Camera/Action: Performance and Photography

Chris Burden, 747, 1973

About the Exhibition

The performance moment

Work by:

Marina Abramovic
Vito Acconci
Patty Chang
Tseng Kwong Chi
Valie Export
Young Hay
Tehching Hsieh
Zhang Huan
Ma Liuming
Hayley Newman
Dennis Oppenheim
Barbara Probst
Charles Ray
Roman Signer
Jemima Stehli
Mathew Wilson

The strength of performance art has traditionally been thought to reside in its immediacy, implying that it is at odds with the technologies of reproduction and representation. Indeed, during the 1960s and 70s, there was certain skepticism regarding the role of the photograph in the documentation of performance art. Allan Kaprow, well known for orchestrating performance events in the 1960s, was bothered not only by the seeming incompatibility between still photography and temporal action-based art, but also by the effect of the camera’s presence on his happenings. He found that it brought an unwanted dimension of spectacle to the event, and that his participants behaved differently the minute photographers appeared on the scene.1

Direct experience was what performance artists (and most land artists, site-specific artists, and some conceptual artists) valued most in their attempts to “re-site” art outside of standard art appreciation systems. They wanted to protest against the objectification and commercialization of the artwork, and, as Dennis Oppenheim once said, “to stretch the limits of what can be done and to show others that art isn’t just making objects to put into galleries.”2 Many artists spoke of “intervening” in real life and providing a more egalitarian exchange between artist and viewer.

These attitudes, of course, presuppose a hierarchy in which one experience can be more authentic than another. They also ignore the fact that in the 1960s and 70s the experience of a live performance usually did include watching a photographer moving in tandem with the artist. Performance artists quickly realized that they relied on the documentation of their work to disseminate their ideas and actions to a larger audience. Many also found it helpful to be able to see, analyze and perhaps revise their works after the fact. Influenced by conceptual artists like Ed Ruscha who sought to purge art of its symbolic space and stylistic concerns, performance artists such as Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci favored simple black and white photographs or video, maps, and restrained textual descriptions to document their actions — and write their own histories.

It is somewhat ironic that performance artists, who privileged experience, adopted the formal style of conceptual artists, who privileged idea. But putting performance actions into a conceptual framework distills interesting issues: What is at stake if we accept these photographs and documents as adequate substitutes for the “real” action? Are we surrendering to postmodern ideology that deprives all art of its originality, autonomy and uniqueness? Or is plurality of interpretation the logical extension of having to reconstruct a temporal sequence when looking at a still photograph of an action? If we believe, as Plato and Aristotle did, that art is mimetic — that art always comes after experience — does it make sense to favor physical participation over imaginative participation?

From artists who perform in public and record their actions, to those who perform specifically for their cameras, the legacy of performance art from the mid-twentieth century has been richly mined and extended by contemporary artists, many of whom have made the limitations and special nature of photography a central concern. Intending to raise questions about the limits of art production and self-perception, issues of framing, and the nature of time, many artists have chosen to approach the enigma of photography by making it integral to the piece itself, creating what Vito Acconci (United States, born 1940) aptly dubbed “photo-actions.” In 12 Pictures (1969), for example, he snapped one flash photograph of an audience every time he took a step across a darkened stage. In his video Three Frame Studies (1969), he pushed a friend, long-jumped, and ran in a circle for his video camera, letting the physical limits of the action refer to the boundaries of the frame itself.

More recently, Barbara Probst (Germany, born 1969) arranges for multiple photographers to take pictures of the same subject from varying angles at precisely the same moment. These works allow us to escape the bounds of the frame. They also deconstruct the notion of a photographically fixed instant, and further, the photographic idea that time is a linear phenomenon where each moment is experienced from only one position. Jemima Stehli (Great Britian, born 1961) creates staged self-portraits using a mirror in her studio — often considered the site of narcissistic production – by performing naked for her own camera. The resulting images are disorienting compositions; although we can clearly discern the camera on its tripod, the mirror confuses both its position and our gaze, while Stehli’s body parts serve as both a frame within a frame and a barrier that frustrates our voyeuristic impulses.

Ma Liuming (China, born 1969) also performs for his camera, but like many performance artists before him, invites an audience to become part of the work. He sits on a stage, naked and sometimes drugged with sleeping pills, his face heavily made-up as his female alter ego Fen-Ma Liuming, and invites viewers to interact with him as a camera constantly takes pictures of the scene. His enlarged contact sheets reveal an audience that increasingly loses its inhibitions and uses his body as a rag-doll-like prop. They sit on his lap, hold up his limbs, and sometimes strip naked and pose next to him. In many ways Ma’s work is reminiscent of Marina Abramovic’s (Serbia, born 1946) Rhythym O (1974/94), in which she stood for hours in a gallery and allowed visitors to use 72 different objects, including a Polaroid camera, honey, and a scalpel, to manipulate her body and clothing, while she remained stoically silent and unengaged. Both Ma and Abramovic challenge the moral position of their audience, but the people in Ma’s audience are more playful and less violent than Abramovic’s, perhaps because they are deprived of weapons and inhibited by the incriminating and central presence of the camera. Both of these works are powerful studies in human vulnerability and social behavior.

Tehching Hsieh (Taiwan, born 1950; United States resident) explores the limits of his own physical and mental stamina by creating extreme endurance tests. His series of one-year performances include a year spent in solitary confinement, a year spent entirely out-of-doors in Manhattan, and a year spent tethered by an 8-foot-long rope to artist Linda Montano. In Time Piece (1980-81), Hsieh punched a time-clock every hour on the hour for one year and documented every register with a snapshot. The final piece, displayed as an installation of photographs, time cards, and a digital video that compresses the year’s worth of snapshots into a six-minute frenetic time warp, raises profound questions about the nature of time and the boundaries between life and art. Like Acconci’s video Watch (1971), where his eyes follow the second hands of a clock in real time, Hsieh dramatizes his experience of time’s passage, representing duration with photographic evidence.

The rigorous, even masochistic physical tests that Hsieh imposes upon himself have a long tradition in performance art. In the 1970s, Chris Burden (United States, born 1946) had a friend shoot him in the arm, Valie Export rolled her nude body over broken glass, and Stelarc pierced meat hooks through his skin and used them to suspend his body from the ceiling. These artists aimed to push their physical limits beyond the human scale, to manifest psychic suffering, and to extend corporeal consciousness. Patty Chang (United States, born 1973) follows in this tradition, testing her physical and psychological limits by letting live eels slither underneath her blouse while recording her discomfort with a video camera.

Other artists use their bodies and those of others to create ephemeral “sculptures” for the camera. In the 1970s Dennis Oppenheim (United States, born 1938), originally trained as a sculptor, created works such as Parallel Stress (1970) intended partly as a protest against the minimalist fixation on the essence of the object. In this work he tested the capacity of his body to suspend itself from fingertips and toes between two masonry walls, and then repeated the same position on his stomach in the notch between two gravel hills — his camera providing proof of the parallelism of his body’s arc. Charles Ray (United States, born 1953) wryly commented on minimalism by minimalists by making a humorous series of pictures of himself photographed as if a part of minimalist sculptures, like Plank Piece I & II (1973) in which a flat timber holds up his limp body pinned to a wall, orUntitled (1973) in which he lashed himself to a tree branch for an entire afternoon, referencing both site-specific earthworks and endurance pieces. This thematic blending of the body’s vulnerability and its comic temporary positioning is repeated more recently in the work of Erwin Wurm (Austria, born 1964), who directs himself and others to adopt ridiculous, often hilarious positions for a series of “one minute sculptures” that ultimately exist only as photographs.

Working in Europe at the same time as Oppenheim and Ray, Valie Export (Austria, born 1940) extended the ritualistic and existential concerns of Viennese Actionism, a collective of artists in 1960s Vienna who attacked societal taboos and repression using explicitly sexual and gory actions. By configuring her body for the camera in urban settings, Export created an elegant but somewhat ambiguous statement about the relevance of the female body in issues of social control. Similarly interested in the new spaces that emerge from the placing the body in unusual surroundings is Roman Signer (Switzerland, born 1938), who expands the traditional conception of sculpture by creating visually compelling, pseudo-scientific “experiments.” His trials include dousing himself with gunpowder while wearing a flame-resistant suit and lighting a match, and standing amongst buckets full of water being dropped from the ceiling. Using pyrotechnics and technological and natural forces, Signer aesthetically transforms the space in which his actions occur, recording them with video that he later edits into still images. While demonstrating and recording how a body responds to strange environments, both his and Export’s works also reveals how the body is transformed by the environment of the photograph.

Like Ray responding directly to artists before him, and Export interrupting urban chaos with her sculptural presence, Young Hay (China, born 1963) reinterprets French painter Gustave Courbet’s painting of himself as a proud traveler-artist by having himself photographed in cities throughout the world with a large blank white canvas on his back. In these images, Young remains hidden and the canvas appears as an empty, luminous void interrupting the landscape. This series can be read as a reference to current transformations in China, as visual influences from the West have been incorporated into aesthetic patterns from the East. It could also be seen as reinterpreting a nineteenth century art historical reference as an allusion to the Buddhist notion of the void.

Also concerned with exchanges between the East and West is artist Zhang Huan (China, born 1965; United States resident), a peer of Ma Liuming from the Beijing East Village, a hub of artistic energy centering around a group of artists who created mostly performance art based on political themes during the 1990s. His work Foam (1996), multiple images of his foam-covered face with old black and white family pictures in his mouth, comments on the individual’s anchoring in the family as he prepared to emigrate from China to the United States in 1997. His work from the following year, Pilgrimage—Wind and Water in New York (1997), where he is surrounded by leashed dogs as he lays naked and face-down on a Chinese-style bed with a mattress of ice, poignantly recalls the Chinese homeland he left behind.

Tseng Kwong Chi (Hong Kong, born 1950; died United States, 1990), also a refugee from his homeland, left the English protectorate of Hong Kong as a young man for New York. Once there, he began his famous East-West series by donning a Mao uniform, sunglasses, and an official-looking “visitor” photo ID bearing the stamp “Slutforart.” He posed for his camera in public, often in front of well known tourist sites including Notre Dame Cathedral, Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyworld, and the World Trade Center. These images pioneered current preoccupations with identity, tourism, displacement, and “otherness” exacerbated by cultural globalization.

Also concerned with issues of personal identity, Chicago artist Mathew Wilson (Great Britain, born 1967) invites the public to his Surrender Office, where they are asked to reveal to him (and his video camera) the person, thing, or idea they would like to surrender to, or surrender from, their lives. At a mutually agreed upon time, Wilson brings an enormous white flag to a site of their choosing and performs a surrender ritual: he waves the white flag until they deem the exorcism to be complete. His collaborator, Thomas Lee, photographs these actions in black and white, creating images with the large white void of the flag reminiscent of Young’s work. The emotional impact of the images, however, depends largely on hearing and seeing the confessional video testimony that accompanies them.

As a fitting coda to all these variations, Hayley Newman’s (Great Britain, born 1969) Connotations – Performance Images 1994-98, an invented series of twenty fictitious performances and the photographic “documents” to accompany them, confronts most directly the complex history of the photograph as document of performance art. Her images and captions play off the style and language of performance documents from the 1960s and 70s, but the actions described are confusing and absurd. Many of the ideas for these works were taken from notes outlining ideas for performances that she never executed. Connotations, she explains, “provided a forum for an idea to exist without actually having to do it, except for the camera.” Her photographs, it turns out, are half-truths, as the actions required to construct the photograph come close to the actions described in the text. What Newman eliminates almost entirely from her work are most of the fundamental objectives of earlier performance artists: duration, intervention, endurance, collaboration, and physical pain. In this process she comically reminds us not to trust a referent, and to seriously consider the difference between her works and the photo documentation of performance pieces from the 1960s and 70s. If there is no primary viewing experience for the audience to imagine, are the transcendent—photographic—moments she asks the viewer to consider different from what they imagine when viewing the photographs of real performances?

In certain ways all of the works in this exhibition trace the demise of modernist positions in their increasing denial of a rigid hierarchy of form and their simultaneous acceptance of the artifice of photography and its inherent distortion, and even displacement, of time and space. Artists, it seems, have generally been ahead of the curve in knowing that photography is not a transparent medium for the transmission of an action to a secondary audience, and have treated the photograph and video document with great circumspection. Clearly, performance art and photography are radically different mediums, but both define a non-ordinary space by imposing parameters on it — a space that depends on the viewer to make it come alive.

1Judith F. Rodenbeck, “Foil: Allan Kaprow Before Photography,” in Experiments in the Everyday, Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts (New York: Columbia University, 1999), p. 58.

2Quoted in Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 213.

-Karen Irvine, Associate Curator

This exhibition and related programs are sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; Mayer & Morris Kaplan Family Foundation; the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs/Gallery 37LG electronics, Chicago and American Airlines, the official airlines of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and our members.