Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern, review: ‘an intriguing snapshot of performance art’

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Jimmy De Sana, 'Marker Cones' (1982)
Jimmy De Sana, 'Marker Cones' (1982) Credit: Estate of Jimmy De Sana/Wilkinson Gallery

That the presence of a camera changes our behaviour is one of the most basic truths not only of photography, but of life itself. If you’re above a certain age, you’ll stiffen and become awkward; if you’re below a certain age you’ll pout and make peace signs. Photography and performing go together. And with vastly more photographs being taken than ever before, it’s become a truism that nothing is quite happening unless it’s being recorded.

If these much-analysed concerns feel relatively new, then artists, this sprawling exhibition maintains, have been mining this territory for well over a century. From early documentation of dance and theatre to current selfie-culture, photography and performance are interlinked, we are told, to the extent you can barely have the one without the other. If my mention of selfies creates the expectation of a crowd-pleasing celebration of photographic me-culture, full of digital gimmicks, think again. This is a very much an archive trawl, but one that takes us down some fascinating and marvelously obscure photographic byways.

It starts with perhaps the most famous of all performed photographs, Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void from 1960, in which the French artist leaps from a building, his body frozen in an exhilarating horizontal before he crashes – inevitably – onto the pavement below. If you know this extraordinary image, you’ll be fascinated by the accompanying display, in which we see the same scene with a group of men holding a tarpaulin for Klein to fall onto, organised by the photographers Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, who documented many of the most crucial “happenings” of the Sixties, the golden age of performance art.

Masahisa Fukase, 'From Window' (1974) Credit: Masahisa Fukase Archives/Michael Hoppen Gallery

Their archive, recently donated jointly to the Tate and Paris’s Pompidou Centre, provides the starting point for this exhibition, which proceeds in sequences of images, each telling a story or embodying a moment. The early rooms are devoted to iconic, and mostly off-the-wall Sixties performances: Klein covering naked women in paint and rolling them on canvas to create “performed” paintings; Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s naked Vietnam War protest in which images of Nixon are burnt in the streets of New York; France’s Niki de St Phalle shooting her own art with a rifle.

Evocative as these images are, the exhibition’s claim that Shunk and Kender were artists, whose contribution was intrinsic to these events, doesn’t quite ring true. While we’d barely be aware of these performances if the pair hadn’t snapped them, most of them weren’t staged for the camera, and the photographs lack a crucial element: colour. There are too many rooms of black and white images, all of a very similar, relatively small size.

Sepia images from 1884 of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt and the mime Charles Deburau create a welcome change of tone and feel. But it’s only with the Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe that image and performance feel inextricably bound together in the way the exhibition intends. Working with individual performers, often in remote villages, Hosoe created images of exquisite lyrical beauty.

It’s a subtle, but significant step from photographers capturing performance to artist-performers staging their own photographic events, whether it’s Andy Warhol’s pictures of graffiti artist Keith Haring painting Grace Jones’s body or Ai Weiwei’s triptych of himself impassively dropping a Han dynasty vase. Whatever you think of the wanton destruction – supposedly commenting on China’s suffocating reverence of its past – the scale of these life-size images allows a sense of participation in an event that took place 20 years ago.

American artist Cindy Sherman’s glossy pseudo-film stills are probably the best-known examples of the fictionalised photographic self-portrait, though they’re overshadowed here by Central African Republic snapper Samuel Fosso’s large format impersonations of black political heroes, from Hailie Selassie to Malcolm X. Filling an entire wall, the deadpan, black-and-white assembly makes a big impact.

Those great poseur-artists Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons are cleverly summed up in selections of their own publicity posters. Without their trademark accoutrements, captured through the camera lens – Beuys’s porkpie hat, Warhol’s fright-wig and Koons’s cheesy smile – these artists, you’re made to feel, would barely have existed. They may yet emerge as the spiritual fathers of Facebook.

Amalia Ulman, 'Excellences & Perfections' (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014) Credit: Amalia Ulman/Arcadia Missa

Beside these big names, it’s often the more unlikely and far-flung stories that really capture the imagination, whether it’s the Moroccan teacher who gets his pupils to stage living sculptures in the classroom or the elderly Japanese man who creates genuinely astonishing images photographing himself underwater in his bath. By the time we get to the present day, art seems to lag behind the constantly-evolving reality of on-line self-image-making. Five minutes on Facebook will tell you more about how young people today are forced to construct photographic roles than you’ll learn from Spanish artist Amalia Ulman, who stages her self-regarding Instagram images as works of art. The reality is that teenage girls are already effectively doing that.

This is a very large exhibition, composed of relatively small individual stories. While it struggles to find an overarching message, it’s the strength and detail in these often obscure stories that keep us absorbed. It isn’t great themes, that make a great show, but great images, and this exhibition undoubtedly has an abundance of those.

Feb 18-June 12. Details: tate.org.uk