In the early days of 1960s American performance art, debates about how camera and film documentation could alter the viewer’s experience of the original action had a significant impact on the development of contemporary performances. Allan Kaprow, for instance, adamant that photography would change the immediacy of his “happenings” for viewers, banned cameras from his performances, while Bruce Nauman’s solution was to replace the audience with the camera, staging in-studio performances whose end goal was the photo documentation they would produce. While these divergent approaches to capturing performances have taken on near-legendary status in the history of American art, in other places where performance art is still a new development, the debate continues to provide fodder for creative experiments in front of the camera.
The Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery charts the recent history of one of these debates in its current group exhibition “Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography,” an examination of performance art and documentation in mainland China that pays testament to the diversity and ingenuity of artists’ use of the camera. Surveying the work of more than 16 artists, the show traces the emergence of performance art in Beijing in the early 1990s and how its practitioners transformed the role of photography from a supplementary document to a work of art in its own right.
While several projects, such as Han Bing’s Castaway series, adopt the slick appeal and seamless aesthetic of commercial photography to create clever interventions into the landscape, the do-it-yourself ethos of early performance art still makes itself felt in images like the Gao Brothers’ Twenty People Paid to Hug No. 2 or Li Wei’s Mirror performances. Though many of Wei’s photographs, in particular his Bas Jan Ader–inspired series of “falls” in the Beijing cityscape, appear to be digitally manipulated, they are in fact the result of a series of convoluted visual tricks including invisible wires, carefully placed mirrors, hidden scaffolding and aerobatics. These death-defying stunts acted out for the camera are affective because they reframe the limits of the human body as central to the performance practice, bringing renewed critical attention to photography’s ability to mediate and re-present ephemeral moments to the viewer. (1825 Main Mall, Vancouver BC)