Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.
Clad in his classic bourgeois suit, Yves Klein leaps into the void. Captured in a Christ-like posture, his silhouette hovers over a street, the deadly landing point of the Parisian bitume in view. It is perhaps the void that Amalia Ulman evokes too – a hollowed sense of identity left to exist solely through Instragram snapshots. Klein opens the Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera, Amalia Ulman acts as an allusive conclusion.
As an additional shot reveals, a group of Klein’s friends holding the tarpaulin into which the French artist was meant to safely fall was erased through photomontage. The photograph was then printed on the front page of a spoof newspaper, disseminating the aura of Klein’s eerie figure to the masses. Ulman’s lingerie selfie is a shot from her instagram feed, blown up to museum proportions. It is taken from a three-part tale, in which the artist assumes the identity of a provincial girl with dreams of making it in LA, and acts out her downfall into drugs, surgery, and suggestive selfies. Finally, redemption – in the form of juices, yoga, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Klein’s image condenses many of the themes the exhibition sets to unpick: the camera as record of an art performance, the photographic image as the site for which the performance is conceived, and finally the photographic document as proof – conscious or unconscious – of a performed identity, whether part of the work itself as an intentional act of self promotion for instance (Koons’ magazine advertisements) or as an attempt to create a seemingly authentic (artistic) persona (Klein’s suit). This last aspect is not overtly addressed by the exhibition but lingers over it, as artists dress or undress for the camera.
Artistic authenticity comes in the form of nudity, or so it seems considering the vast number of images of naked performance on display. The subversive quality of nakedness seemingly ensures the authenticity of the performing artist, literally stripped bare of ‘superficial’ signifiers. Costume, as a sort of manifest addition to the body, appears to stand as another strategy used to subvert identities, highlighting their contingency, yet one that also retains or marks the distinction between the performed role and the ‘true’ identity of the performer.
It is precisely the boundaries of costumes and theater that allow Sarah Bernhardt to flaunt a more liberated body, both through dress (clad in male attire) and her comical poses. Nadar’s studio is made into an extension of the theater stage, in which actresses such as Bernhardt embodied a wide array of identities, yet upheld her image as ‘the eternal feminine’ in the eyes of critics. From Nadar, the exhibition takes us to an endless archive of images from big names (Andy Warhol, Hannah Wilke, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman etc.) to a younger bunch, among them Romain Mader (featured on the show’s poster) and Amalia Ulman.
Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883
In Ulman’s shot, the distinction between artistic self and performance blend. In an interview, Ulman reveals that a gallery had concerns over her credibility before the artist revealed the spoof, namely that the shots of herself were part of a performance. ‘I was acting, it wasn’t me.’ The need to emphasize those boundaries exposes the necessity for an ‘authentic’ self to exist outside of what we are caught easily judging as inappropriate or superficial (as Simon Baker notes, the comments on her Instagram feed are as much part of the performance as the images). Perhaps more than confronting us with our daily selfie routines, Ulman’s performance draws attention to our own highbrow assumptions of what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ display of the self.
Performing for the Camera is on display at Tate Modern until June 12, 2016
Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts, The New Woman in Fin-de-siècle France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)