Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern works as a history lesson but says little about the here and now

 
Steve Dinneen
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Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones, 1982

Tate Modern | ★★★☆☆

Performing for the Camera asks – and generally answers – a series of questions about the role of photography in the artistic process. Does it capture or create? (The latter). Is the result different from the performance? (Yes). Does being observed, as in particle physics, somehow alter the performance itself? (Yes).

These questions are illustrated with hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of photographs taken by dozens of artists, some fascinating, some tending towards the esoteric. None of the concepts explored are especially novel but they're interesting nonetheless. Aaron Siskind’s leaping bathers, seemingly suspended in a vacuum, and Charles Ray’s improbably-balanced self portraits, show how a picture can capture reality but show something else, often an uncanny stillness where there should be movement. In another series, artist Stuart Brisley daubs himself in paint and relies on photographer Leslie Haslam to direct his movements against a canvas, underlining the collaborative nature of photography.

The structure of the exhibition becomes muddier as we edge closer to the present day, presenting interesting but largely disparate works: Tomoko Sawada’s series of passport photos, each wearing a different disguise, exploring the gap between mutable appearance and fixed identity; Hans Eijkelboom’s playful “family” portraits taken with his neighbours after their husbands have gone to work, subverting one of the great cliches of the photographic medium; Martin Barr’s pictures taken against green-screen that falsely suggest a life filled with adventure, showing the gulf between expectation and reality and hinting at the mass manipulation of photographs that would soon follow.

There are few large-scale works on display – the famous tryptic of Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn being a notable exception – with curators preferring to fill the walls with smaller, predominantly black and white images, often stacking them from floor to ceiling. At one point a small girl ran in front of me and pressed her nose against a picture at her eye level, dozens more rising above her. “That would make a lovely photograph,” I thought.

There’s a cursory nod to the 21st century, such as the fictional Instagram account of a young girl who moves to Hollywood, but it feels like a token gesture; perhaps we need hindsight to make artistic sense of photography in an age when billions of pictures chart every aspect of our daily lives. Or maybe, in an era in which people post the contents of their bowels onto Tumblr, there is simply little sense to be made.

Performing for the Camera is relatively subdued compared to recent Tate Modern blockbusters. It’s a meditative, often academic collection that works as a history lesson but fails to say much about the here and now.

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