Create, Destroy: Performance Art and the Photograph as Both Document and Artform

I spent the weekend in London, where I went to see the Performing for the Camera exhibition at the Tate Modern. I don’t normally post extensively about exhibitions that I’ve seen, but this one really left an impression. In part, because the topic is close to themes which I have worked with and written about in the past, and in part because it triggered the realisation that my lull in visual creativity during recent months has been at least partially caused by a failure to immerse myself in outside influence. Visiting galleries, spending time with other artists, discussing inspiration and ideas, and paying attention to things that are going on in the visual arts world.

It hasn’t been intentional, simply that since late in 2015, I developed an interest in a completely new area, and when that happens, my mind tends to become obsessive about learning in that single area for a while, before levelling out to re-include my other interests. There’s benefits to this, and drawbacks. The major benefit, of course, being that I learn the basics of something very rapidly, meaning that I can find out whether or not something is likely to become a long term interest rather than a passing fancy, without dedicating an overlong amount of time to it first. The drawbacks, as already mentioned, include complete lack of activity or progress in other areas of interest, for a while.

Amongst the artists exhibited, and what originally caught my attention, are Francesca Woodman, Erin Wurm, and the mention of progression into the ultra-modern, with use of social media as a platform for performance exhibition.

The exhibition deals with the relationship between performance art and the photograph as both document and art form in and of itself, and links in with an interest I have had since my university days related to the creation of something with the sole intent to photograph it. My own dissertation dealt with work such as Thomas Demand‘s paper (re)constructions of spaces and scenes, and  James Casebere‘s Blue Hallway. Essentially, the concept of creating something which by itself is temporary, fleeting, or intended to be destroyed, and utilising photography to effect a permanent form of the work.

Amalia Ulman‘s work using Instagram as a platform for performance exhibition links in to topics I wrote about a short while back, discussing the relationship (or not) of historical self portraiture, and the modern ‘selfie’, and the emergence of DIY curation and non-traditional formats for exhibition. Her work is displayed within the exhibition as the Instagram feeds themselves, on iPads which viewers can scroll through – and this itself has potential to require further debate regarding the idea of art within the gallery environment. This is art which does not require a traditional exhibition format in order to exist and succeed in reaching viewers. And it succeeds in this, in fact, to such an extent that it eventually finds a place within one of the most well known galleries in the world. It’s a circle back on itself, in some ways, that is equally bizarre and fascinating.

Performing for the Camera will examine the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition will engage with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera.
Identity and self-image were also important for artists like Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol in their own marketing and promotional photographs, and in more playful works like Mike Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Cards 1974 in which photographers pose as ‘collectable’ baseball players. The world of social media will be addressed in a key recent work staged on Instagram by Amalia Ulman. The exhibition will show not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.

Further links and resources can be found on a Pinterest board which I am continuing to add to, containing various exhibition information, reviews and artists, plus any related material relevant to the overall topic.

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Shooting at Mirrors; The Self Portrait in the Modern Age

In more recent years, the autonomous image, the ‘selfie’ has been devalued in the eyes of popular culture, even to the extent of the shortening of the name. It is not something which is given any particular artistic merit, and those who do are often considered to take themselves a little too seriously. The most curious thing is perhaps that although there is no intrinsic difference between the tourist who asks their friend – or even a passing stranger – to take their photograph outside a landmark, and the person who simply acknowledges the progression of modern technology and angles their front facing camera to do it all themselves, I suspect that the latter would attract strange glances and even a touch of mockery from onlookers.

But the self portrait has been an accepted artistic pursuit for centuries previously. As far back as ancient civilisations, people have attempted to represent themselves in the form of artistic media, for reasons which range as broadly as the media used.

The self portrait flips the concept of an artistic gaze on its head. The male artist painting a voluptuous nude holds a very different significance to the young woman talking stark black and white images of her own body. It not only alters the intent of the piece from the outset, it arguably also changes the way we, the viewers, perceive that imagery.

Take the work of Francesca Goodman as example. Incredibly personal, at times painfully blunt and open portraits of herself, but there is that sense of raw intimacy. For me, at least, whilst the work reveals perhaps more than the viewer will ever feel comfortable with, it is a sense more in line with accidentally seeing some private moment, a voyeuristic discomfort rather than the discomfort that might be apparent were we told that these photographs were taken by someone else.

In this photograph, Woodman appears naked, her pose awkward. To the viewer aware of her self portraiture, this presents as a personal and very vulnerable moment, but one which she chooses to commit to film. No matter the circumstances surrounding it (and we can likely assume that little of her work came from the happiest of places given her suicide at 22), she has nevertheless assumed control in some way. This image is hers and hers alone. Her ideas, her choices.

[Nudity ahead]

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Trauma, Recollection and The False Memory Archive

I don’t think that art should be comforting to see. When I’ve poured the worst times of my life into a project, I don’t want someone to look at it and think ‘that’s pretty’. I want them to have to look away. I want them to react. I want them to feel fucking uncomfortable.

I want them to feel like they need to walk away from the thing, but be unable to get that feeling out of their memory. I want to make a lasting impression, make them think even a little bit, even if they don’t want to think about it.

Do you remember the first nightmare you had as a kid? I do. I was maybe 4 years old, and I recall it clearly. More clearly than my most recent one, perhaps because it was the first experience of that kind of horror that I had. I don’t remember how I felt about it, other than it scared me to go to sleep for a little while afterwards.

We are shaped by traumatic experiences, horrors and fears. You don’t hear of people suffering from post-joy relaxation disorder do you? That’s ludicrous. We expect happiness, or at least satisfaction, and peace. That’s why anything other is a disturbance.

For a while, I had a semi-formed idea about an art installation piece, comprising of both found and original photography, sound and sensory manipulation. The central premise was to ‘implant’ false memories in the viewer, or at the very least, have them leave feeling unsettled, and unsure about whether what they had seen had truly triggered a memory of their own, or a memory of something they had seen, or heard, about. As I say, the whole idea was quite vague, and I never developed it any further largely because the moral and ethical implications bothered me.

Last year, I read this article about what is essentially a collection of false memories, and as well as being a far better realisation of the ideas which had been dancing through my own thoughts, it brought to mind something from my childhood, a memory which has been clear to me for my whole life, but which I have always wondered about. Now, having read about this project, I wonder even more – although curiously, now I also wonder if this project has had a further impact on my uncertainty.

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, in the car with my family on a camping trip. I remember it being dark, although whether it was actually night time, or whether it was just overcast, I couldn’t say. Sitting in the back of the car, I was on the right, my sister over the other side of my mother. As we approached the scene of an accident, my mother tried to turn my head away from the flashing lights in the central reservation. But when you draw a kids attention to something they shouldn’t see, they get curious. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of the body laid on the road, surrounded by paramedics. I don’t know if it was male or female, alive or dead, but nearly 25 years later, I still have that flash of image in my mind, clearer than some of my more recent memories. I have trouble picturing the face of, say, someone I dated five years ago. I couldn’t describe to you the last person I saw in the street. I have trouble even recalling every single thing I ate yesterday. But I could describe that glimpse in detail.

The thing is, now, I’m not even 100% sure it ever happened. Did I fall asleep in the car? Did I catch just a fleeting glimpse of something, and then my imagination over the years has filled in the rest? Maybe a combination of the above, it’s completely impossible to say now, but the fact remains that in my mind, this event happened, and I can describe it quite well. It’s the clarity which makes me suspicious. Memory is a curious, powerful, and yet oddly unreliable function. It’s hugely interesting, in part because it is so manipulable.

The website for the False Memory Archive is situated here, and the exhibition is touring in the UK during 2014.