Sunday, September 24News For London

Performing for the Camera: is this art or pure self-indulgence?

The first ever Instagram series presenting as art has made its debut at London’s Tate Modern.

Amalia Ulman's 'belfie'. Image by: Catherine McMaster
Amalia Ulman’s ‘belfie’. Image by: Catherine McMaster

In a refined, slightly austere bathroom with plain-whitewashed walls, cream tiles and a glass of half-filled with water beside the sink, a young woman reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus, with alabaster skin and painted red lips gazes reflectively at her self-image.

Her posterior juts out provocatively, challenging the viewer while she considers her facial image, seemingly unaware of her powerful sensuality.

Amalia Ulman, 27 is an Instagram artist. Using the language of the Internet in her Excellence & Perfections #itsjustdifferent, she enacts a tale of a blonde moving to Los Angeles. Playing on ideas of narcissism within social media, Ulman complicates our understanding of what is reality and what is performance.

Amalia Ulman's Excellence & Perfections at the Tate Modern. Photo by Catherine McMaster
Amalia Ulman’s Excellence & Perfections at the Tate Modern. Image by Catherine McMaster

With the average 15-25 year old woman spending more than five hours a week taking selfies, as according to a One Poll survey for feelunique.com in 2015, it seems inevitable that the selfie was going to transition into artistic territory.

BBC Art Critic, Estelle Lovatt told Westminster World, “Performance of the self in art is usually because the artist wishes to self-expose.”

Self-reflexivity has always permeated the medium of photography. Photography has always been performative, and much performance art is inherently photographic. While the selfie is an excepted shot within the realm of Instagram, can it hold as ‘art’? Is Ulman’s need to imprint herself in a ghetto aesthetic selfie warranted? Or is it merely self-indulgent?

Ulman's endless array of selfies is the backbone of her Excellence & Perfections
Ulman’s endless array of selfies in her Excellence & Perfections. Image by Catherine McMaster

Ulman’s series of selfies are one of the last hangings in the Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera exhibition. She is joined by a number of other reputable artists including Andy Warhol, Eikoh Hose and Yves Klein. Examining the relationship between camera and performance art, Performing for the Camera seeks to supply art historical ballast for the creation of self-promoted images.

The result? Early shots of Boris Mikhailov sporting a dildo while posing are self-paradoxical and less guarded than later more staged photographs.

Boris Mikhailov confronts the viewers through ideas of self image and sexual fantasy. Image by Catherine McMaster
Boris Mikhailov confronts the viewers through ideas of self image and sexual fantasy. Image by Catherine McMaster

Romain Mader, an emerging Swiss contemporary artist goes in search for a wife in Ukraine; his efforts rewarded with a selfie in the majestic Alps. An artificial looking bride poses in the backdrop. Later, Mader tells me that this work, ‘Ekaterina’, is a speculation on the economy of sex tourism in Eastern Europe.

Romain Mader's Ekaterina: Marriage in Leukerbad 2012
Romain Mader’s Ekaterina: Marriage in Leukerbad 2012. Image by Catherine McMaster

There is evidently self-aggrandisement interposed with social and political ambitions in Performing for the Camera, but by turning the shot invariably towards the self, is this just an artistic excuse to explore the artists’ own identity?

“We are witnessing a shift in art and photography, particularly with the influx of social media, everybody now thinks they’re an artist, or photographer. Believing their images to be good art/photographers, which they’re not,” Lovatt explains to Westminster World.

With over 400 million monthly active users on Instagram, this social media has enabled users to self-expose, all wanting their “Warholian 15 minutes of fame,” art critic Estelle Lovatt explains. Just as Kim Kardashion can inundate her Instagram with selfies of her pregnant nude body and it be called ‘self promotion’, why doesn’t the same apply to artists who inundate their viewers with photographs of themselves?

The self has always been a popular subject for artists; Robert Cornelius took the first known ‘selfie’ in 1839, but the defining feature between self promotion and art is when the artist ‘takes or appropriates the picture,’ Lovatt says. Furthermore, Performing for the Camera curator Simon Bakers highlights that throughout the exhibition the artists are assuming other identities in the pursuit of artistic performance.

Never has a single exhibition managed to house 500 images of work that all relate to ideas of the self, and the performance of the self for the camera. Early shots indicate the artists more social and political agenda, whereas more recent ones invariably turn inwards towards the artist.

Simon Baker is adamant that “the significance of the photographer, rather than simply documenting is the purpose of the exhibition.”

Simon Baker during the curator's tour. Image by Catherine McMaster
Simon Baker during the curator’s tour. Image by Catherine McMaster

Assistant Curator Fiontan Moran agrees.

He explains that the use of the artist in their work is connected to ideas of the artist reclaiming their body. In particular, Fiontan told Westminster World how female artists often use themselves in their work as a means to play with ideas of feminism, power and control.

This is true of the artist Jo Spence who interestingly does not feature in Performing for the Camera. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, Spence responded through a series of photographs. She examined the power dynamics of the doctor and patient relationship in her ‘A Picture of health?’ Her most famous image among the collection, the naked chest of Spence with the ‘property of Jo Spence?’ written on her left breast.

Spence’s photographs document her fight with breast cancer and have an overt political tone. She is evidently trying to reclaim her body, but still maintains artistic distance. Despite her images being about her self, they are not ‘selfies’. She is not performing for the camera; rather she is using her body as political and feminist approach to the arts.

While Fiontan highlights that Amalia Ulamn in her display of selfies ‘plays on how the female body is used in media portraits’, her work does not project an explicit social or political tone. She performs for the camera in an array of poses, but is this art, or merely self-indulgence?

Performing for the Camera examines the relationship between the camera and performance art. One critic upon eyeing up Ulman’s work couldn’t resist taking a selfie with Ulman’s selfies. There is something slightly ironic here.

And so is the nature of performing for the camera. With the selfie emerging into artistic territory, and with more than 75 million instagram users daily, it seems inevitable that the selfie will become more prevalent in art.

The questions still remains, is it art? Or merely self-indulgence?

Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern, London, SE1, until June 12. Book online at, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera 

Listen below to my exclusive interview with Swiss photographer Romain Mader. Born in 1988, Mader explores themes of gender-representation, loneliness and romance by creating fictional narratives within his images. It is the first time his work has been exhibited at the Tate. 

Words: Catherine McMaster
Images: Catherine McMaster