Romain Mader, Ekaterina: Mariage à Loèche-les-Bains (Marriage in Leukerbad), 2012 © Romain Mader / ECAL. Image borrowed from Tate Modern catalogue for the exhibition.
Dr. Katerina Pantelides of the Courtauld Institute of Art examines ‘muse-wear’ in Tate Modern’s exhibition Art and Photography: Performing for the Camera (18th February – 12th June 2016)
Although it is not the primary theme of the exhibition, the question of what female artists wear to work is prevalent throughout Tate Modern’s Art and Photography: Performing for the Camera. Given that performance artists’ chief medium is the body, they have no need of the typical artist’s smock, which offers protection against messy materials and sets the artist apart in their profession. Rather, performance artists have used dress as means of more fully inhabiting their creations.
Harry Shunk and János Kender’s photographs of Yayoi Kusama’s 1968-9 Happenings, show the artist painting her signature large coloured dots onto the naked bodies of her performers. Imitating her, the performers also paint on each other. Kusama is clothed, but her bare-feet, dot-patterned legs and white trapeze-line, wide-sleeved frock with its swirling and speckled carp-scales, indicate that she is of the same ilk as her performers. It is as though she wishes to express that she identifies with them, by virtue of having a body, and a vibrant creative one at that. This staged subversion of the boundary between the creative artist’s body and those of her performers, fed directly into the Happenings’ self-definition as interventions in the fabric of everyday life, where participants were given a measure of creative agency.
Another performance artist, Carolee Schneeman, became entranced with the inanimate materials and found objects in the artist’s studio, and arranged them around her naked figure, so that she became a collage in motion. She relied upon black and white photography to document her experiments. The resulting ‘Transformations’ taken in the early 1970s, are striking for their violent juxtapositions of Schneeman’s soft flesh with the skeletal underside of a broken umbrella, or a great shard of found glass. The effect is simultaneously visceral and decorative. Threatening to cut her, and yet bisecting her face at a flattering angle, so that she appears coy and mysterious, Schneeman positions her materials so that they appear to control her image. As with Kusama, the creative artist’s body becomes part of the art work, and gives its creative materials agency.
One of the great self-mythologising performance artists, Francesca Woodman also makes a bold cameo in the Tate exhibition. In almost every photograph, Woodman conveys a sense of drama between her dressed body and the cloistered set. As the author as well as the subject of her photographs, Woodman spins the illusion that she has invited you to view her body and space as she sees it. The black and white nature of the photographs also smooths out environmental distractions, giving the pictures an aura of introspection. Only disruptions to the surface, such as streaks of sun-light and underdeveloped areas remind you that Woodman is not entirely in control; that she’s engaged in an ongoing dance with the light.
The surface textures of her clothes position her body in relation to her surroundings. In one interior composition, where she bends over dried autumn leaves, the undulating sweet-pea pattern of her broderie anglaise dress has a whispering quality and softly echoes the more turbulent movement inherent in the pile of leaves. In another image, taken in the woods, Woodman has fashioned herself gloves of eucalyptus bark. With her arms raised as erect as the surrounding pale trunks, her body is somewhat camouflaged. Nevertheless, the top of her bowed head, just visible in the photograph’s crop, and eerily reminiscent of a hanging-victim’s, brings her body and internal drama to the foreground, removing the image from the realm of the decorative.
Cumulatively, the female artists featured in the exhibition demonstrated a sense of wishing to inhabit their art-work, rather than standing apart from it masterfully. In the photographs that simultaneously document and re-stage their works, they are able to live out the contradiction of being synonymous with their materials and also drawing attention to their creative, performing bodies. Their efforts bring to light the alchemical property of dress for creative work, which does not only lend an artistic appearance, but feeds directly into the dynamics of creativity.
Article by Dr. Katerina Pantelides.