. Although relying on photographers to record the event, the performer is this time very much the author of the series. I’m reminded of another quote from Aperture magazine, taken from a fascinating conversation between two vanguards of the photography and performance sphere, Roxana Marcoci and RoseLee Goldberg. Goldberg states, ‘photographs of performances reinforce that these performances are the work of visual artists. Consciously or not, the artist understands the visual impact of her performance, so no matter who is photographing the work…the content, the image that emerges…could only come from this genre we call artists’ performance’.[2]

This is perhaps particularly representative in Stuart Brisley’s Moments of Decision/Indecision (1975). During the six day performance at Galeria Teatra Studio in Warsaw, Brisley would drench himself in paint to the point of complete sensory deprivation, and would try and climb up the walls. The futility of his actions, and the setting of the performance within the Iron Curtain, was evocative of the individual’s struggle for autonomy within a closed political system. The photographs document different stages of creation, emphasise the physical nature, and the entire series operates as a means to display successive moments simultaneously. Brisley’s collaboration with his photographer, Leslie Haslam, was essential. Haslam became his eyes, confirming his movements in response to questions. The wall text for the work explains that the title is derived from Haslam’s ‘moments of decision’ guiding the performer and choosing when to press the shutter, and Brisley’s own indecision ‘trying to find images for the photographer’.

In parallel to painterly mediations of the performative body, the next room exhibits work by artists who began to consider the body as a sculptural object. Photographs taken and staged by Komar and Melamid, Les Krims, Boris Mikhailov or Hicham Benohoud, all demonstrate the use of everyday objects or materials to stage absurd or unsettling tableaux. The last room related to this theme is dedicated to the striking and intimate work of Francesca Woodman. Her intimate understanding of her own body in relationship to space can be defined as both performative and sculptural. Despite the unflinching representation of her body, often naked or exposed, Woodman remains evasive, crouching on the floor, hiding her face behind her hair or deflecting the gaze through cracked mirrors.

Viewing Woodman’s work can be a claustrophobic experience, usually exacerbated by the biographical note about her premature suicide at twenty-two years old. However, introspection into the psyche of further artists has been subverted by the theme of the next room, ‘Performing Icons’. Here, we discover Duchamp as Rrose Selavy, Fred Holland Day as Jesus Christ, Samuel Fosso as Angela Davis and Martin Luther King among others, Cindy Sherman as a multitude of anonymous fictional women, even Yasumasa Morimura as Yves Klein. It would have been interesting to see Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Roberta Breitmore’ series included within this room, which actually precede Sherman’s Film Stills. By undertaking the pose, costume, even disguise, of fictional or historical characters, these artificial images comment on the identity politics that are embedded within high and low brow visual culture.

Interestingly, I found the posters in the ‘Public Relations’ room that followed far more engaging examples of ‘role play’ than the overt examples that preceded them. Rrose Selavy seemed a more authentic character than the ‘character’ of Joseph Beuys, complete with his hat and fisherman’s waistcoat in each of the many, many posters. The room text states that ‘some artists seemed to embrace ideas of fame and celebrity’. If we substitute the word ‘some’ with ‘male’, then the second part of the text seems much clearer, ‘…while others use the language and strategies of advertising in a more subversive way, undermining assumptions about gender or challenging sexism’. The perfect parallel is then set up between Lynda Benglis’ infamous 1974 ArtForum advert, naked, greased with oil, clutching a large dildo, and the glossy posters of Jeff Koons’ perverse leer, flanked by two models in bikinis. VALIE EXPORT’s 1969 Action Pants: Genital Panic series is also notable; posing open legged with a gun.

It is during this point that the exhibition becomes slightly exhaustive. The extensive research and detailed level of scholarship does somewhat overwhelm the visual impact of the physical exhibition layout, which is quite sparse. Fortunately, the quality of the work shown more than compensates. Although, I wonder if this is due to my familiarity with the artists exhibited and ongoing interest in this field of research. Many of these artists were revelatory for my own critical development, and so it was disappointing to see something like Carolee Schneemann’s Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions exhibited rather inaccessibly in the ‘Photographic Actions’ space.

In the penultimate room, ‘Self / Portrait’, an engaging series of works demonstrating how artists perform exclusively for their own cameras are installed. The self-portrait has been traditionally understood to provide a statement about the role of the artist in the world. Linder’s 1981 She/She ‘live montages’ relate to her practice as a collage artist, using clingfilm to mask or veil her face, or introducing ripped photographs of fashion models. Adrian Piper’s photographs Food for the Spirit (1971) chronicle a physical and mental state induced by a period of intensive study of Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. The photographs were used to record her physical appearance objectively. By taking the images at belly-button height, she encountered a new viewpoint and perspective.

As an aside, Piper’s work made me realise that other important works by significant black female artists, such as Carrie Mae Weems or Lorna Simpson, that also engage with the relationship between photography and performance, were distinctly absent from the show.

Hannah Wilke and Jemima Stehli’s ‘strip’ series are placed in dialogue, exploring themes of voyeurism and physicality. The use of the photo-booth strip in Tomoko Sawada’s extensive ID400 (1998) interrogates how one can alter their appearance, but not their personality. Martin Parr’s Autoportraits (1996-2015) use techniques such as green screens, retouching, or comical props to create imaginative millennial environments. This notion of humour and fantasy is also found in Hans Eijkelboom’s With my Family (1973), where he poses with four different families in his hometown in the Netherlands, assuming the role of the father. Masahisa Fukase’s 1991-2 Bukubuku, made in the bath with an underwater camera, particularly stands out as an interrogative form of self-portraiture. Created before suffering a traumatic brain injury that left him incapacitated, Bukubuku has become known as Fukase’s last great work, a whimsical series that explores themes of isolation and loneliness.

The last room, ‘Performing Real Life’, intends to depict how performing for the camera can entail constructing imaginary experiences or relationships that never took place. Interesting work by Keith Arnatt and another touching series by Fukase of his wife leaving for work each day, is overwhelmed by Amalia Ulman’s Instagram hoodwink Excellences & Perfections, which seems to be wheeled out daily by institutions and magazines alike as the quintessential example of ‘the social media generation’. However, it must be said, the advent of the Internet as creating the perfect platform for merging photography and live performance rings true. Social media has the ability to influence the way we perceive ourselves, and how we want to be perceived. Mediating our lives through virtual platforms is an inherently performative act. Perhaps Beuys was wrong, maybe everyone isn’t an artist after all, but a performer.

 – essay by Philomena Epps



[1] Kirstin Poor, ‘Morgan on Graham / Mangolte on Brown’ Aperture, Issue 221, Winter 2015, pp 125-7

[2] RoseLee Goldberg, ‘On the Record: RoseLee Goldberg and Roxana Marcoci in conversation’, Aperture, Issue 221, Winter 2015, p 44


Performing for the Camera is on show at Tate Modern until 12 June:


Full captions for images at right, courtesy of Tate Modern:

Masahisa Fukase
From Window, 1974
Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery
© Masahisa Fukase Archives


Yves Klein (1928–1962)
Photographers: Harry Shunk 1924–2006, János Kender 1938–2009
Yves Klein’s ‘Saut dans le Vide’, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 
Courtesy of Centre Pompidou – Musée national d’art moderne – Paris – Fonds Shunk-Kender.Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and János Kender
© Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016 /  Collaboration Harry Shunk and Janos Kender
© J.Paul Getty Trust. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. (2014.R.20). Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and Janos Kender


Amalia Ulman
Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) , 2015
Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa


Claude Cahun, 1894 – 1954
Self Portrait, 1927
Image courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography


Jimmy De Sana
Marker Cones, 1982
Medium C-print on paper
© Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana


Eikoh Hosoe, b 1933
Simmon: A Private Landscape, 1971
Eikoh Hosoe courtesy of the artist, Akio Nagasawa Gallery | Publishing (Tokyo) and Jean-Kenta Gauthier (Paris) © The artist


Boris Mikhailov b.1938
Crimean Snobbism, 1982
Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London.
© Boris Mikhailov


Erwin Wurm, b.1954
One Minute Sculpture, 1997
c-print, Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong