“Camera/Action” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography–an excellent survey of photographs and videos of performance pieces–demonstrates that while documenting performance art may not fully capture the originals, the documentation itself can convey feelings and ideas. Most of the 17 artists represented here use themselves as subjects, focusing on their own bodies, sometimes with narcissistic results.

Performance artist Chris Burden once had himself shot in the arm, but his seemingly masochistic work seldom comes across as self-involved, instead raising general questions about the nature of compulsion. A 35-minute video documenting 11 of his early 1970s performances includes a section on Through the Night Softly (1973), in which he crawled across 50 feet of broken glass dressed only in shorts. “Yes, I did get cut up,” he says in a voice-over–that was one reason he had himself filmed in black and white. Instead of giving the full bloody effect of his action–one wonders what his cut-up body looked like and what his facial expressions were–this sketchy video leaves much to the imagination. Marina Abramovic in Rhythm 0 similarly becomes the focus of fantasies while remaining mysterious. In this 1974 performance she invited viewers to interact with her using any of 72 objects (listed below the image, they include such items as a spoon, a candle, and a book). Here a single photo shows her with her shirt open and a man who might be kissing her breast, while she holds one of the listed objects, a rose.

Some works are weaker but still powerful enough to give a sense of the artist’s world. Patty Chang’s video Contortion (2000) shows her wearing a wet blouse beneath which live eels are slithering. Chang’s performance may confront creepy fantasies men have about women, but it’s more specific to her and more sexually charged than Burden’s or Abramovic’s.

Similarly, works by two Chinese photographers show one to be more narrowly personal than the other. Tseng Kwong Chi had himself photographed in a Mao suit in front of various international landmarks–“monuments,” he says, “represent past or present glories and power,” as does his Mao outfit, for that matter. In Niagara Falls, New York (1984) Chi wears dark glasses and looks self-consciously, humorously cool. Young Hay also photographs himself in monumental settings: in front of Hong Kong’s skyline, at the Great Wall. But he carefully erases his own form by standing behind a blank canvas, allowing “emptiness to re-enter human awareness,” he says. In New York Trip (1998) the canvas is at the center of the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway, its white rectangle juxtaposed with the complex suspension structure.

For two of the artists, conceiving the photos is the performance. Jemima Stehli foregrounds her own presence almost alarmingly in her “Mirror” self-portraits. Mirror No. 3 is filled mostly with her fingers in close-up, while her leg and part of her back can be seen through them in a mirror propped behind her. The consciously narcissistic effect is to almost fill the composition with her flesh, seen from various perspectives at once. Stehli’s are among the few works in the show that use color, texture, and composition as expressive tools, in this case to enhance the sense of ubiquitous skin.

In the same gallery Barbara Probst displays seven images of a model posing dramatically in Central Park, each taken by a different photographer at the same time, and titled Exposure #26: N.Y.C., Central Park, 04.29.04, 8:13 a.m., 2004. Printed in different sizes, some in color and some in black and white, they’re all very different compositionally–we see the model in close-up, with her back to us, in a long shot with other photographers shooting her. Probst’s project is a welcome change from work centered around images of the artist (others in the show who make egregious use of themselves include feminist icon Valie Export and sculptor Charles Ray as well as Ma Liuming, who documents people’s interactions with him when he’s nude and often drugged). Probst’s series also reveals the intense subjectivity of the supposedly objective medium of photography.


Museum of Contemporary Photography

600 S. Michigan

through December 23

312-663-5554, 312-344-7104

Where the works in “Camera/Action” tend to be conceptual rather than sensual, five visually lush photographs at 4Art by Chicagoan Agnieszka Kulon immerse the viewer in speculation about the subjects’ actions. A series, Play #1-Play#5, shows two girls in puffy white snowsuits (which Kulon designed) surrounded by snow. (Though the place appears as desolate as the Arctic, in fact the pictures were taken in an Evanston park.) In one image the girls appear to be digging for something, while in another a girl holds a bottle of blue liquid. Printed on canvas, these photographs feature heavily saturated colors that add intensity to the scenes and to one’s speculations, giving what’s presumably a trivial game a nearly mythic feeling: Kulon’s photographs appeal to both the senses and the intellect.

Agnieszka Kulon


1932 N. Halsted #100

through December 31


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.