A Review of the Performing for the Camera Exhibition at Tate Modern, London

Robert Mapplethorpe,  Self-portrait , 1983. 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-portrait, 1983. 

18th February - 19th June 


Snap, snap, snap go the cameras and iPhones of individuals all along the South Bank, London, documenting their experiences, capturing moments and memories that will now be saved in a digital cloud somewhere and most likely uploaded onto Facebook. And why not? In the 21st-century, documenting every single aspect of our lives has become second nature, creating tailored images of ourselves that we wish to project onto friends, even strangers. Photography has been in use since the 19th-century as a means of documenting ephemeral forms of artistic expression that would otherwise be lost forever. Tate Modern’s new major photographic exhibition Performing for the Camera shows how two separate mediums can be inextricably linked to one another.


Eikoh Hosoe

Eikoh Hosoe


 Curator Simon Baker selects specific; Documenting Performance, Staging/Collaboration, Photographic Actions, Performing Icons, Public Relations, Self/Portrait and Performing Real Life and includes an array of artists such as Yves Klein, Robert Mapplethore and Jeff Koons. It brings together an extensive collection of over 500 images from the last 150 years, which shows how both mediums complement one another in contexts varying from the humorous to serious. As stated by Simon Baker, Curator of Photography and International Art at the Tate, “...in the exhibition you can see a balance between photography simply being used to document performance and then photographers taking this further making their own work, making their own images from it. It's a much more sophisticated kind of operation than simply documenting a performance.”


Erwin Wurm,  Untitled (Claudia Schiffer series) , 2009

Erwin Wurm, Untitled (Claudia Schiffer series), 2009


The exhibition begins with an insight into the integral role photography has played in documenting performance art. We are introduced to the artist Yves Klein, a pioneer in the development of performance art and famous for his experimental methods. Take his Living Paintbrushes, 1960, a public performance that he staged where naked, painted women applied their bodies onto a canvas in front of a selected audience. The photographers Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, renowned for their documentation of performance art in Paris and New York during the 60s and 70s, were invited to capture the show. Each image is meticulously laid out in the exhibition, recording specific moments that emphasise the elaborate staging of the event.

With examples such as Klein's work, we see how photography becomes more performative and performance more photographic. By capturing fleeting moments and freezing them in time the show is broken up into snap-shots, whilst the photography becomes part of the bravura of the performance as each movement and moment is played out not only for the audience but also for the lens.


Shunk-Kender,  Yves Klein's Saut dans le Vide, Fontenay-aux-Roses,  France, 1960

Shunk-Kender, Yves Klein's Saut dans le Vide, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960


Since the birth of photography, artists have used the self-portrait to project and explore notions of identity and their role within the world. This theme dates back as early as the 1920s, where we find the famous image of Rrose Selavy, (Rrose Selavy, 1921) the playful alter ego of enfant terrible, Marcel Duchamp. Photographed by Man Ray, Duchamp poses for the camera with diligent attention to detail. His hands rest gently on his fur accessory whilst his carefully chosen woman’s hat frames his made-up face. The image is essentially a drag performance in which the artist's identity is acted out and brought to life by the camera. Similarly, Claude Cahun's Self-portrait 1928 also blurs the boundaries of gender in a strong, empowering image. Juxtaposing its stillness is Eikoh Hosoe's figurative work, which captures the subject's movement and physicality with ease. 


Claude Cahun,  Self-portrait,  1928.

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1928.


The ubiquity of social media has led to the aestheticisation of everyday life. Cameras have become an apparatus for identifying who we are, or at least who we want to be. Performing and keeping up appearances has become part of our social make-up. We have long since progressed from the photographer Francesca Woodman who recorded her experiences of femininity and gender in photographs. With a following of 115,000 on Instagram, Amalia Ulman, the modern internet sensation, is an example of an artist who has fully embraced the digital age. Using her Instagram account she produces Excellences & Perfection, an online performance, which is shown as a triptych in the section of the exhibition Performing Real Life. This work documents the semi-fictionalised makeover that Ulman gave herself over a period of 4 months in 2014.  


Francesca Woodman,  Untitled , 1975-80

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975-80


By pretending to undergo plastic surgery (breast enhancement), follow the intense Zao Dha diet and attend regular pole dancing lessons, Ulman has created a fantasy life and style. Take the image Excellences & Perfection (Instagram Update, 8 July 2014) where we see Ulman using her iPhone camera to capture her posing seductively in lingerie. In this body of work she highlights the power of the image and self-publication in contemporary society as well as the uncertainty and self-doubt that accompanies it. Using social media and digital resources as a medium has unsurprisingly caused controversy given the uncertain legitimacy of it as a genuine artistic practice.


Amalia Ulman,  Excellences & Perfection  (Instagram Update, 8 July 2014)

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfection (Instagram Update, 8 July 2014)


With this in mind, Tate Modern’s inclusion of Ulman’s work is a bold move. By placing her in the same show as critically acclaimed artists such as Cindy Sherman, Erwin Wurm and Robert Mapplethorpe (Self Portrait, 1983), the art institution appears to acknowledge and accept the shift in an artist's approach to performance and photography as the digital medium becomes increasingly prominent in the art world's changing landscape. As Baker so eloquently states “...there is a sense in which we are all performing for cameras now. The photographic language is taking over in a way that it certainly wasn't before, and I think this makes the exhibition quite timely in that sense.” The extensive range of material that has been sourced for this exhibition provides us with a highly informative and refreshing perspective on the history of performing for the camera. Book online at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera. 


Eikoh Hosoe,  A Private Landscape. 

Eikoh Hosoe, A Private Landscape. 

Book online at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera. 

Written by Lara Monro, Freelance Photography and Art Writer.