Generally speaking, cramming two major exhibitions into one Saturday afternoon will render a person (me) glassy-eyed and reaching for a stiff drink. But once in a while OD-ing on detail – in this case hundreds and hundreds of black and white images – brings on the (possibly hallucinatory) feeling that a person can pick out some interesting wood amongst all the lovely trees.
Two exhibitions in London this month, Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern and Strange and Familiar at the Barbican, take opposite approaches to the photographic subject. Or, to be more accurate, “took:” the Tate show closed this weekend. But if you didn’t get to visit it I recommend the catalogue, which presents many of the 500 images from the exhibition, arguably in a more manageable format.
Performing for the Camera is a neat little phrase that didn’t apply very neatly to this exhibition. Apart from the sheer volume of photographs and ephemera on display, there’s the fact that “performing for the camera” can mean a heck of a lot of different things, not all strictly relevant to each other.
Definition one of “performing”: A Private Landscape (1971) a photo book by photographer Eiko Hosoe in collaboration with actor Simmon Yotsuya. Hosoe follows Yotsuya as he puts on his makeup and costume, moves through the streets of Tokyo in a series of expressive poses and scenes, and finally disappears on the outskirts of the city. Each shot is precisely framed and edited. Yotsuya’s movements and facial expressions are theatrically exaggerated, but somehow deeply touching.
From A Private Landscape by Eiko Hosoe, via Ibasho Gallery, who also showed some wonderful Hosoe prints at Photo London this year
From ukiyo-e woodblock prints of everyday life in 18th-century Japan, to the manga comics devoured by commuters on the Tokyo subway, storytelling has always been a big part of Japanese art. The photography of Eiko Hosoe makes perfect sense as part of this tradition – and it’s objectively beautiful, too.
Hosoe’s first collaboration was with dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of the Butoh theatre movement. Other dancers and actors also feature in this exhibition, including Merce Cunningham’s troupe in a 1964 performance of Aeon and Nocturnes, photographed by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender (below).
While Shunk-Kender are a very interesting twosome, who photographed any number of 1960s Happenings, it’s a moot point that the dancers were performing for the camera. Dance is dance.
It happens whether anyone is recording it or not.
Yves Klein, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960: photo by Shunk-Kender
And then there is Yves Klein, whose exhibitions of naked ladies getting covered in blue paint and dragging each other around in front of a dinner-suited audience were also documented by Shunk-Kender. These shots are not framed or posed with any obvious artistry. The girls don’t seem to be participating with a great deal of engagement or agency (although they clearly weren’t coerced, and didn’t feel exploited, as this video points out.) Possibly they’re mainly concerned with not getting splinters anywhere nasty.
Klein is more like a ringmaster than an artist, but, if body language is anything to go by, he seems to be performing for the live studio audience, rather than posterity.
Yves Klein, A Leap Into The Void, 1960
Harry and Janos captured Klein’s 1960 Leap Into The Void, which shows the artist in the split second between leaping from the window of his Paris studio and meeting a grisly end on the tarmac below.
Oh, no, wait, Klein had a team of assistants and a blanket waiting to catch him.
Not to mention a team of photographers waiting to catch the decisive moment.
Here, Klein clearly was performing for the camera. The final shot was created in the studio, from two negatives spliced together.
But if this is art, who is the artist? Is it Klein, the performer, or Shunk-Kender, the photographers / retouchers?
And where, exactly, does the “art” bit come in? If the photograph is the art, then Klein is basically a human prop – like the nude models in his Anthropometries. But if the performance, the Leap, is the art, then why is it being witnessed by a team of technicians?
Another set of photographs here is Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). One of the most famous – or infamous – pieces of performance art of recent times, there’s no retouching in this case, and no photographer or assistant credits are ever supplied. Here’s a quote from ArtAsiaPacific.com, about the history of the work: “Ai created… a photographic triptych of himself holding a Han Dynasty urn, dropping it and standing over the shattered remnants. This urn was then worth a few thousand dollars, and in fact two urns, not one, were sacrificed in the making of this work, due to the failure of Ai’s photographer to capture the first urn’s fall to the ground. The triptych, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, is today perhaps Ai’s most internationally renowned photographic artwork.” (The bold italics are mine.)
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
I admit I’ve never before thought about who pressed the shutter release in this case. Nor about who documented Klein’s various performances. But in the context of this exhibition, the question arises: is the performance the art, or is the artefact – the photograph – the art? It’s the photograph that gets valued by Sotheby’s for £200,000, after all. And if the photograph is the art, then why should the performer – Yves Klein, Ai Weiwei – get the credit?
The Tate exhibition didn’t actually address any of these questions, and most reviews were content to point out what a treasure trove of images it presented, which is a very fair point. It was good fun, but if you wanted conclusions on the nature of “performing” “for” the camera – or Marxist arguments about the worker (photographer) taking control of the means of production – this probably wasn’t the place to get them.
Strange and Familiar, on the other hand, is curated by Martin Parr with a beady eye on, and an unwavering grasp of, “Britishness.”
With 250-odd prints by 23 international photographers, it is half the size of the Tate’s exhibition but seems no smaller: perhaps because in this show every image is extraordinary and demands attention.
Edith Tudor-Hart. Ultraviolet light treatment for children with rickets in a south London hospital, c. 1935
The show starts in the 1930s with the work of Austrian émigré (and spy) Edith Tudor-Hart, who married a doctor and took pictures of his patients living in poverty in London’s East End.
It concludes with Hans Eijkelboom’s street style photography – a deceptively simple, utterly absorbing collection of shots of shoppers in Manchester’s Bull Ring in 2014. In this exhibition Eijkelboom’s pictures are presented as a slideshow, and I found them ridiculously mesmerising.
Hans Eijkelboom, The Street and Modern Life, 2014
In between, photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson (famous, French), Paul Strand (moralistic, American), Tina Barney (rich, American), and Akhiko Okamura (eye-opening, Japanese) – to name a tiny few – apply their curious outsider gaze to London fog, Welsh slagheaps, toffs and street urchins, the Tube and the streets of Derry.
Akikho Okamura, Northern Ireland, 1970s
Raymond Depardon, Glasgow, 1980
While the vast majority of the photographs in this exhibition are black-and-white, colour creeps in as time goes on. And while the standard overall never wavers, it’s interesting how many reviewers have fixated on the same photographers, me included.
Akikho Okamura is one of these. Okamure visited Ireland in 1968, planning to do a project on the Irish roots of President Kennedy. But he ended up moving his family to Ulster to document The Troubles. His photographs are delicate, diffident studies of semi-deserted streets, nothing like war photography or conventional confrontational reportage.
Another star is Raymond Depardon, who was commissioned by The Sunday Times in 1980 to photograph Glasgow for a series of features. Ian Jack takes up the story in The Guardian’s exhibition review: “At that time, the city was notorious for its violence and poverty rather than admired for its fine legacy of art and architecture…. [Picture Editor Bruce] Bernard commissioned Depardon, a Magnum photographer then best known for his coverage of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.
“We worked together in Glasgow for a week or so, and it became clear that Raymond wasn’t interested in photographing CR Mackintosh’s art school, Greek Thomson’s churches, or the bosky dells of the Botanic Gardens. What drew him, as it had many photographers in the past, were the black tenements waiting for the wrecker’s ball, the drunk sprawled on the pavement, the grubby child pushing the pram. In others words, the Glasgow we knew about, rather than the Glasgow we didn’t.“
They never ran in the Sunday Times – but Martin Parr has included them in this exhibition, and 36 years later their power is undiminished.
Raymond Depardon, Glasgow, 1980
Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers ran at The Barbican until June 19th, 2016.
© Fiona Hayes 2016
This article originally appeared on http://somethingimworkingon.tumblr.com