Ego Update
Tate Modern and Schirn Explore the Self-Portrait

Me, myself, and I – the Internet is inundated with selfies. According to current surveys, 18- to 34-year-old Americans spend ten minutes a day taking, editing, and publishing self-portraits. If the trend continues unabated, they will take around 25,000 pictures of themselves in the course of their lives. Those who are particularly successful with their postings can even become “microcelebrities” – Internet stars whose activities are followed and commented on by tens of thousands of fans. Good-looking young women who represent a certain lifestyle characterized by fashion, cosmetics, and status symbols have fared particularly well. For her project Excellences and Perfections, Amalia Ulman transformed herself into one of these “sugar babies,” documenting her new life of detox drinks and manicure salons on Instagram. The Argentinian artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, not only relies on retouching apps and filters to perfect her digital self. For her four-month performance project, she actually went on a diet and improved her body with yoga and pole dancing. The rest was mostly staged, however. For example, her breast implants, on which she reported to her more than 60,000 followers, were a fiction, and the sugar daddy who financed her luxurious lifestyle was invented. Excellences and Perfections plays with the borders between reality and fiction and puts female role models – and not only the ones propagated in social media – up for discussion.

Now Amalia Ulman’s selfies have made the leap from Instagram to Tate Modern. In the exhibition Performing for the Camera, the London museum is showing more than 500 photographs that cover the broad spectrum between documentation of artistic performances and self-portrayal. The Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt is also dedicating a show, simply entitled ME, to the self-portrait. At the Schirn, however, the numerous photographic works on view are supplemented by drawings, sculptures, installations, and video performances.

Role-play in front of the camera is as old as the medium itself. The earliest examples in the London exhibition come from Nadar, the nineteenth-century master of French studio photography. For him, the actress Sarah Bernhardt played roles ranging from Lady Macbeth to Pierrot, and at the same time played with gender roles. This motif recurs in other pictures in the exhibition, including Man Ray’s famous portrait of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy or in the pictures of Samuel Fosso. The photographer from the Central African Republic, to whom a floor of the Deutsche Bank Towers is devoted, embodies in his series African Spirits heroes of African-American liberation movements, including Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm X, as well as the civil rights activist Angela Davis. A project of the photographer Eikoh Hosoe is also extremely interesting. He shows the actor and transvestite Simon Yotsuya on an odyssey through early 1970s Japan. The expressive black-and-white photos show the rejection this outsider is confronted with but also his unbroken lust for life.

Apart from well-known names like Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke, Francesca Woodman, and Erwin Wurm, the show presents numerous discoveries, which makes it particularly worth seeing. A focal point is Japanese positions. Kiyoji Otsuji and Minoru Hirata document performances and happenings of Gutai and Hi Red Center, representatives of a radical 1960s avant-garde, whose actions inspired Koki Tanaka, the “Artist of the Year” 2015, to make a series of drawings. Another highlight of the exhibition are series by Shunk-Kender. >From 1958 to 1973, the duo captured more than 400 artists at work. Thanks to their photographs, we can experience at least parts of groundbreaking performances by Vito Acconci, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Yayoi Kusama.

Acconci captured his own performances on video. The Schirn is showing his 1971 work Centers, for which he points at the lens of the camera for as long as he can – and thus also directly at the viewer. In doing so, he takes the centuries-old topos of the self-portrait to the point of absurdity. Although we look at the artist’s face for more than 20 minutes, it is more or less covered by his extended arm. At the same time, Acconci’s gesture refers to the viewer, thus bringing an “anti-narcissistic element into play, which is constitutive for a large part of the artistic self-portraits of the 1970s,” as Anja Osswald writes in the exhibition catalog. Most of the artists represented in the show share this approach. Hence the exhibition title “ME” is crossed out.

So at the Schirn the self is concealed, fragmented, or ironically deconstructed. Erwin Wurm has himself represented by an armada of pickles installed on pedestals. In his Selbstporträt mit Pappkarton (Self-Portrait with Cardboard), Imi Knoebel presents himself as an arrangement of found objects including boards, pails, and fire extinguishers. For her self-portrait, Alicja Kwade fills 22 glass phials with chemical substances that the human body is composed of.

The photographic works on view dispense with conventional ideas about self-portraits. Günther Förg’s Treppenhaus München (Munich Staircase, 1984/98), on loan from the Deutsche Bank Collection, shows the artist walking down stairs. But his face – the body part that normally gives us insight into the personality of the individual photographed – cannot be seen. Förg’s head is cut off by the edge of the picture. Eberhard Havekost and Wolfgang Tillmans also refrain from showing their faces. This strategy reflects their doubts about today’s “facial society,” as Thomas Macho put it, which is inundated with faces that are optimized on Photoshop or by means of cosmetic surgery.

Mike Bouchet’s FBI Drawings (2007) from the Deutsche Bank Collection examine the influence that media and popular culture have on our self-image. The California-born artist drew the actor Eric Stoltz seven times in different roles – as the bearded dealer from Pulp Fiction or the nice guy who lives next door from Happy Hour. The series is based on techniques used by the FBI. To create a composite sketch as fast as possible, the FBI asks witnesses to name a celebrity who looks like the person sought. Accordingly, Bouchet asked his friends which star he looked like. Many said he bore a resemblance to Eric Stoltz from Pulp Fiction. By making his self-portrait a Hollywood-inspired composite drawing, the artist turns the modern search for identity into a play with stereotypes. As an eighth “picture,” Bouchet hangs a mirror next to his drawings. Like Vito Acconci, he puts the ball in the viewer’s court, asking “Who is your famous doppelgänger?”

Performing for the Camera
Until 6/12/2016
Tate Modern, London

Until 5/29/2016
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt