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Art, Lies and Videotapes: Exposing Performance

Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance
Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance — Edited by Adrian George — London: Tate Publications, 2003. — 99 p. — ISBN 1854375253. 

Catalogue published for the exhibition Art, Lies and Videotapes: Exposing Performance, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Liverpool (England, U.K.), November 15, 2003 – January 25, 2004. — Curator: Adrian George. 

Art, Lies and Videotape: Exposing Performance is the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name, which was presented at Tate Liverpool in England from November 15, 2003, to January 25, 2004. With a preface by curator Adrian George, the catalogue's structure corresponds to the exhibition's components: Lost Histories, Image as Icon, Fact or Fiction, The Unconscious Performance, Me and My Camera (person) and The Artist as Director. The chapter titles strengthen the impression evoked by the catalogue and exhibition's title, i.e. that the images we are about to see and read of are as fleeting and elusive as the history of the events they depict – dance, theatre, happenings, action, performances – and are therefore far from reliable. From document and trace-image to image icon, from fiction to fact and the widely diverse styles of individual performance photographers, all variations are possible.

In the first section, Roselee Goldberg writes on the lost annals of performance. In Hidden from History: Performance Art and the Imagination, she reflects on the demands involved in chronicling the history of performance – this event-based and temporal artistic practice characterized by the blending and overlapping of media, the erasing of disciplinary boundaries, the importance of the spectators, and the issue of the public venue. How, asks Goldberg, can the curator preserve such a work and find a means of exhibiting it as a primary indicator of the aesthetics and issues that defined a given era? This is the challenge posed by documents and documentation, which, while presenting a tangible record, also expose their inability to aptly record such practices. Goldberg concludes that the historical recording of performance art demands a contextual approach.

In Image as Icon, Tracey Warr offers four different approaches to performance photography: the discourses of the document, the icon, the simulacrum, the live act. In all approaches, it is the "truth" that is at stake, she says. This component of the exhibition most notably presents Hans Namuth's acclaimed photos of Jackson Pollock in motion, Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy by Man Ray, and images that allow us today to become familiar with the performances of Gina Pane and Chris Burden. In each work, the author discusses one of the four categories. Performance photography as a document assures authenticity and serves as evidence; performance photography as an icon presents a manifestation of the unknowable and propels this manifestation, through belief in the icon, to a credible state. Performance photography as simulacrum is distinguished by manipulated photographs, the performative and representation. And in the fourth approach, live act – primal, cathartic and ontological – is juxtaposed against the tradition of theatre and the fine arts. Of the works by Chris Burden, Warr suggests that they force us to confront the seen and unseen in the photographic material and our perpetual hope – and failure – to find truth and revelation in them.

In Fact or Fiction, Jean-Paul Martinon grapples with the thin line (and endless resource for artists) that separates reality from fantasy. This section presents photographs of people mutilating or castrating themselves or drawing blood from their own bodies – all witnessed, once again, by the camera. The author stresses the difficulty in detecting whether the events portrayed are real. This ambiguity, he says, is due to two factors: on the one hand the Art, Lies and Videotape exhibition makes a point to display the real and unreal side by side; on the other, the archives for these performances are often short on details, instead feeding rumours, half-truths and controversy. One example is the famous Leap into the Void by Yves Klein, not even the date of which is known and which is clearly an edited photo. Here again, it is the document – the trace – that creates the dilemma.

In the section entitled The Unconscious Performance, Aaron Williamson focuses on the importance of the performance public, who are rarely passive and almost always participate in one way or another – voluntarily or not. The author concentrates on a strategy by artists to involve surprised spectators in the performance or indeed to build their reaction into its very subject. Williamson analyzes the aspects of spectator voyeurism unique to performance. The highly-regarded work by Dan Graham, Present Continuous Past(s) (1974), best sums up the complexity of this relationship between performance and public through complex time manipulations of the artist's video image of the public, in which they see themselves with a time delay of just moments. The effect is further enhanced by a mirrored wall that repeats the scene (room, artist, public). The work creates a temporal labyrinth, a reflective space and a heightened sense of presence.

The Delicate Art of Documenting Performance, by Alice Maude-Roxby, is likely one of the best contributions to the catalogue. In fact, have we not all at one time or another been curious about the photographers whose most critical tasks involve documenting performances and working with the performers themselves? Among the best known was Peter Moore, who photographed virtually everything that moved in New York's avant-garde era of the 1960s until the end of the 1980s. The exhibition included a number of images from these photographers, and the catalogue chapter is based on interviews with many of them, including Fluxus photographer Lisa Kahane, Ute Klophaus and her photographic work involving Joseph Beuys, Françoise Masson with Gina Pane, Babette Mangolte, who was also in New York in the '60s photographing, like Peter Moore, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, and filmmaker Anthony McCall shooting Interior Scroll (1975), the celebrated performance of Carolee Schneeman. Maude-Roxby aptly illustrates the distinctiveness of each photographer's intentions and methods. She demonstrates, drawing on works by the photographers, how documentary and advertising photography resources can be put to use, as can certain darkroom techniques. This is without doubt the best antidote to our belief in the "truth" of the photographic document, when it has actually become the creation of an artist, the photographer.

Finally, in The Artist as Director, Andrew Quick discusses the component of the exhibition that features works – and films – in which the influence of the cinema, television, live shows and entertainment are evident in the creation of the work. Notable examples include Tony Oursler's video projections on cloth dummies in the 1990s, the works of Robert Longo and his film Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and Self Portrait as Center of the Universe (2001) by Ken Feingold.

Jean Gagnon © 2005 FDL