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Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern – shifting the focus to subject

February 20, 2016

ArtsPhotography | by Harry Seymour


The Tate Modern has just opened a new photography exhibition with a twist. Rather than focusing on the photographer, the emphasis has shifted to analysing the works through the role of the performer in front of the lense.

Performing for the Camera contains over 500 images, from the inception of photography in the nineteenth century through to the selfie culture of Instagram the show charts 150 years of people and their actions as the subject of works. Curated through a series of rooms with themes of performance, the show is heavy with experimental work from the 1960’s when performance was being shot by artists such as Yves Klein and Yayoi Kusama, some of the most important art movements are represented in the show from the point of view of the characters and their movements.

Yves Klein (1928–1962) Photographers: Harry Shunk 1924–2006, János Kender 1938–2009. Yves Klein's 'Saut dans le Vide', Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960 Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper  Courtesy of Centre Pompidou – Musée national d’art moderne - Paris – Fonds Shunk-Kender.Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and János Kender © Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016 /  Collaboration Harry Shunk and Janos Kender © J.Paul Getty Trust. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. (2014.R.20). Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and Janos Kender
Yves Klein (1928–1962)
Photographers: Harry Shunk 1924–2006, János Kender 1938–2009. Yves Klein’s ‘Saut dans le Vide’, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Courtesy of Centre Pompidou – Musée national d’art moderne – Paris – Fonds Shunk-Kender.Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and János Kender
© Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016 / Collaboration Harry Shunk and Janos Kender
© J.Paul Getty Trust. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. (2014.R.20). Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and Janos Kender

Other areas of the show focus on the artist turning the camera on themselves and their works – Erwin Wurm’s wonderfully charming series of “One Minute Sculptures” in which people were encouraged to make themselves in to a temporary work of three dimensional art that Wurm then photographed.

Boris Mikhailov b.1938 Crimean Snobbism, 1982 Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov
Boris Mikhailov b.1938
Crimean Snobbism, 1982
Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London.
© Boris Mikhailov

Another highlight is Jeff Koon’s use of photography for self-promotion. The artist took several portraits of himself including one posing with pigs, to run as a series of adverts in art magazines in the 80’s to promote his shows. The works question the dialogues between art, photography and advertising in Koons’ signature capitalist ego.

Erwin Wurm, b.1954 One Minute Sculpture, 1997 c-print Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
Erwin Wurm, b.1954
One Minute Sculpture, 1997
c-print
Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The show ends with the much hyped work of Amalia Ullman who moved to Los Angeles and started an Instagram account documenting he process of becoming an “it” girl, through drug addiction, boob jobs and hotel bathroom selfies, only to later unveil the whole thing had been faked as a commentary on the vacuous nature of such personalities and social media platforms.=

The show is a well constructed synopsis of performance within the lense – it’s a refreshing look at how people document art and is another success in Tate’s recent string of excellent shows.

By Toby Mellors

Performing for the Camera, 18 February – 12 June 2016, Tate Modern