From Henson to Christo

24 April 2023
How photography captures performance
Some of photography's best-known luminaries feature in a new Chau Chak Wing Museum exhibition examining the interaction between photography and performance.

From Olive Cotton’s Clarence Street, Sydney (c.1942) to Imants Tillers’ If I Close My Eyes (2021), the images in Photography and the Performative capture performers, performance spaces and audiences over an 80-year period. The punk aesthetic of 1980s New York, Hollywood B-grade movies and generational discrimination faced by Aboriginal communities are among the diverse phenomena examined in this exhibition. Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bill Henson, Barber Kruger and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook are among the featured artists. 

“Performance as a concept is everywhere,” said Chau Chak Wing curator Katrina Liberiou. “This exhibition conveys performative elements from the widest imaginable range of settings including streets, studios, villages, institutions and performance spaces.

“Since the 1960s, photography and performance have experienced a shared history. The camera became an extension of the artist’s body, documenting their actions and interventions.”

Rather than record performances, works in Photography and the Performative look at the supporting roles of space, the human body and ideas in performance. International works include disturbing images from the hospital where Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed. Mary Ellen Mark spent 36 days living at the Oregon State Hospital to document the lives of women incarcerated there, a year after she worked as the Oscar-winning film’s set photographer. 

Black and white photo of two men, one on the left is topless, wears sunglasses and has a hand on his shoulderands in the air, the one on the right is obscured and

On the 21st century, 1982; Todd Watts; silver gelatin photograph; University Art Collection; PW1986.32

Closer to home, Christo’s Packed public building, project for Sydney (1969) imagines wrapping Sydney’s Australia Square, then a new skyscraper designed by architect Harry Seidler. This work was a precursor to the artists’ epic Wrapped Coast, created with support from Harry and Penelope Seidler. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s long exposures of the State Theatre and Seagram Building, also in Sydney, play homage to mid-twentieth century modernism. Imants Tillers If I close my eyes (2021, on display until August 2023) is a grid of polaroid photographs interspersing portraits of Tillers’ friends, family and fellow artitsts with images of Sydney’s harbour. The latter depict the same view, from Tillers’ home in Mosman, captured over a three-year period. 

The photographs in Photography and the Performative range from vintage black and white prints to alternative processes (including solarisation and photograms) to early colour photography and digital prints. All featured works have been selected from the University of Sydney Art Collection. 

Photography and the Perfomative is one of two photographic exhibitions currently on show at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The second, The Staged Photograph, presents a range of staged images taken in Australia between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. 

Exhibition details

What: Photography and the Performative

When:  29 April 2023 until 4 August 2024

Where: Level 1, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University Place, Camperdown, NSW 2006

Opening hours: 9am-5pm Monday to Friday (until 9pm Thursdays), 12-4pm Saturday and Sunday. Closed public holidays. 

Phone: 02 9351 2812

Cost: Free


Jocelyn Prasad

Media and Public Relations Advisor

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