Group photography exhibition explores the importance of body and performance
By Alice Jones
Photography and performance have gone hand in hand for decades and it’s this relationship which is the driving force behind the Helmut Newton Foundation’s most recent exhibition, Body Performance. The exhibition, which opened November 30th and ends September 20th, features the work of thirteen international artists including prominent female photographers Cindy Sherman, Barbara Probst, and one of our Hundred Heroines, Viviane Sassen.
The show begins as a dive into the work of the foundations namesake, German – Australian photographer Helmut Newton, and his lesser known portraits of the Monte Carlo ballet, but ultimately expands on this by showcasing a full range of unique and diverse collaborations. In Body Performance, we see the discovery of Newton’s forgotten work become a jumping-off point to explore the intersection between two independent arts, photography and performance.
Inside the Berlin gallery each artists’ work, mostly images of performance, portraits and bare human bodies, is spread out, asking you to let them play out independently of each other. The artist sets their stage, and their work is their performance and production, they speak boldly for themselves and represent new and different angles on the relationship between body and camera.
The Performance and the Photograph
Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian born performance artist and well known for collaborations with Kanye West, is an artist that takes a direct approach and creates work which often comes in two instalments, the performance and the photograph. Like the producer of a stage play, she arranges her female performers, who are often sheerly, barely or nudely dressed, in strict and still positions until their bodies start to coalesce and form what looks like, a cluster of varying tonal values, softening the divide between clothed and naked. Her most renowned performance is what is displayed in Body Performance, ‘VB55’, originally presented in 2005 at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, which featured a crowd of one hundred women, uniformly in transparent pantyhose, standing motionless for hours on the gallery floor.
Vanessa Beecroft VB55 – Performance, 2005, VB55.004.NT, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2005 © Vanessa Beecroft
Contrast Between Body and Object
Barbara Probst, a Munich based photographer, also features and presents her portraits as triptychs, similar in scale to Newtons’ editorial ballet work. Except in her case, these images are not shot too far apart, in fact, they follow immediately after one another. Using several cameras at different angles, Probst captures the same moment over again to create the same image, painted differently. Her work is an amalgamation of portraiture and still life, and most works find her interweaving the human body with still lifeless objects, as though to play on the contrast between body and object, in a world where the line is sometimes blurred.
Though there is a serenity and stillness in much of the work on show, Body Performance is not without ambiguity, absurdity or vividness, between artists such as Erwin Wurm asking his subjects to do miniature performances on the spot and the well known Cindy Sherman’s loud and chameleonic self-portraits, the exhibition is full of interesting flavours.
Barbara Probst, Exposure #129, Munich Nederlingerstraße 68, 2017,08.11.2017, 6:02 pm © Barbara Probst, VG Bild-Kunst, courtesy Galerie Kuckei + Kuckei.
Command Over the Bold
One such artist who has a tantalizing command over the bold is, Dutch artist, Viviane Sassen. Fresh from photographing Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2020 menswear campaign earlier this year, in Body Performance we’re introduced to work which adjusts its focus onto the body. Spikes of colour play out in much of Sassen’s work, but her stylistic, editorial aesthetic is decidedly moody in Untitled from Roxane II, but no less an example of Sassen’s’ distinctive assimilation of the body with colour, shifting her models’ roles from subject to canvas. Known to combine contemporary photography with surrealist methods of composition, her startling placement of colour and cropping of the contorted bodies of her models, creates claustrophobic arrangements which appear to simultaneously bring their bodies in and out of focus, asking you to question what’s more out of place, the human or what she places on top of them.
Viviane Sassen, Untitled from Roxane II, 040, 2017, © Viviane Sassen, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
Identity and Gender
Though, sometimes whimsical on a first look, many of the works are contemplative, and ask you to have a conversation with them. Commentaries on the bodies role in deciding identity and gender stereotypes are some of the themes which come with more contemplative pieces such as Robert Mapplethorpe, who takes bodybuilding world champion, Lisa Lyon, as his subject, and Jurgen Klauke who takes a choreographed dance between man and woman to merge their bodies and blur the line between masculine and feminine.
Body Performance begins as a discovery of the lesser-known work of Helmut Newton, something that feels amazingly new and fresh, and expands to something much more where it introduces its other renowned vintage and contemporary artists, also working with performers and bringing the human body into a light which asks questions so pertinent, they resound with us today regardless of when they were asked. Commentary is balanced with the joyfulness of more absurd work, where movement captured gives way to a sense of liveliness. There is this equilibrium throughout the exhibition, where each artist and their work presents its own place, theme and mood. Where there is history, there is also the modern, where there is dance, there is also pause, where there is loud, there is subdued. Body Performance allows anyone to participate and puts on its own performance which transcends the fourth wall and tells you stories and asks you questions which will have you viewing it again and again, far longer than any other production you’ve ever seen.