Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre
At the Vancouver Art Gallery to May 21
In Acting the Part, Little Red Riding Hood takes a lunch basket to her bedridden grandmother, a philandering husband makes out with a French cook, and a despairing artist throws himself into the sea. These are some of the stories, silly and otherwise, that 19th- and early-20th-century pho tographers attempted to tell with their new medium. Then there are the socially and politically charged narratives constructed by contemporary photo-based artists: Wang Qingsong's soldiers storm a hill surmounted by a McDonald's sign; Evergon's God-like puppeteer hovers above a lush set of roses, fruit, and homoerotic allegory; and Yinka Shonibare's black Victorian dandy participates in scenes of impossible privilege and indulgence.
Subtitled Photography As Theatre and curated by Lori Pauli of the National Gallery of Canada, Acting the Part asserts that the practice of staging photographs—of constructing simple scenes or elaborate tableaux and employing makeup, costumes, props, and sets—was not invented by such recent stars Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and Gregory Crewdson (all of whom are represented here). By intermingling historic and contemporary photos, Pauli demonstrates that the medium always lent itself to creative contrivance, to the telling of fictions. Such impulses are evinced by the work of some of photography's pioneers, such as Hippolyte Bayard, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and William Henry Fox Talbot.
Early-20th-century artists, also revelled in the narrative and theatrical possibilities of photography. In Les Larmes, Man Ray has sprinkled the face of his model with dewdroplike “tears”, and in Self-Portrait With Dead Nude he buries his own face in the body of a naked woman. Naked women appear frequently in this show's historic photos. Just as pornographers quickly grasped the camera's titillating potential, supposedly legitimate artists devised narratives to justify their own clammy voyeurism. Harold Kells's 1930 Death of Cleopatra and Lejaren A. Hiller's Etienne Gourmelen, circa 1927, depict pseudohistorical sets draped with unclothed female figures.
As the exhibition demonstrates, the narrative impulse in photography was discredited by mid-20th-century modernists and mostly disappeared from fine-art photography for a few decades. During this period, however, it surfaced in the realm of popular culture, sometimes in news photos (apparently, Weegee strategically placed the scowling spectator next to the wealthy operagoers in his famous image The Critic) and certainly in advertising. In Paul Outerbridge Jr.'s 1939 colour print The Coffee Drinkers, a happy klatch of business-suited men sit around a kitchen table, holding cups and cigarettes and projecting Caucasian manliness.
In Michael Snow's Flash! 20:49, 15/6/2001, chaos descends on a middle-aged white couple seated in a restaurant. Wine spills, plates, glasses, and dinner buns fly through the air, a big wind messes the woman's hair, a wet leaf clings to the man's sleeve. And yet they smile and smile, as oblivious to disaster.
Snow was in the vanguard of contemporary artists who experimented with multiple media, including film, and in the last few decades still photographers have come more and more to weave cinematic references and techniques into their increasingly large-scale and colour-saturated work. Wall was an early exponent of the screen-sized photo and the film-style shoot. More recently, Crewdson has acknowledged the influence of Alfred Hitchcock and other famed directors upon his self-consciously spooky picture-making.
Curiously, Vancouver's place in the rebirth of staged photography is not fully acknowledged by the exhibition's organizers. Wall is represented solely by one of his lesser works, The Vampires' Picnic, and many of our best artists are not seen at all. The Vancouver Art Gallery has somewhat compensated by adding important works by Jin-me Yoon, Tim Lee, Rodney Graham, Judy Radul, and Kevin Madill.
A significant aspect of postmodern photography is its art-historical frame of reference, especially its reconsideration of iconic paintings. The show includes Anne Zahalka's take on The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck; Adi Nes's reworking of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper; and Yasumasa Morimura's Portrait (Futago), in which the artist plays both the white prostitute and the black maid of Edouard Manet's Olympia.
The most powerful art-historical restagings in the show, however, take the form of video and sound: Bill Viola's The Greeting, inspired by Jacopo da Pontormo's The Visitation; and 89 Seconds at Alcazar by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, a live-action re-creation of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. Using costumed actors on a bare-bones set, Sussman's work deftly evokes the painting's extraordinary sense of character and depth of atmosphere.
The wonder, intimacy, and immersiveness of 89 Seconds reminded me of something Kevin Kerr, of Electric Company Theatre, said at a recent public forum at the VAG: that the economy of theatre forces the audience to become imaginative. This is true of the best works in Acting the Part: their subtleties rather than their excesses are what engage us most fully.