by Manu SharmaAug 22, 2021
If the arts of performance and photography have something in common, it would be the urge to rise to permanency. The temporality of performance art necessitates subscription to documentation as a means to acquaint the posterity with its political aesthetics and cultural knowledge. The photograph, on the other side, is inherently familiar with the notion of immortality when it captures the decisive moment. The debate around the presence of cameras to freeze a moment of performance is not a recent one, yet remains far from closure. Working in a similar vein, with a spotlight on the human body is the latest exhibition Body Performance at the Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin, curated by the Director of the Foundation Matthias Harder. Extending the discussion beyond the limits of performance art, dance or staged events, the exhibition also includes the works on conceptual and street photography.
The exhibition includes the works of the 13 internationally renowned artists including Helmut Newton, Bernd Uhlig, Vanessa Beecroft, Jürgen Klauke, Erwin Wurm, Barbara Probst, Viviane Sassen, Inez & Vinoodh, Cindy Sherman, Yang Fudong, Robert Longo and Robert Mapplethorpe. Talking about the curatorial approach to select the works of these artists that would speak to each other in an effort to encapsulate the themes of body, performance and photographs, Harder in an interview with STIR says, “Of course, we always start with Helmut Newton’s work if we consider group shows at our Foundation, also this time. Newton did a series on Pina Bausch's ballet in Wuppertal in 1983 for New Yorker magazine. These works are part of the current show. Two years later, he started a series on the Ballet de Monte Carlo, photographs of the dancers inside and outside of the theatre building, to be published in their program brochures. He was commissioned by Caroline of Monaco to do this job - and as he did it very well, she asked him again. Finally, Newton photographed the ballet until 1997 every year for the program magazines, but most of the motifs remained nearly unknown. There are just a few nudes included in the series, and we are displaying the vintage work prints for the first time ever in our current show. Having this in mind, I selected several other photographers to examine the different strategies they found to document performative action in front of the camera, on stage or beyond, including role-play and fashion-based body shots.”
The question of spectacle inevitably arises when the camera is a constant companion to the performance. Allan Kaprow, the pioneer to introduce the theoretical concepts on performance arts, states the human body during a performance has a visceral response to the presence of the camera. On the flip side, often it is stated that the photographs attempt to frame the moment when the body in motion swiftly slips into a fantastical world. The conflicting views on the appearance of the camera in front of the performing subject i.e. human body prompt diversity of analysis on the art of capturing a real-time act. Since the exhibition features photographers from different parts of the globe - America, Germany, Netherlands, China, among many others - it would be of interest to know if the photographic aesthetic of their works on the representation of the body is informed by the places they come from. Harder elaborates on this, “Actually not. But there are bridges between the arts, as the American artist Robert Longo transformed a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film scene in his series “Men in the Cities “from the late 1970s. Furthermore, the Chinese artist Yang Fudong refers to the early Shanghai films with his photographic series “New Women”. With his melancholic nudes, he seems to conjure up a timeless past; in his films, as well, we encounter comparably reduced and enigmatic narratives. Showing nudity so openly is still considered provocative in large parts of Chinese society. In his series New Women, one or more nude women sit or stand in a sparsely but luxuriously equipped studio set. The photographs seem like stills of the video film that he produced at the same time. This is similar to the ambiguity in the work of Cindy Sherman, already in her early, small-format black-and-white series Untitled Film Stills from the late-1970s, in which she slips into ever-new roles like an actress. These photographs are displayed here in the same exhibition room.”
To highlight what should be viewers’ expectations from the exhibition, Harder cites the works of the photographers Inez & Vinoodh, “The duo has been irritating the world of fashion since the 1990s with their surreal images. Their techniques include digital image manipulation to fuse the bodies of real people with dolls or men with women. Inez & Vinoodh not only push the boundaries of common modes of representation in editorial and advertising photography but also the limits of reality. In both their presentation and their reception, the selected works in Body Performance provoke questions on self-perception, the gaze of the other, identity, and emotion.”
While watching a photograph of performance the debate - preoccupying the minds of philosophers from antiquity to the postmodernism - if the experience precedes art or the other way round is renewed once again through the exhibition, though in a slant manner. However, the staged photography turns to be a documentation of a conceptual idea that heightens the importance of identity and gaze. This is what Harder hints at when he mentions the work of Inez & Vinoodh. Arguably uncontested, it is the viewers' experience of watching these works — reconstruction of the scene from a performance in the form of a photograph or a staged photograph’s act to chronicle the social constructs — sets its meaning in motion.
Against a series of inviting and varied works of photography, the conspicuous absence of the term ‘photography’ from the title Body Performance obliquely tends to offer an impression that the exhibition is not motivated to reinvigorating the question of permanency around the arts of performance and photography. Deliberating upon it, among the larger scheme of things, may have seemed obsolete. Yet, its presence could have further advanced the intended purpose of the display.
(Body Performance is on view till September 20, 2020, at Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin.)