Manuel Vason Photographs the Body at Its Limits
The Italian photographer has been documenting the world's most extreme performance artists for 15 years. Now he's putting himself in the picture.
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Italian photographer Manuel Vason began his career in 1999 shooting performance artists and has since become one of the world's most prolific documentarian when it comes to the practice. Over the course of five books he has developed a hybrid form that marries the art of stylized photography and that fleeting moment of creation when, for example, a Franko B or Ron Athey work is born.
Vason's latest project, Double Exposures, is a book of his most well known subjects from over the last 15 years, including Stacy Makishi, David Hoyle, and Ernst Fischer. Unlike his previous work however, Vason also trains the camera on himself. By letting these artists sculpt his own body into a new, specially commissioned, work of art, Vason finally makes the crossover from observer to performer. We asked him why he felt the need.
VICE: How did you come to shoot performance artists? Was that always what you wanted to do?
Manuel Vason: Well, I come from fashion photography. I worked as an assistant for about ten years with people like Nick Knight, Steven Klein, and Michel Comte. So I was really intrigued by this collaborative mode, where there is always a body in front of the camera and it's a sculptural process and it's very performative. But the thing with fashion photography is it's driven by money and I didn't really care about the garments or the industry. If Karl Lagerfeld got a fever, for example, I wouldn't have given a damn.
When I was in London assisting Nick Knight I suddenly started getting involved with club culture and more in touch with the world of performance. There were a lot of performance fetish clubs and artists appearing and suddenly I saw a body which was doing some sort of action, but communicating things that were much more subtle and layered and personal than models or actors, they had a necessity; they were truthful.
It's quite interesting to photograph what would otherwise be an ephemeral practice. Is there a risk that your work becomes part of the ephemera?
When I started collaborating with these people, instead of me going to where they were performing and trying to capture what they were doing, I'd invite them to do something more stylized—more controlled—in front of the camera. That can dramatically change the relationship between their performance and the document because the document became the only place that you could see certain work.
How does Double Exposures break away from your previous photographs of performance artists?
Basically for me this book was about breaking some rules. For many years I had been trained to encapsulate into the single image something that was durational or complex—to behold that iconic image that would trap the event and immortalize the artist. What I ended up doing on this book however, is sabotaging that way of working. I split the iconic image in two. The diptych for me is a gesture of interruption, separation, or negation.
The other thing is that I gave the camera away. So one image is the artist photographed by myself and the other facing image is the artist photographing my body. It was about taking a risk, because obviously I'm not a performance artist, I'm a photographer, I've not been trained as a performance artist and suddenly I was directed by this professional who was experienced.
For many years I had been talking about collaboration; you perform for the camera, I create the images for you, there is an exchange. But ultimately I was very safe and to actually go on the other side of the camera was, for me, the only way to really show my willingness to make a proper exchange.
What about pushing you to your limits, what was your most challenging moment?
Well the book basically collects 43 artists and 40 collaborations, 40 diptychs, so I think it was the duration of the entire project, that was one of the biggest things. It took me four years to complete the project and two and half to actually go through one image after the other. I think it's the intensity of the diversity of approaches—stepping between one mindset into another, or one bodily situation into another—that really pushed my body and my mind.
And then of course each single collaboration was a challenge in a way, because it was a completely new conversation, and I did everything from being pierced, taped up, having my head shaved... I had to do a lot of durational work, stay in one particular position for a long time. Swimming on a lake of shit was probably the worst though. That image [the Ernst Fisher collaboration] looks like a beautiful pond but it's actually in the forest and when I went to the site and got in the water I could smell shit all over me. I also had some leeches and had to go to the doctor.
Have you ever approached a performance artist to take their picture and they've been like, "No I don't want you to take this"?
Absolutely. I encounter artists that have a no documentation policy, which I utterly respect and think is totally fair enough. I am aware that photography can be intrusive and invasive so I totally understand it's not for everybody.
There is a natural conflict between life, which is uncontrollable and un-capturable, and photography, which is all about boxing and fixing and controlling. But at the same time I'm aware that there are possibilities of experimentation in this frictional dialogue and I think this was the objective.
Is there something about the extremity of performance art that interests you? You tend to focus on people who push their body quite far.
When I saw some of this work it completely fascinated me, by the strength of communicating something and it could be anything; it could be violence, it could be trauma, or something really positive; a poetic symbolic thing, but they are both positive in my opinion. I think that what these artists are doing is to kind of trigger some sort of memories in ourselves.
I guess it's a personal curiosity in terms of this constant confrontation with the limit of the body, whether it's a confrontation with identity, or religious matter or topographical matter. I'm not really interested in shocking but I am interested to provoke a discourse and also I'm interested in presenting work that destabilizes me. Art should bring us into a territory that is a critical space.
They are definitely captivating and they take you somewhere and it might be a sensation of confusion or a sensation of questioning for instance, but I think the questioning is great, it means its positive for me because when you see an artwork or an image and suddenly it's clear and you've seen it many times and your brain doesn't register because we are so saturated that it becomes pointless.
Is that why you think performance art is having a big moment now, maybe because we're in this age of the reproduction of the image... maybe we are looking for something else?
There are definitely more people talking about performance art, more students studying it, more critics writing about it, but I wonder if this is positive or a negative thing for the form itself. Performance was very much about a reaction to the mainstream—a form that developed because it didn't want to be institutionalized and the fact that now it's kind of everywhere and totally assimilated could mean the end of it. Will we exhaust the fuel, the energy, the reasoning for being?
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