Believe it or not, taking photographs is prohibited at the exhibition Performing for the Camera, currently on show at the Tate Modern. With over 50 seminal photographers and a myriad of 500 photographic works, as an exhibition, it could be exhausting on the eye, but instead the artworks presented create a visually entertaining spectacle, full of momentum.
The exhibition’s focus—what it means to perform for the camera—engages with the central idea of the gaze (camera) as a tool of power and creative conceit; although not irrelevant, it appears that we have exhausted the theme of subjectivity in relation to subverting the gaze and dynamics of power, especially with regard to the artists’ relationship to the private and public, of who is looking or being looked at.
What is more fascinating, although at times perverse, is how the artists displayed explore artifice—constructing reality through performance, illusion, image and narrative. Photography is then merely a creative medium of manipulation. The importance of the art of deception, which can be deliberately staged to alter reality, subjectivity and political consciousness, is a compelling subject.
One of the first works encountered in the exhibition is Charles Ray’s Plank Piece I-II where two arresting images show the artist contorted, hanging from a plank—an unsettling balancing act—where the camera creates a sense of stability and permanence out of a sculptural performance that would otherwise be ephemeral. The mysterious nature of photography creates the illusion of being able to make time stand still.
The camera can be seen as a “fantasy-machine,” where artists and photographers use the medium like magicians. The camera can still an image, pausing a man in flight or fall. As we see in Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, it can suspend both the moment and our disbelief, orchestrating a dialogue between art and truth.
As we observe the shifting nature of humans creating art and performing, but not solely for the camera, we see the subjunctive of art and its limitless possibilities. In the beautifully unnerving and evocative work of Eikoh Hosoe’s Kamaitachi, he seductively combines photography and performance to play with myths of reality. Legends constructed out of a magical realism become understood, and we are made to relate to the humanity in them. Storytelling in art can be seen to create ideology whilst subverting its traditions.
Also made visible is Andy Warhol’s Grace [Jones] Being Painted by Keith Haring, a ‘stitched photograph’ of a repeated identical image, Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, as he maintains an unflinching gaze, and a whole room isolating the work of Francesca Woodman where the edges of the photographic frame play an integral role in creating a dynamic space, which she would conceive her self in.
Although disappointingly not collectivized in the exhibition, there are several works by 21st century women artists who deal with gender politics and identity, challenging the male gaze in order to reclaim their bodies. From Hannah Wilke who photographs herself as a young man in Portrait of the Artist in His Studio, to Valie Export in crotchless leather trousers, holding a gun in Action Paints: Genital Panic, to Jemima Stehli’s project Strip, where she undresses in front of several male art critics, as they self-consciously photograph her, and Tokyo Rumando’s Orphée, where gazing into a mirror she sees multiple versions of herself, exploring concerns with spectator-ship, the objectification of women, and desire.
Male artists also subversively explore gender, stereotypes, and the role of the male, such as Boris Mikhailov’s I Am Not I, Hans Eijkelboom’s With My Family, Thomas Mailaender’s piece Gone Fishing, or the explicit, symbolic and transformative works of Jimmy DeSana.
We all perform, create portraits of ourselves and narratives through oral and pictorial story telling—we are born out of fiction. We believe we exist because other people have witnessed us in the world and confirmed our belief. Art, too, exists and comes into being when looked at by the viewer.
In the 21st century, the rise of the selfie is ubiquitous with the emergence of the smart phone as an extension of ourselves—we self-survey ourselves. 27,800 photographs are uploaded to Instagram every minute, and 40 million photographs posted onto the site daily. It is estimated that 1.3 trillion photographs will be taken worldwide by 2017; soon there will be more photographs than the amount of days that humans have existed on the planet.
Fittingly the exhibition ends with the work of Amalia Ulman, Excellences and Perfections. Her performance takes place on Instagram, where she creates an alter ego and characterizes her by using the photo-sharing platform. Turning the camera on herself, she creates and exposes a fictitious narrative built up through a montage of photographic images she creates an aesthetic, which characterizes her identity.
Reality is a beautiful illusion. Life is in constant flux; it is as mutable as are our identities shaped by transient moments. Artists more than anyone show us that this is true. It’s a thought-provoking exhibition purely because the artworks on display are a testament to the subversive and challenging nature of art, which does not simply perform for the camera but exist as artworks in themselves and, as such, are truly worth seeing.
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