Yesterday I made a short but fruitful visit to Tate Britain as I was with my children, and the two younger ones were not really that enamoured by the Performing for the Camera exhibition. Perhaps though, their behaviour, which was pretty raucous, and which forced me to leave sooner than I might have done, was due to the content. Much of the work explores inner aspects of self, and some images are quite challenging in what people might refer to as our sexually repressed modern society. I was pleased, however, that the supervisors at the door didn’t stop them from going in – not so repressed at the Tate then – as having seen the exhibition, barring children would not have been a surprising policy.
“Mum!” said my oldest son as he came to grab me and show me something,”there’s a man here with a dildo up his bum!” The series he was referring to was by Boris Mikhailov and presented as a set of self portraits reminiscent of Victorian figure studies, harking back to Muybridge’s studies and other similar works, except the work is dated 1992. We didn’t dwell on Boris Mikhailov’s I am Not I (1992) but Edgar, my son pointed out, that his work might be fairly controversial in the Soviet Union. I liked what Mikhailov had to say in the blurb beside his work; “(he) felt that it important to turn the camera on himself as well: ‘I thought, if you criticise someone, start with yourself…All of a sudden, you see a face that you see every day. This is not you. This is a face. Moreover, when I first took photos of myself, I saw a face that was different from the one known from of the ideology of the Russian man. This man was an intelligentik, (an intellectual, not a worker, who is not to be trusted in the Soviet Union)… I am photographing the others, but who am I?'” (Tate, 2016) Mikhailov is doing a photographic study of inner self and trying to capture something that is hidden in everyday life just as Muybridge did with the way in which horses moved. Photography reveals it.
Edgar and I moved on (while the youngest two ran riot and I kept having to tell them off about being too noisy) and came across Jemima Stehli’s Strip (1999); a set of images laid out in 6 strips, each strip with a different coloured background. In these images you clearly see the photographic studio set up, as the backgrounds are not cropped – Brechtian all on show. Stehli literally strips in front of the men, a different one in each strip of images; they are sat on a chair facing the camera, and holding a lead to trigger the camera, i.e. they are in charge of taking the photographs.
Edgar was really interested in this and asked me about it. I explained that throughout Western art history women have been portrayed in a certain way, often passive, in repose, gentle and idealised, and many times nude, although of course not always. Men have been the ones painting, I said, but we have tended not to see the men as they paint; just the passive women. Stehli, in this work, turns the situation around by showing us some men taking photographs of her taking her clothes off. However, she retains the power in these images, perhaps unlike so many of the naked women painted in history. She also enables the external ‘viewers’ to gaze upon the men, as the men face her whilst she strips and are left to push the trigger for the shutter. The external viewer only sees the back of her body, increasingly naked with each shot. She is playing with the gaze and with history’s relationship to it. Each strip is made up of a different number of images, presumably determined by the male pressing the shutter – so Stehli has put them in charge of their own revelatory portraits. Using several strips, and therefore several men is ingenious as we see various attitudes in the men, and it becomes difficult to accuse Stehli of presenting caricatures – there is a broad spectrum of attitudes towards the stripping female in the work. Some men look uncomfortable, some excited, some thrilled, some lustful, some eager. We get to gaze at their various states. Edgar said he thought the series’ was extremely clever and particularly liked that each strip was coloured differently, differentiating clearly that each strip pertains to a separate man. I thought it was an extraordinarily insightful and powerful work, highlighting changing power structures, as well as peeling apart some of the nonsense that surrounds the history of men painting or photographing women sans any clothing. It doesn’t just question the gaze, but utterly subverts the validity of nude female models in art being dressed up as philosophical and righteous. She effectively strips away the misogynist veneer that surrounds a major aspect of Western art.
The other work I found really interesting was Aaron Siskind’s Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation (1956-65). These are images of bathers leaping into the water and are far more acrobatic than the ones I asked Richard to take of me the other week in the studio. But they were a good reference for me in relation to that project. And I continue to think about it and see how I can incorporate it into my own work.
As we left, in a bit of a hurry due to my small people running around too much, I saw three of Amalia Ulmen’s images which I’ve mentioned here before. I explained to Edgar that she was the the talk of the art town right now, from what I’ve read, and especially when compared to the works I’ve explored here, I can’t say my opinion of her Instagram project has changed. “Talk of the town, Mum?! Who uses that expression….geez!”
I will invariably need to return to see this exhibition as much of it is relevant in relation to the work I did in TAOP and will continue with. The collection is really big – there is a lot to take in and I have barely touched on it here. We went downstairs afterwards to the children’s drawing room and they all had fun on the computer screens making pictures of their own. Arthur, my youngest, took ages over making full screen coloured rectangles. The older boys laughed and I told them he was a Modernist, like me.