As I’ve assisted Roxana Marcoci and Eva Respini with the exhibition Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960—which opened January 28 in The Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third floor—I’ve come to recognize the variety of layered themes that are present in the show, despite the fact that the exhibition itself only includes about 50 works (many of which are new acquisitions).
What makes the relationship between photographers and performers special is that it is often the same person in front of and behind the camera. The engagement of the photographer as impersonator of distinct subjects defines this relationship in numerous self-portraits: Arnulf Rainer contorts his face for the photograph (Untitled, 1969–74), then adds playful and fluid marks on the print’s surface to further animate his expression; Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman sport identical suits and red-haired wigs in a collaborative photo shoot, each playing androgynous double to the other. Photographers also point their cameras at other performers: In Man and Woman #20 (1960), Eikoh Hosoe dramatically captures two Butoh performers entwined together, a wide-eyed head emerging from the shadows and locked in a bent arm.
And there is performance as political gesture: Ai Weiwei reveals a spirited irreverence in the series Study of Perspective (1995–2003) by taking pictures of his own hand, middle finger extended, in front of actual and symbolic sites of national sentiment (the Mona Lisa, Tiananmen Square).
A few months ago, I attended an intriguing lecture at The Kitchen by Glenn Phillips of the Getty Research Institute. In his talk, which was organized by Independent Curators International (ICI), Phillips described his experience working with the ephemera and documentation of performance, including photographs that recorded performances in the 1960s by the Vienna Actionists. Phillips’s words struck a chord as he explained how this powerful imagery serves as more than the physical evidence of a live event, and also operates independently, as photography. Indeed, several works by the Actionists—such as Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—are included in Staging Action, and embody multiple questions about the relationships among performance, photography, audience, and documentation. These complex questions were on the minds of the curators when they conceived this show, and have been subject of discussion at MoMA for some time.
To be sure, pictures in dialogue with those in Staging Action can be found elsewhere in the Museum. On that note, also be sure to keep an eye out for the work of Laurel Nakadate, whose color photographs with ink fingerprints are included in Staging Action, and whose solo exhibition, Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely, is on view through August 8 at MoMA PS1.