Review: Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern ‘Selfie Culture is Nothing New’

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Selfie culture may be a modern phenomenon but performing for the camera ain’t nothing new. And how cameras have been used to capture artists at work and performance art is the subject of this new exhibition at Tate Modern.

Of course, there are two principal ways cameras can be used by artists: there are those where the camera is passive, recording a performance that is fleeting, ephemeral. These are works not necessarily performed for the camera, but captured by it.

And then there is the second group, where artists deliberately perform direct to the camera, or stage a performance specifically for the camera, using the camera as a medium, even as a manipulative tool, to explore and convey a message. And both these approaches are represented in this show.

Unfortunately the exhibition starts off with an awful lot of Yves Klein. A seemingly endless line of photos of him dressed to the nines while he commands naked women around him to cover themselves in paint and roll around on vast canvases laid out on the floor… Yes, I could do with considerably less of that, to be honest.

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But, beyond this, lies work from a wide array of artists who use the camera to explore and challenge societally accepted forms of appearance and gender. And this varies from Boris Mikhailov’s Crimean Snobbism, 1982, exploring holiday photographs – where the reality of holidays can be so markedly different from the version we try to force through in contrived holiday snaps – through to Linder’s She/She, 1981, series of self-portraits where she hides, or should that be ‘enhances’, parts of her face with cut-outs from ‘perfect’ images from beauty magazines.

Given this show examines, in part, how artists can perform direct to the camera, the usual suspects are included. There’s Ai Weiwei smashing his vase, Andy Warhol capturing Keith Haring painting Grace Jones, and Jeff Koons in self-promotion mode. But there are also plenty of fascinating works from artists who are not household names.

In what is, largely, an exhibition of black and white photography, Jemima Stehli’s series of brightly coloured photos grab the eye – as does the content. For her project Strip, 1999-2000, she invited a series of art critics (all male) to watch her undress. In these photos, the camera lens is always focused on the sitter, not Jemima. The series of images are utterly absorbing, displaying subtle, awkward shifts in the male expression and body language as the men try to manage their reactions – being observed whilst observing another in an increasing state of undress.

And as much as is revealed in this show, much is also constructed.

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The exhibition comes right up to date with Amalia Ulman’s recent Instagram project, Excellences & Perfections, 2015. Here, Amalia created a character, an alter-ego, on Insta and posted a string of updates of herself as a Kardashian-esque figure, living an aspirational lifestyle of privilege and selfies. This is a performance – but it is also a commentary on how we all ‘perform’ on social media. In this selfie culture, maybe there’s a performance artist in all of us now. We’re all putting on a show.

Constructing an image is nothing new, but here it is directly confronting us with the challenge of artifice, of constructed reality. Amalia was performing for the camera – but how much did it play into the desires of her many Insta followers? And what does that say about us and our rejection of reality?

This isn’t one of those exhibitions that you can glide through in a matter of minutes, briefly admiring the beautiful large works on the wall. Most of the photos on show are not much bigger than those you’d frame on the mantelpiece. They require close study. And that plays to the exhibitions strengths as there are many artists and many messages included in this show that all have something to say and, by and large, are all worth paying attention to.

It’s a thought-provoking show, and one which absorbs far more than I’d expected. There’s a bit of vanity work in there, sure, but that’s nothing new in art. Performing for the Camera is an intriguing snapshot into the relationship between camera and performance art, and how the camera can be used and manipulated by artists to convey their message to a wider audience.

Tate Modern, London to June 12, 2016

Image Credits:

  1. Jimmy De Sana, born 1949 Marker Cones, 1982 Medium C-print on paper © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana
  2. Boris Mikhailov b.1938 Crimean Snobbism, 1982. Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov
  3. Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

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