Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Performing for the Camera; Paul Strand: Photography and Film; Avendon Warhol

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Performing for the Camera; Paul Strand: Photography and Film; Avendon Warhol

Article excerpt

One day, in the autumn of 1960, a young Frenchman launched himself off a garden wall in a suburban street to the south of Paris. He jumped in an unusual away; not as if he expected to land, feet first on the pavement below, nor even as if he were diving into water, but arms outstretched, back arched, apparently taking off into the air above. The result was Yves Klein's 'Le Saut dans le vide' (Leap into the Void), which opens the exhibition Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern.

Beside the finished product -- a photomontage -- are two other images that together explain how it was done. One shows the same quiet stretch of road, completely empty except for a solitary cyclist passing by like an extra in a Maigret dramatisation. The other shows the flying artist behaving in that apparently impractical fashion, but with, instead of a hard landing, five man holding a tarpaulin underneath him. So this is a trick, a fake -- or, to put it another way, a work of art.

Yves Klein's 'Le Saut dans la vide'

The distinction is, after all, a bit hazy. We all presume that Caravaggio, for example, did not actually see a young man sprouting wings fluttering in the air and whispering words of divine inspiration into the ear of St Matthew. On the other hand, if photographers present us with images of events that did not occur -- or would not have happened had the photographers not arranged for them to do so -- they may be greeted with muttered criticisms such as 'staged'.

Klein brilliantly exploited this zone of ambiguity. Is his leap a performance, a joke, a metaphor or a philosophical observation about the nature of art? Probably, the answer is: all of those. It is certainly, unusually for a photograph, so memorable that the whole picture pops into mind, like a slide, if you close your eyes.

In this respect, 'Leap into the Void' is highly unrepresentative of Performing for the Camera . In aggregate, the exhibition is wearyingly enormous and bemusingly dull, full of large white rooms stuffed with small black, grey and white snaps of subjects such as naked hippies having a happening in New York in the Sixties or people doing something obscurely conceptual involving traffic in Tokyo around the same time. In other words, here is a prime example of curatorial overkill: an exhibition that is far too large for its subject.

Nadar's photograph of Charles Deburau

It does, however, make some interesting points. One is that a great deal of art -- and photography -- is staged or, if you prefer, 'faked', and always has been. A Rembrandt self-portrait is a carefully conceived presentation of the artist, and so, too, is -- among many such artist's selfies on display -- Marcel Duchamp in drag as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy or Joseph Beuys explaining art to a dead hare. The same is true of many images that are often placed in the history of 'photography' rather than 'art', such as Nadar's beautiful shots from 1854 of the mime artist Charles Deburau, in costume and striking poses from his act. …

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