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A New Exhibition Explores the Art of Performing for the Camera

The Tate Modern explores a range of body photography, from selfies to Yves Klein performances captured on film.
Jimmy De Sana. Maker Cones. 1982. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana.

Artistic images of protest, which today include both the avant-garde and selfies, demonstrate the relationship between performance art and photography in the Tate Modern’s new exhibit Performing for the Camera. From 19th century Paris to New York in the 70s, over 500 photographs are on display documenting the collaboration between the two art forms since photography’s beginnings. Representing a wide range of genre defining and lesser-known artists, the show provides a new chronological retrospective for acting in front of the camera, both natural and staged.


Appropriately creating performance art in the exhibit space, Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures turned participants into artworks while holding everyday objects in outlandish positions for an entire 60 seconds. Using sculpture to illustrate a spontaneous performance, the Austrian artist developed the project in the late 80s, cataloging photos throughout the years, many of which now hang in the Tate exposition.

Erwin Wurm. One minute sculpture. 1997. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.  

While Wurm highlights photography within surrealist situations—as does featured dada artist Man Ray—others reinterpret photography through direct acting, like the posed mime performances of Charles Deburau by French photographer Nadar, or those of Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe, who had an affiliation with avant-garde dancers. Examining artistic process, photography is also used to illustrate the construction of Yves Klein’s 1960 Leap into the Void—a performance made for the photographic medium—and Anthropometries of the Blue Period, for which the artist had body-painted women pressing themselves to canvas.

Stages of movement and new constructions of popular culture additionally come under the camera’s lens, capturing Ai Weiwei’s destruction of an ancient Chinese urn, or the controversial artist F. Holland Day’s self-depiction of Jesus Christ in The Seven Words from 1899.

Yves Klein. Photographers: Harry Shunk and János Kender. Yves Klein's 'Saut dans le Vide', Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. 1960. Image courtesy of Centre Pompidou, ADAGP, Paris, DACS, London 2016 and J.Paul Getty Trust. Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

The camera’s versatile use as an artistic method stretches over seven categories, including Documenting Performance, Public Relations and Performing Real Life, demonstrating the fluidity between photography and all areas of artistic expression, from drama and dance, to mass media and protest, throughout the large yet carefully chosen exhibit.


Other images show work from Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol, and Boris Mikhailov, ending up in today’s digital age where Instagram photos show how the once passive viewer creates their own digital interpretations of art through real life performance.

Amalia Ulman. Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent). 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa.

Bringing together performance and photography, Performing for the Camera runs at Tate Modern through to June 12th, 2016. For more information, click here.


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