With the premise ‘performance is an independent art form and photography is its constant companion’, the group exhibition Body Performance at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin will face the visitors with questions of self-perception, the gaze of the other, identity and emotion, until the 10th of May, 2020.
A week ago, the group exhibition Body Performance opened at the Helmut Newton Foundation with works by Vanessa Beecroft, Yang Fudong, Inez & Vinoodh, Jürgen Klauke, Robert Longo, Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Barbara Probst, Viviane Sassen, Cindy Sherman, Bernd Uhlig and Erwin Wurm. Works of art and audience, action and perception, the body and its surroundings… are always and inescapably implicated with each other; Body Performance aims to showcase this. But how much is performance embedded in their different practices? Some would say their work is about performance, others would debate what performance means and others wouldn’t call their work a performance at all – nonetheless, the human body is central.
Helmut Newton’s relatively unknown series Ballets de Monte Carlo is the starting point and core of this group exhibition. A bit reticent about it at first, he only agreed to do it because the request came from Princess Caroline of Monaco herself and he prided himself on being ‘one of the Princess’ people’. He went back to photograph the ballet year after year, and one can progressively see more and more of Newton in the images as time passes. He’d slip into the role of a theatre director and accompany the dancers on the streets of Monaco or at his own home to shoot nudes. With this series, he therefore reinterpreted a compositional idea that came to define his work, Naked and Dressed.
1 Helmut Newton  Ballet De Monte Carlo  1992 Copyright Helmut Newton Estate.jpg
Helmut Newton, Ballet de Monte Carlo, 1992. © Helmut Newton Estate
“Performance is an independent art form and photography is its constant companion”, says Matthias Harder, Director and Curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation. This communion is best highlighted in Vanessa Beecroft’s work, where we find that the performance and the resulting photographs, also taken by the artist herself, are given equal standing as works of art. In the images of the VB 55 performance, several dozens of women appear wearing transparent nylon pantyhose; they were simultaneously nude and clothed, which relates to the visual concept behind Newton’s series Naked and Dressed.
Voyeurism and exhibitionism come together in her public exhibitions as well as in the later reception of her performance photographs. We find the traditional documentation of a performance, which also shows us the attending public dressed in evening clothes, who thought of themselves as mere public and are now also photographed and being looked at by us.
Bernd Uhlig and Sasha Waltz show a similar synergy as Uhlig photographed Waltz’s choreographies for many years. The images on display in the exhibition mostly depict close-ups and gestures frozen in motion as well as the whole stage captured in one second. Uhlig’s pictures, as in Waltz productions, alternate between architecture (as space or surface) and the sensuality of the body playing the leading role.
4 Bernd Uhlig Sasha Waltz Dialoge I 99 Sophiensäle Berlin 1999 Copyright Bernd Uhlig.jpg
Bernd Uhlig, Sasha Waltz Dialogue 1/99, Sophiensäle Berlin, 1999. © Bernd Uhlig
Also approaching the body in a sculptural and mouldable manner are the works of Jürgen Klauke and Erwin Wurm. Both artists assume the role of a director, although their subjects are performing solely for the camera. Klauke approaches the making of his series Viva España with already a somewhat clear idea of the composition and form of the images he wants to get. In them, we see two anonymous bodies interact, a man and a woman from whom we can only see the legs engaged in a mysterious dance on a dark stage, in what results in a series of images with a strong sculptural character.
On another hand, Wurm’s approach is full of spontaneity as he makes the visitors of his performance do curious poses or absurd contortions using everyday objects in a way alien to their original purpose, thus enabling them to become part of his exhibition as works of art one minute at a time – as part of his now-famous One Minute Sculptures.

Alongside the exhibition, we also find artists whose work looks at the bare human body as the centre and main protagonist. Famous and notorious for his permissive male nudes from the S&M scene, Robert Mapplethorpe choreographed only one person in the images showcased in Body Performance: bodybuilding world champion Lisa Lyon. She referred to herself as ‘a sculptor of her own body’, and in Mapplethorpe’s beautiful shots, we see her lying nude on a boulder, the rock’s hard surface contrasting with the softness of her skin, while corresponding with her muscular legs.
8 Robert Mapplethorpe Lisa Lyon 1980 Use by Permission Copyright Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.jpg
Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1980. © Robert Mapplethrope Foundation. Use by permission
Stereotypes of femininity are questioned, as happens on Viviane Sassen’s work. She choreographs and stages her models’ bodies in unexpected ways and abstracts them using analogue methods of altering the images. The framing, inverting the order of above and below, painted skin and superimposed objects challenge the viewer and raise questions about common clichés. A former model herself, Sassen has said it is through her photographic practice that she has been able to reclaim power over her own body.
Inez & Vinoodh are also known to manipulate the human body in their work; in their case, by means of digital tools. Pioneers of this digital manipulation in the early ‘90s, they’ve been disrupting the photography world ever since. They not only challenge common modes of representation but also the limits of photography’s reputation of showing the truth. Their images capture transgression of boundaries in a time where it’s still very important to keep revisiting those – as Instagram diligently reminds us every time we want to post an image that shows a female nipple.
All through the exhibition visitors will be faced with questions of self-perception, the gaze of the other, identity and emotion. In the words of Matthias Harder, “as we view these images, questions come into focus concerning how we are perceived by others and by ourselves, identity and the collective. In the process, our occasionally voyeuristic gaze collides with the images of naked or dressed, and then bounces back at us. As in the live events by Vanessa Beecroft or the choreographies by Sasha Waltz, we, the audience, are also seen by the naked models and dancers, and the supposed protection of our clothing quickly becomes threadbare.”
The exhibition Body Performance is on view until the 10th of May, 2020, at the Helmut Newton Foundation, Jebensstraße 2
9 Inez   Vinoodh Cindy Sherman   the Gentlewoman  2019 © Inez   Vinoodh Courtesy the Ravestijn Gallery.jpg
Inez & Vinoodh, Cindy Sherman – The Gentlewoman, 2019. © Inez & Vinoodh, courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery
7 Viviane Sassen  Untitled From Roxane Ii  040 2017 Copyright Viviane Sassen Courtesy Stevenson Gallery Cape Town.jpg
Viviane Sassen, Untitled from Roxane II, 040, 2017. © Viviane Sassen, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
2 Barbara Probst Exposure  129 Munich Nederlingerstraße 68 2017 Copyright Barbara Probst Vg Bild Kunst Courtesy Galerie Kuckei   Kuckei Berlin.jpg
Barbara Probst, Exposure #129, Munich Nederlingerstrasse 68, 2017, 08.11.2017, 6:02 pm. © Barbara Probst, VG Bild-Kunst, courtesy Galerie Kuckei + Kuckei
10 Robert Longo Men in the Cities  New York  1976 1982 © 2012 Robert Longo Courtesy Schirmer Mosel Verlag .jpg
Robert Longo, Men in the Cities, New York, 1976/1982. © Robert Longo, courtesy Schirmer/Mosel Verlag
5 Yang Fudong  New Women Iii  2013 Copyright the Artist  Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery  Shangh Art Gallery  Sammlung Wemhöner.jpeg
Yang Fudong, New Women III, 2013. © The artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, SHanghART Gallery, Sammlung Wemhöner
6 Vanessa Beecroft V B55 Performance 2005 Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin Copyright Vanessa Beecroft.jpg
Vanessa Beecroft, VB55 - Performance, 2005, VB55.004.NT, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2005. © Vanessa Beecroft