Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern: Dress & No Dress

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

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

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)

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/is-this-the-first-instagram-masterpiece/

Dress and Movement in the work of Sonia Delaunay

Cover SD

Somewhat embarrassingly, I only managed to make it to the Tate’s Sonia Delaunay exhibition in its last week, but I was so glad that I did. I went not knowing much about Delaunay prior to stepping through the door, and because it was held in the Tate Modern, I was expecting it to focus mainly on paintings. However, it was her textiles, fashion designs and illustrations that underpinned the whole exhibition. It was immediately apparent that textiles and dress were hugely important to her during her career.

The earliest example of her work in textiles appears in the second room – a cradle cover made in 1911 for her newborn son. Interestingly, the Tate labels it as her ‘first abstract work,’ highlighting the fact that they conflate her work in textile and paint. This is, to an extent, completely understandable as there are numerous similarities between the aesthetic she employs in both. The way blocks of colour are juxtaposed is identical in both mediums. However, to consider the cradle cover, and her later fashion and textile designs, purely as decorative art is to ignore the practical, and indeed emotional, role that these objects played.

Cradle SD

Movement is by far the most persistent theme underlying all the work in the exhibition. Delaunay was fascinated by dance, particularly tango, and many of her works reflect the rapid movement and blurring of shapes that one expects to see in a packed dance hall. In this way, her work bears some resemblance to that of the Italian futurists, who in their obsession with the speed of modern life, painted the rapid movement of cars and people through the city as swirling blocks of colour. In her scenes of dance, ‘light and movement are confounded, [and] the planes blurred’ (Delaunay, c 1913). However, there is also a sense that these colours represent the sound of music in the dances. Bodies, dress and music are all reduced to contrasting colours on the canvas.

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

As in her paintings, movement is a central theme of her fashion designs. In 1918 she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a shop selling accessories, furniture and fabrics that bore her signature swirling lines and blocks of colour. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, as well as designing costumes for ballets and cover illustrations for Vogue. In these, as in her paintings, the body is abstracted, leaving the viewer with the representation of dress in motion. The straight, 1920s silhouette lent itself well to her geometric, graphic designs and bright colours. However, it was not just her clothing that bore this aesthetic, she also designed furniture, and the interior of her Parisian home became something of a manifesto of her style, and a hub for artists and writers.

Two fashion models in Delaunay's bathing suits

Two fashion models in Delaunay’s bathing suits

Movement was also at the heart of her textile designs, so much so that, when she displayed her textiles at the 1924 Salon d’Autumne, they were presented on a ‘Vitrine Simultane.’ This vitrine, created by her husband Robert Delaunay, presented eight swaths of fabric continuously moving upwards on large rollers. Movement was quite literally injected into these otherwise static objects.

It would be easy to look at Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs as a by-product of her painting; the same circular shapes and bold colours that feature in her canvases also appear in the textiles. However, I would argue that her paintings are just as influenced by work in dress – her paintings of dance, convey the movement of dresses swirling in different directions, abstracting the body and giving the canvases their characteristic dynamism.