Performing for the Camera

Art, Photography
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

As a pre-art school teenager, I was obsessed with Yves Klein’s ‘Leap into the Void’ (1960). The photograph – which shows the artist flinging himself off a 15-foot wall, arms outstretched, the concrete waiting for him below – felt wild, brazen and dangerous. It was everything I loved about art. But as this show reveals, the picture is actually a piece of composite trickery. In reality, a group of assistants held a sheet of tarpaulin to safely catch Klein, while photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender meticulously shot that iconic split-second moment.

That’s not to criticise Klein, but to praise Shunk and Kender, who turn out to be the heroes of this exhibition. Not only did they document Klein, but also the dance-based works of Merce Cunningham and dotty happenings of Yayoi Kusama. They prove that to document these transient, performative works of art isn’t just a case of point-and-click; to record these works is to help articulate them to a wider audience who didn’t encounter them first-hand.

The exhibition then swerves into a greater focus on work that plays up to the camera. So we get Man Ray’s pictures of Duchamp’s drag alter-ego Rrose Sélavy, Cindy Sherman dressed as Hollywood movie stars, and Samuel Fosso assuming the guises of black icons like Haile Selassie and Malcolm X. One gem is a downright weird self-portrait from 1847 by Hippolyte Bayard, who pioneered the photographic equivalent of Betamax. So pissed off was he that Louis Daguerre got all the glory, here he pretends to have drowned himself. It’s a wonderful precursor to the age of selfies and PR stunts, dealt with acerbically here by contemporary artist Amalia Ulman. In her piece ‘Excellences & Imperfections’, she constructs a series of artificial personae on her Instagram account, fooling her followers into believing she’d got plastic surgery and become a pole-dancer.

The exhibition’s problem is one that recurs time and again in blockbuster group shows. As we move from room to room, and one theme cross-fades into another – gesture, politics, identity, self-promotion – the premise of the exhibition starts to buckle under the sheer weight of the work on display. Some people will gravitate towards the raw, ephemeral performances immortalised for posterity; others to the more intricate play acting. But one will come at the expense of the other. 

By: Matt Breen



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