Next week, the Tate Modern unveils a new photography show, “Performing for the Camera”. Featuring over 500 photographs taken over the course of the last 150 years, including work by Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, the exhibition aims to explore the relationship between photography and performance. Another of the artists featured in the show is Jemima Stehli, a British female artist who positions herself both behind the camera and in front of it, for which she'll mostly be nude. To celebrate her work being shown by the Tate, we asked Stehli to look back and explain what it meant, to her, to perform for the camera as a woman.
Stehli began her career mainly as a sculptor, but rose to prominence as a photographer in the late 1990s when she famously posed as a human table in a reference to pop-artist Allen Jones’ 1969 sculpture Table (part of Hatstand, Table and Chair). While Jones’ piece features a sex doll-like mannequin on all fours, propping up a surface, Stehli’s piece cast her own naked body in the same pose – turning her, literally, into a piece of furniture. The controversial images, printed larger than life, blurred the line between subject and object. She was, she tells Refinery29, “Thinking about what it means to participate in your own objectification.” A similar line of questioning runs through most of Stehli’s photography work – which seems to ask whether the female body, so often objectified, can be used to seize back power. Stehli’s “strip” series – the work that is included in Performing For The Camera – consists of photographs of Stehli stripping in a studio in front of men she knows, both personally and professionally, including critics, contemporary artists and curators. The catch? The men hold the trigger for the camera lens, meaning that, as Stehli takes her clothes off for them, they decide when to take the shot.
Looking back at the portraits, which were created in 2000 and have become well-regarded feminist works, Stehli says: “They were a question to myself; what does it mean to be a woman in this context and in relation to these other people? The men were all critics or curators or writers who had some bearing or relation to my work. Those people mattered to me in my career – some of them were quite powerful. I was highlighting the submissive relationship between them and me – as a woman – and, of course, the fact that they had viewed my body naked in my previous works.” The performance, and the ensuing photographs, were also a metaphor about feeling exposed when she makes work as an artist; about having to posturise for critics, contemporaries and curators; about being vulnerable. “The strip work is about the reception” says Stehli. “And the set up is descriptive of how I felt at the time. All work is about real experience and my own was the one I had to hand. It was about me taking risks – and, with some of the images, it did change the dynamic in our relationship.”
When asked why it was just men included in the series, Stehli says that one shot included a woman, but she cut it from the series because “the tension wasn’t there” when she stripped for another female. “The series is quite deliberately literal – it’s spelling something out. The male-female thing fitted into that – it’s a simplified structure. It’s asking what they think about me as a woman and a naked body, as well as me professionally.” Also using photography and performance to draw attention to gender imbalance in the art world was the late American artist Hannah Wilke, whose work is placed alongside Stehli’s in the Tate show. In the 1970s, Wilke incorporated her own image in a lot of her photography work – which, like Stehli’s work, would often involve a performance, captured on film, that plays with the boundaries between sexuality and career. That is, until Wilke was diagnosed with Lymphoma and used her camera to chart her chemotherapy. “In the 70s Wilke would call up gallerists she knew and flirt with them and record it,” says Stehli. “Her early works were provocative, pointing at [gender] structures that were there. Some people were very for it, some very against.” In this sense, both artists’ work has been problematic: they critique the male gaze by putting themselves in front of it. Which, to some critics, has been seen as counterintuitive. Stehli acknowledges this: “That is the problematic aspect of my Strip works,” she says, “It’s an unpalatable method of production.”
It seems from talking to Stehli that being a woman who sits both behind and in front of the camera – usually in front of it, and naked – is always going to call her intentions into question. But maybe that is, once again, a symptom of her gender in a male dominated art world. The Strip works were, perhaps, a way to take back control. Although the men hold the shutter, the performance was, in a way, a reversal of power. As Stehli puts it: "It’s the men's self-consciousness that is uncomfortable when you really look at those pictures.” Performing for the Camera will be on display at London's Tate Modern from 18 February – 12 June 2016. Sponsored by Hyundai Card.