Selfies, like Marmite, are something you either really love or totally detest. Either way, as Kim K has made quite clear, selfies are here to stay. You find these pictures everywhere on social media, from Instagram and Twitter, to Facebook. However, where you don’t expect to find such photos is in an art gallery, and yet, they have found their way into this cultural realm, placed front-and-centre at the renowned Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, London, at the exhibition titled ‘From Selfie to Self-Expression’.
Now before we delve further into implications of the aforementioned exhibition, we should backtrack a century or two to help us acknowledge that ‘selfies’ have always existed. Self-documentation and self-portraiture can be and has been produced for a myriad of reasons. Exponents of the selfie genre may wish to tap into their soul, revealing their inner essence, displaying this through painting. Or, one may have wholly egotistical, vanity-driven intentions. But either way, we, as humans, are in perpetual pursuit of expressing ourselves. One chap who couldn’t get enough of his face was Rembrandt, a Dutch painter in the 17th century, who produced nearly 100 self-portraits! Similarly, but less obsessively, Van Gogh produced over 30 self-portraits.
Individuals lacking artistic abilities, who lived in a time before photography, and who were willing to pay a king’s ransom, would likely commission a portrait of themselves or their families as a way of legacy preservation. Royals, the aristocracy and wealthy merchants often littered their homes with these portraits in order explicitly to boast and maintain their status. And yet, surprisingly many people in the 21st century assert that #selfie culture is a new-found form of narcissism. However, narcissism isn’t new… the only difference between those in the past is not a matter of etiquette; it’s a matter of medium. Instead of oil and turpentine, we are using the swift click of a button to capture the self. And instead of the acclaimed portraits in history being limited to royalty and the like, nowadays the classic #selfies are of celebrity royalty such as Harry Styles, Ellen DeGeneres, & Obama. Give it 100 years and chances are the iconic Oscar selfie will be part of the A-level Art History syllabus.
There is a distinct difference however between having and experiencing art (especially self-portraiture) and culture of bygone times and the present day, and this ultimately comes down to a matter of accessibility. Today anyone and everyone seems to have a phone, even your ancient Gran who doesn’t know what ‘texting’ really means, has an iPhone. In fact, according to data from the Pew Research Center in Washington, over 95% of Americans own a cell phone of some description, and over 78% of those own a smartphone. Additionally, according to statistics sourced from HTC One, Samsung & Google research, over a staggering 1 million selfies are taken every day!
Saatchi’s ‘From Selfie to Self-Expression’ exhibition tapped into the topic of accessibility by providing an opportunity, whereby persons and artists low on the radar could submit their best #selfie portrait with a chance for their work to be displayed in the gallery. Over 14,000 people submitted their work, and only the most innovative and engaging photographs were chosen. This democratic approach to selecting art, using social media, helps to diminish the damaging influence of nepotism & elitism in the art world, as it instead focuses solely on the quality of an artwork, not the quality of someone’s contacts…
However, Saatchi also looked at the accessibility of selfies and portraits in a shallower respect by addressing humankind’s attention seeking tendencies. On a large wall at the exhibition visitors had the opportunity for their own image to be briefly flashed up on a projection for all to see! Of course, many complied to instructions – automatically snapping and uploading to twitter with the hashtag #selfieseer. Not only has social media lead to a shortening of attention spans, but a narrowing of our desired time frame for fame. The public, especially millennials, are not interested in 15 minutes in the limelight, we would much rather a few seconds on a trendy Instagram or Snapchat story.
Other popular uses of interactive elements in the exhibition came from the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, in particular his piece titled ‘This Year’s Midnight’ (2011), in which viewers were presented with a digital mirror which obscured their eyes to make it seem as though dreamy smoke flowed from them.
Having interviewed some of the public who attended the show, it was striking the number of diametrically opposed views the exhibition produced. The main disparity in opinions related to thoughts on viewer participation, and general behaviour in the gallery space. Some visitors believed that much of the interactive art was “a cop out”, only designed for populist intentions, to satisfy the generic needs of the masses. One interviewee, Erin, 23, was particularly unimpressed with the digital displays of classic paintings by artists such as Frida Kahlo, Picasso, and so forth, commenting that “these ‘work’s’ are simply locking onto the cheap trick that is interactive art. Everyone can get behind it, because it is easy and quick, so pleases everyone. It has no depth.”. However, Eleanor, a student from London disagrees, she believes that this exhibition is really exciting as it has helped to engage young people with art. The youth of today were born into a digital generation, and so, embracing something which is part of their virtual DNA – social media – is a wonderful and effective tactic for sparking a broader conversation about art and culture.
Both opinions hold water, however, if you want to remain current, you (maybe reluctantly) have to get on board the virtual train. The digital world and art world are constantly evolving. We can see this evolution of form and content in the of artists old and new. For example, David Hockney has wholly embraced bleeding tech into his artistic practice, by producing detailed drawings on an iPad! And so, shunning such developments, refusing for the two entities to fuse, allowing for new artistic expression, may seem a little Canutish.
One feature of the selfie revolution that does draw my ire, however, is the true narcissism of whose who at lightning speed rush around a gallery or museum, taking flash snaps whilst they go, without taking a minute to observe. These snaps then result on social media, to prove to others that they are truly cultured… Do not be fooled, I am very much pro social and pro selfie, however I feel the need to document our own cultural coolness should not be ranked higher than us actually experiencing art first and foremost with our eyes and brains, and then, if the work genuinely interests us for its conceptual or aesthetic content, only then we can bring out the camera lens.
Hannah Ladmore, Creative Strategy Intern