Last but not least: a seminal moment in curation with Amalia Ulman
Updated: Mar 14, 2019
From the exterior, Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera exhibition didn’t look like anything particularly remarkable; it included the usual ticket barrier, marketing scheme and large decal at the entrance. Held during the spring of 2016, the exhibit attempted to trace the history of photography through its connection to performance art and was hailed as exploring “the relationship between the two forms, looking at how performance artists use photography and how photography is in itself a performance.”
The exhibit pursued these two main themes and at many times felt blurred; something between a show about performance art and a show about photography. On one hand, the exhibition included photographs that documented the performance art process, for instance, Yves Klein’s Anthropometry series in which naked women were painted and used like paintbrushes.
Slightly distinct, the exhibit also presented photography that composed part of a performance. Visitors could see images from a project called Strip, in which the artist Jemima Stehli (a woman) stripped bare and gave male onlookers, one by one, the chance to take a photo at whatever point they fancied. With her back to the camera, the photos show the men watching Stehli undress, the power to capture it literally in their hands. The resulting performance incorporated the photos snapped by the voyeurs, smudging lines between performance art and performing for the camera.
Tate’s show had no shortage of big-name artists — Andy Warhol, Ai Wei Wei, Joseph Bueys, Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann all graced the walls among the five hundred works selected.
Well-known London art critic Adrian Searle reviewed the exhibition, writing, “Performing for the Camera is less a survey than a slice through the thousands and thousands of images produced between artists and the camera. There’s no end to it. It’s about self-exposure and self-dramatisation, the dynamics of confrontation: between photographer and subject, image and spectator.”
While the show focused heavily on historic images and examples, several contemporary photos were included as well. Searle went on to say, “when we are photographed — mugshot, passport photo, press shot, selfie — we are all performing, for ourselves and for other people, if not for the camera. Nowadays we do it on YouTube and Instagram and Twitter, too, and any other platform you can think of.”
Here he’s highlighting the importance of photography and performance in everyday life, which is exactly what the work of one artist included in Tate’s lineup does as well.
While as a whole Performing for the Camera presented though-provoking perspectives on fine art photography, a moment that made it a truly seminal exhibition didn’t appear until the final gallery, which looked at hyper-contemporary works that fit into this narrative.
Three large prints of Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections series were accompanied by iPads that visitors could use to scroll through the hundreds of Instagram posts that make up the performance piece. This final online masquerade conveys its concept’s centrality to the exhibition, and lingers with visitors after they’ve moved on.
The show’s curator, Simon Baker, recognises Ulman’s significance and even selected her as one of his top-five key artists from the exhibition, stating:
Amalia Ulman shot to fame with a spoof delivered through her Instagram account, which fooled both her own followers and art-world critics. Over the course of four months, Ulman produced an elaborate performance through Instagram posts, pretending to move to Los Angeles and trying to fit in by having plastic surgery and taking up Californian hobbies. Ulman’s work was a brilliantly convincing version of the celebrity Instagram craze where millions of “followers” apparently seem to care what pop stars and reality TV personalities had for breakfast.
Similarly, Telegraph art critic Alastair Sooke called it “…one of the most original and outstanding artworks of the digital era.”
Excellences & Perfections included one hundred seventy-five photos that Ulman specifically created and posted on Instagram over the course of about five months, starting with the title and finishing with an image reading “the end.” Ulman explained that the entire project was scripted and tricked nearly all her eighty-nine thousand followers.
The performance was divided into three acts, each inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online. Ulman’s character starts as an artsy type who heads to L.A. and gets tangled up in celebrity culture. She then becomes a sugar baby, starts taking drugs and has a meltdown that lands her in rehab. In the final act she starts living a healthy, juice-cleansed and granola-filled lifestyle. Ulman contends that her work was more than just satire and that she wanted to prove how femininity is a construction, not something biological or inherent to any woman.
By including Ulman’s work, Performing for the Camera can be seen as a landmark exhibition in a variety of nuanced ways. First, Tate is positioning Ulman’s work alongside famous and weighty works of photographic art. In a review on Artnet News, one critic called the exhibit “unflinching in its serious approach…which — given the rise of prosumer image-making and the ensuing deluge of mediocre ‘performance imagery’ (selfies, anyone?) — is certainly a relief. The show explores how artists use these technologies, and it never loses sight of this focus.”
This idea of Instagram art taking a “serious” tone is key. The fact that most visitors could likely relate more with Ulman (an artist using Instagram, even in a critical way) than with the other artists presented conveys an ability to have a profound effect. Moreover, it’s rare that a major cultural institution would take such a chance to include the work of a then-barely-emerging artist; seeing Ulman’s work marks a potentially historic shift in where it is believed good art can originate.
Secondly, if critical recognition and press are to be viewed as an indicator of import, then Ulman’s work certainly fits the bill. A year after she appeared in Tate’s exhibition, critics still find Ulman a necessary topic for discussion. Speaking of the artist occupying a traditional gallery space, Gilda Williams wrote, “Perhaps the multi-talented Ulman has not merely found a role for the twenty-first-century artist, but seen the future of the gallery, too.”
Additionally, Ulman was one of the most marketed parts of Performing for the Camera. When one searches online for information about the exhibition, it’s usually a photo from Ulman’s series Instagram Update, 8th July 2014, (#itsjustdifferent) that pops up.
Other galleries and museums are now displaying work that existed originally, purely within the digital sphere, and that cannot be ignored. This spring Saatchi Gallery is mounting an exhibition titled From Selfie to Self-Expression; it’s being heralded as the world’s first exhibition exploring the history of the selfie from the old masters to the present day, and will include traditional self-portraiture by greats like Rembrandt and Velazquez alongside entries to its #SaatchiSelfie competition from average folks around the globe.
In a similar fashion to Performing for the Camera, Saatchi Gallery is exhibiting works that simply wouldn’t exist without the internet. This trend can’t be taken lightly when multiple renowned institutions declare digital culture and social media technologies as capable of falling under the umbrella of Art. Although Ulman’s work popped up only at the very end of Tate Modern’s show, it marked a crucial moment in the way museums are addressing this intersection of mainstream fads and honourable artistic production.
*NOTE: this post was cross-published on the Saatchi Gallery Magazine's blog and can be viewed here.
Sources: Baker, Simon. “Performing for the Camera: 5 key artists.” Tate Blog. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/performing-for-the-camera-5-key-artists
Monro, Lara. “A Review of Performing for the Camera Exhibition at Tate Modern, London.” Arteviste. March 18, 2016. http://www.arteviste.com/arteviste/2016/3/17/a-review-of-performing-for-th
Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena. “Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern Is an Exhilarating Survey of a Timely Subject.” Artnet News. February 18, 2016. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/performing-for-the-camera-tate-review-429041
Neuendorf, Henri. “Tate Modern Taps Instagram Sensation Amalia Ulman for Its Next Major Show.” Artnet News. January 21, 2016. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/amalia-ulman-instagram-tate-modern-410375 – “Performing for the Camera.” Tate. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera– Saatchi Gallery, http://www.saatchigallery.com/selfie/
Sadler, Victoria. “Review: Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern ‘Selfie Culture is Nothing New.” The Huffington Post. February 24, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/victoria-sadler/tate-moden-performing-for-the-camera_b_9299974.html
Searle, Adrian. “Why do I feel naked?” The Guardian. July 15, 2000. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/jul/15/books.guardianreview4
Searle, Adrian. “Performing for the Camera review – pain, passport photos and genital panic.” The Guardian. February 15, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/15/performing-for-the-camera-review-tate-modern-exhibition
Sooke, Alastair. “Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece.” The Telegraph. January 18, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/is-this-the-first-instagram-masterpiece/
Williams, Gilda. “Amalia Ulman, Arcadia Missa.” Art Forum. February 2017