From Selfie to Self Expression
The Saatchi Gallery: 31 March-30 May.
An innovative exhibition exploring the history of ‘the selfie’ from the old masters to the present day, showing and celebrating the creative potential of this form of expression that has been negatively tied up with the ‘me me me’ millennial generation. The show also partnered with Huawei to commission mobile phone photography in an attempt to highlight the emerging artistic tool of the phone camera and its potential.
Walking into the first gallery, you see large screens placed on the wall in the place of frames, each displaying a recognisable self portrait (Francis Bacon, Vincent VG, Lucien Freud). Then, unexpectedly, as though you were choosing a tinder date between Rembrandt and Van Gogh, the image swipes right and a new one appears. Phones mounted alongside each ephemeral ‘frame’ host the recognisable heart ‘like’ button that you click mindlessly on Instagram all day, offering up a chance for you to judge each painting and like your favourites. With each like, the number that you hadn’t quite noticed before in the bottom left hand side of the frame goes up, and there is suddenly a way to express your artistic preferences with the touch of a button: the millennial dream. This creative, encouraging and participatory style of seeing art that we’ve all seen before eases every visitor, art historian or reluctant teenager, into the exhibition by mirroring real life. Like swapping a chocolate bar for a carrot whilst a child stares mindlessly at a TV screen, art history is offered up in the format we scroll through every day. Swipe right, click like, move on, playing to the 8 second attention span of the average millennial and offering instant gratification and the opportunity to judge anonymously. In my opinion, absolute curatorial genius.
The exhibition continued, seamlessly inserting real frames alongside virtual ones, using the virtual format to offer a hugely comprehensive history of the self portrait that would be impossible to curate physically. Cindy Sherman’s canonical self portraits line one wall, printed and framed, whilst Chuck Close’s huge painted masterpieces cover 12 screens connected to mimic a giant canvas. Somehow, there is something for everyone. Tracy Emin’s raunchy, sex-drugs-rock’n’roll photographs, next to Lucien Freud’s achingly beautiful naked self portrait Painter Working. The desire to portray the creative possibilities of the self portrait is surpassed, in the first 2 gallery spaces alone.
An immersive installation comes next, but rather than tucked into a small square space, one of the biggest rooms in the gallery is used. A compilation of youtube videos of individual’s talking to their cameras is projected onto 3 walls seamlessly, a mosaic of faces. As your shadow blocks out the strangers, everyone reaches for their snapchat to take a photograph of their own where their faceless semi-recognisable bodies jump out from a sea of people. We’ve taken a selfie that expresses our need to see our own form rise out of the masses, but we don’t think about that as we hastag it #culturefriday and upload it as we walk between galleries 3 and 4.
With the audience totally hooked, the exhibition takes a more comprehensible approach, we see canonical early self portrait photography and nice black and white images of Salvador Dali. I find myself weirdly, and probably pretentiously, moved by a tentative photo of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. And then, suddenly, mounted on the wall is the famous oscar selfie starring Ellen DeGeneres, Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt. Next it’s Kim Kardashian. My brain is thinking ‘wtf’, I am an art historian and I am therefore a self appointed judger of ‘what is art’, and here is Kim K on a gallery wall. It goes on and it gets worse. A meme of a dude and a giraffe, and the worst possibility: Donald Trump’s face entering my art gallery sanctuary. These are people and photographs that I see on my phone all day every day, I escape to an art gallery and Trump and the Kardashian’s pop up like whack-a-mole’s. I am appalled!
And yet, as I wander round with my best friend, I realise I haven’t had so much fun at an exhibition since I ran around the Tate turbine hall as a 10 year old. Unlike the closely invigilated rooms at National Gallery exhibitions, visitors are encouraged to get out their phones and cameras. My photo reel fills up and my Insta story gets longer as each room of the exhibition invites a new selfie. As we walk around studying the artistic and academic potential of the selfie, we absent-mindedly enter into it. The gate between art and life is left ajar and we flood through in a flurry of snapchats.
In the slightly mis-matched gallery rooms upstairs, interactive art with built in cameras, body sensors and mirrors becomes the norm and ‘omg that’s so cool’ seems to be the narrative of my experience. The creative selfie competition offers up some interesting contemporary self portrait photographs, but I was not convinced by the winner The Substitute.
As this review has hit the 800 word point, I, like the curators at the Saatchi, am aware that my millennial audience is probably no longer listening, and so I will conclude.
From Selfie to Self Expression is only on for another 9 days, but honestly, if you can you really must go. The most creative, current, thoughtful curating I have seen possibly ever, this exhibition is worth remembering not for the art it contained but for the way it has taken art gallery going in a new step that has been a long time coming. Our generation hear the narrative on repeat: we are self-absorbed, we think we’re special, we’re vain, we’re judgemental, we have minuscule attention spans and we’re symptomatically disappointed. But instead of joining in with religiously shaming the traits of a generation and a time, the Saatchi gallery have embraced them, encouraged them, and seen the potential in them. With this exhibition, they’ve done more than release the creative, expressive possibilities of the selfie. They have blurred our social media lives, our real lives and the art world in a step toward the future that institutions are so scared to do. I can only hope that everyone follows suit.