Your Insta-Game is Strong (but is that enough?)

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Martin Creed, The Back Door, 2016, exhibition image taken by author at The Park Avenue Armory

Ever since I entered the semi-professional art world (e.g. internships and undergrad) and graduated to the professional art world (a full time job, etc.) I have heard the phrases “you have to see it in person” and “it doesn’t photograph well” over and over and over. It became a matter of course that the picture of almost any painting, drawing, print, sculpture, and photograph (at least the non-digital ones) was going to be sub-par in its reproduction. Even professional art photographers, aided by Photoshop and studio lighting, struggle. Emails with attached images and links to websites were always tempered with “you really should see it in person.” Collectors were urged to attend auctions and art fairs in person (or at least send a trusted consultant), lecturers insisted students must visit the museums that house treasured works, and colleagues stressed that the aura of a truly great work of art could never be wholly captured on film.

Now I am hearing, for the first time that I can remember, artworks and summer public art exhibitions being hailed as “Instagram worthy.” To me, Instagram worthy means that a work of art is not only visually interesting, but it also photographs well and probably provides a sweat selfie backdrop (you gotta stand out to keep your selfie game strong). Initially, I was really excited. I loved the idea of art and art exhibitions being massively popular on social media and talked about by my friends as well as my colleagues. Especially during the summer months when many exhibitions are…not boring…but not as spectacular as spring, fall, and winter exhibitions that coincide with auction and art fair seasons.

As I do with most things, I talked about it…a lot. I talked about the upcoming exhibitions, public art projects, and artworks to friends who I wanted to go with and colleagues whose opinions I valued. I talked and wrote dates down in my calendar and eventually, they opened and I began getting opinions. No one was outright against any of the works but then again, no one was particularly impressed either. I had gone into this hoping for something visceral and interesting. In my mind, the typical gallery-style, white-box aesthetic for displaying art is quickly becoming outdated. I’m over it, the ascetic aesthetics and intimidating space that it creates are passé and potentially harmful to the viewing experience. Personally, I have been very inspired by ground-breaking shows like the immersive “play” Sleep No More, and the widely acclaimed James Turrell and Alexander McQueen exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Met, respectively. Both the latter visual arts exhibitions were some of the most highly attended shows in either venue, ever. And as for theater, I have never heard people talk more about a performance as I have heard people talk about Sleep No More (except maybe Book of Mormon and Hamilton, but those are different formats [musicals] and modern in different ways [i.e. not in presentation]). I am very convinced that this widespread interest is in large part due to the presentation of the shows. At the Guggenheim, James Turrell took over the space for a magnificent, site-specific optical light installation that transformed the rotunda from a white, open, Frank Lloyd Write space to…something else entirely. When you walked into the museum, you encountered a space washed in color and people splayed about everywhere (even lying on the floor, in the middle of the floor, really ALL OVER THE FLOOR, which is not only unusual but not usually even allowed), themselves awash in glowing jewel tones and looking up, enraptured and calm. The colors changed slowly and you became a part of the art and the space. You were not separate, and the art was inclusive and mesmerizing. The McQueen show at the Met also shunned the white cube aesthetic. It took a more theatrical approach to a retrospective about one of the most influential designers of the past several decades and transformed a series of rooms into a Gothic dream. Dark walls and ceilings, aged mirrors, a low wash of light with intense spot lights reminiscent of the runway, and subtle non-verbal music throughout the whole. Once again, as a viewer I was pulled in, my perspective shifted, and I felt like I was being guided in my way of seeing and understanding a subject on which I was frankly quite ignorant. As for Sleep No More, I have yet to actually see it, but I have seen stellar adaptations of it (namely at Cornell directed by a very talented friend), and will not leave NY without seeing it, to be sure. Basically, if you’ve been living under a rock, Sleep No More delicately oversteps the theatrical fourth wall. Set in a series of warehouses in Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen made to look like a dated hotel and based on Macbeth (a personal favorite Shakespeare play), it takes over the entire space. The audience walks through the “hotel,” guided by actors and taking on a pseudo ghostly role. They are free to go to different parts of the space and enter or leave scenes as they choose. There are many stories going on a once and if you find yourself alone in a room you may even physically interact with one of the actors. Talk about visceral, it’s almost too vivid, taking the idea of a Halloween haunted house and building off of it in a most interesting and creative way.

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James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim Museum, photo courtesy of Abby Clark

The significance of exhibitions and performances like these, and the reason that I think they are so important in an internet and social media saturated world, is that people are not allowed to just be spectators but are forced to become participants or what I call “active viewers” (based on a somewhat haphazard understanding or Adorno’s 1938 essay “The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening”). They are not allowed to sit back and passively absorb what they are seeing and hearing – where they run the risk of not being affected by the show or exhibitions they witness. Instead, an environment is created and they are immersed in the activity of viewing, spectating, and imagining the world that the artist is sharing. To my mind, this is the future of the arts and the direction I hope more institutions will move in.

So, you can understand that I had high expectations of public and outdoor artworks that provoke some sort of participation, be it only social media, which is really the quotidian social participation that many people have (not the only, just the daily). However, to my disappointment, the early reviews from my art world peers was lukewarm and rather apathetic. I was told it wasn’t really worth going to see in person because the images that were already flooding my Instagram were more interesting than the actual, physical artwork. What a reversal from the typical art world adage of “you have to see it in person to get the full effect.” However, I still went to a few of the nearby ones…and found myself agreeing. It’s not that the works were bad, they were just boring. Much more interesting in idea than in presentation…which, given my personal definition of a good work of art, must make them bad works of art.

The first artwork I visited was the closest. I went just a few blocks uptown from my gallery to the Metropolitan Museum to see Cornelia Parker’s Transitional Object (Psychobarn) on the Met Roof. This is a difficult space to design an exhibition for, granted, but I have seen spectacular shows there before. This one was…ok. It was an adaptation of the house from Hitchcock’s famous movie Psycho: she had a life-size reproduction of a typical New England style barn strongly influenced by Hitchcock’s horror mansion and Edward Hopper’s paintings. In theory, interesting, in person, not so much. You couldn’t walk up the front stairs, there was no interior, the back was nothing more than the skeletal structure of typical play or film sets. It really had to be explained and in that endeavor didn’t require much wall space. However, it photographed beautifully and I had to weave around the various people taking pictures, group pictures, pictures for friends, and selfies (etc. etc.) in order to get my own pictures. With the ominous sky, my photographs were definitely guaranteed to get me some likes on Instagram. But, I only stayed for the ten minutes it took to do a walk-around, take a few pictures, and read the wall text. I then moved on to other exhibitions within the museum proper and, beyond sorting through and editing my pictures, the exhibition did not stay with me. In fact, I hadn’t thought much more about it until I decided to write this article. That is not a great work of art nor is it a good exhibition. A great art work or exhibition stays with you, you continue to think over the artistic and curatorial choices, and often want to go back. In the best cases, it changes the way you think about something. I often say that, to me, the importance and worth of art is that it provides empathy in a contemporary society where empathy isn’t a high priority. It allows you, helps you, if must be, forces you to see the world, a topic, or yourself through someone else’s eyes. What else does that? In order to survive alone you have to spend most of your time thinking about yourself: feeding yourself, clothing yourself, paying your bills, finding a S.O., interacting with friends. All of this in direct relation to your personal happiness and survival. Art is supposed to make you stop and remember that other people exist and that they look at the world differently and live in different situations than you. It separates you from the solipsistic self-absorption that is our natural state (thanks evolution) and which has been further magnified by the physical solitude and image cultivation of social media.

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Cornelia Parker, Transitional Object (Psychobarn), 2016, image taken by author at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

After this, I was loath to visit the rest of the public exhibitions because I had heard much of the same and they were much farther away. I didn’t even take the time to walk out to Katarina Grosse’s piece Rockaway!, put on by MoMA PS1 at Fort Tilden, when I went to the beach a few weekends ago. I had seen the pictures, been told that was enough, and chose not to take that walk, which is unusual for me. I always want to go see the art and I’m always stopping my friends to take pictures of interesting things and graffiti. That is how disappointed I had been by these so-called “Instagram worthy” exhibitions. I haven’t had the time or strong desire to trek out to Governor’s Island to see the various artworks set up there. I still plan on visiting Mika Tajima’s color changing hot tub at Hunter’s Point in LIC, which has a glowing steam cloud with color fluctuations based on the varying price of gold, but have been dragging my feet.

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Katharina Grosse, Rockaway!, 2016, image courtesy of Lori Camilleri

Now, I know that this can be said for a lot of conceptual art and I personally am not a big fan of that particular art movement. This indifference could be symptomatic of that feeling and I have further said that I don’t like plenty of artwork that I would still classify as good art. But the difference for me between these shows and good conceptual art is that they still don’t make me think. I can understand their meaning after reading a few paragraphs and then easily leave and never think of them again. That is not a successful work of art, be it conceptual or otherwise. Further, the very idea of them being “Instagram worthy” separates them from conceptual art. They are being spoken about for their digital presence, which while not physical per se, is still the virtual remnant of the physical object, which is not the basis of conceptual art. Conceptual art is focused almost entirely on the idea, not the object, so much so that many works of conceptual art never went beyond the written explanation and did not need to because their weight was held in the concept. That was what made you think.

The only work of art that I saw this summer that I truly enjoyed that was described to me as “Instagram worthy” was Martin Creed’s balloon room, “Half the Air in a Given Space,” at his Park Avenue Armory retrospective The Back Door. That room was fun and truly indicative of Martin Creed’s take on art and, having never met him, I’d assume life. It has been my understanding that Creed’s art theory is to not take it too seriously, and in that endeavor, to turn the art world (an institution that all too often takes both itself and the art it presents way too seriously) on its head. I agree with this, art is meant to be thought provoking and cause change, but that doesn’t always have to be terribly serious, sometimes being able to laugh at ourselves is enough change of thought for one day. As for the balloon room, they let in a certain number of people for a certain length of time and you were free to run about the room and act like a five-year-old, which I happily did. I went in about five times, and oddly (though I suspect on purpose) I was given a different rule each time. The first was a very precise and short time limit, the second was not to throw any of the balloons, the third was that I couldn’t bring my bag in (even though I had done this each time before), etc. These rules did not hold up outside each individual session as I only followed the one rule given each time and was never chastised for forgetting the previously established rules. This may have been on purpose by the artist, perhaps he told the attendants to make up a simple and banal rule every so often. Or maybe, like I did when I lifeguarded at a night club, they made up rules as difficulties in the space arose or if something bothered or annoyed them. It’s unclear but fun to think about. And right there is why I liked the balloon room so much more than the other exhibitions. I was pulled into the space, I had fun, and I kept thinking about it and kept going back. I also took some amazing pictures that, yes, are on my Instagram already. But I never said that the two things were mutually exclusive. I want to have my cake and eat it too, thank you very much.

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Martin Creed, “Half the Air in a Given Space,” The Back Door, 2016, image taken by author at The Park Avenue Armory

I am left, however, with the lingering question of what this idea of “Instagram worthy” art means for the greater artistic evolution. If all of the art made previously was meant to be seen in person, is generally agreed to be much better in person, and has a physical presence and effect that a photograph just can’t capture, what does it mean when several works of art erected in the same summer in the same city are almost only described as “Instagram worthy?” I don’t know, I think this is one of those things that can only truly be understood with time, or at least a great deal of research that I am not prepared to make for this blog post. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing though. Like most changes, there will be mistakes and not so interesting products, but there will also be truly interesting and different results. Martin Creed’s balloon room is case in point. While it provides opportunities for fantastic photos and videos and is a social media PR dream, there is so much more to it that you can only experience in person. It both photographs well and must be lived through if you want to get the full experience. Change is good, which is a good thing because it is also inevitable.

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