Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern - a visit

30 April 2016

SIG: Contemporary

The exhibition starts with the early 1960s, (un)covering the very stylish Yves Klein and his “Anthropometry of the Blue Period”; he seems to living out a fantasy here.  Moving on we see images of various “Happenings” with Yayoi Kusama’s dotty body art - very swinging 60s.

What’s interesting is that the photographers working with several of the artists of the period were Shunk-Kender, who dominate this exhibition.  Looking back with hindsight there’s an element of exploitation that sits uncomfortably with the viewer; I’ll come back to exploitation later.

There are some images from the 60/70’s which are every bit as entertaining without needing to be gratuitous.  Minoru Hirata’s images of Hi Red Center's Dropping Event and the even more risky Kyushu Faction Street Happening brought a smile to my face but my favourite images from this period were Babette Mangolte’s Roof Piece, showing dancers performing on rooftops across New York city.  The descriptions with Les Krims’ work really made me laugh out loud, especially the description of where he printed his images “in a basement in Buffalo, New York – a Failed Border Town where the Stank of Government Cheese Meets the E.coli Scented Lake Erie Breeze”.

There’s no real chronological order in the exhibition, the oldest images appeared to be beautiful gelatin prints of the actress Sarah Bernhardt from the 1880’s by Paul Nadar.

When we get to the 1990s we find images of (and by) Ai Weiwei dropping a “priceless” Han dynasty urn.

There are some excellent Japanese images in the collection.  The Yasumasa Morimura’s 2010 Remake of the Yves Klein jump photo is recreated, even with the details of the bicycle rider and train passing by.  (I wonder if he used PhotoShop rather than a dark-room photo-montage?  Clearly it doesn’t matter whether you work in the real or digital darkroom, but that’s another debate…)

Bringing us up to date and closing the exhibition we see Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections performance on Instagram - I’d heard something about this on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in recent months and following up on the exhibition read an interesting piece in

It’s interesting to find that in a sense the artist had reversed the exploitation used by Yves Klein and others – this time tricking the viewer in to thinking this was a real life playing out on Instagram.  Excellences & Perfections has angered some for the way that it reproduces stereotyped images of women, but it is a work of feminist art – she pushed the button and the story.

There are many more detailed reviews of the exhibition, for example that at and as I‘ve found in just a few hours of searching there are lots of references related to the artworks in the exhibition available on the internet.  Performing for the Camera certainly entertained but also fuelled my education in contemporary photography.


Image:  Romain Mader, Ekaterina: Mariage à Loèche-les-Bains (Marriage in Leukerbad) 2012 © Romain Mader / ECAL