Art Lovers, Halt!
On October 21st, 2017, The Broad opened Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, a special exhibition featured six of the acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama’s kaleidoscopic installations. How do I know this since I don't live in LA? I have seen countless selfies of friends, friends of friends, and PR professionals skillfully posing within the exhibition just as thousands of others have done in another of Kusama’s ‘Insta-famous’ rooms, Dots Obsession: Love Transformed into Dots. Instagram—which currently has over 800 million users— has changed the power dynamics of human interactions. As people can share their photos, videos and Instagram stories with their friends and strangers across the world in real time, they can build and assert their online identities. When this involves taking selfies in an art installation, it can give viewers the false sense of being part of an experience, even if they are thousands of miles away.
The ease of sharing and ‘quick bite’ consumability should make Instagram the art world's best friend, but does it really? Does going to an exhibition and Instagramming the entire time count as experiencing it in the way that the gallery or, more importantly, the artist intended the work to be seen?
As top museums, such as The Museum of Modern Art and The Louvre, and leading galleries use Instagram to connect with their audience, they post images, videos and other online content that alter the importance of actually seeing the work in person. Museums and galleries risk the biggest draw becoming not the work, but the proof via selfie that you’ve been there. Instead of encouraging curiosity and a desire to experience things in person, social media usurps the power of the art.
I have never seen a Yayoi Kusama exhibition in real life; nonetheless, I’ve been familiar with her work ever since Facebook introduced me to the paper-dot filled obliteration room (the full exhibition was entitled Yayoi Kusama: Give Me Love) when it came to New York City’s David Zwirner Gallery in 2015. By then, Instagram already had a firm footing in our online lives. The over-saturation of selfies in galleries, one’s where you are so distracted that it becomes hard to focus on the art, makes me wonder if the around-the-block lines outside the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea are indicative of people's love for Kusama's work, or the desire to get a perfect picture in the midst of it.
Mixing taking a selfie with actually trying to appreciate art turns out to be a lousy idea. That’s what Linda A. Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University found in her 2013 study, “The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour,” which revealed what happens in your brain when you try to do two things at once. In the study, participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum. They were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. The results showed that when participants took photos, they remembered significantly fewer details about each object (including the location of the object in the museum).
When I interviewed Professor Henkel, she went on to say that the second it takes to fire up a Boomerang video can be enough to cause your attention to waver away from what you’re ostensibly trying to appreciate: "We are using our energies to collect our ‘trophies’ to show each other, thinking about how we look in selfies and what sort of responses we might get when we post, which results in not paying full attention to the scenes in front of our own eyes.” So much for multitasking!
An alternate perspective is that Kusama’s work is actually designed to draw your phone out of your pocket. By doing so, you may just be fulfilling the intention of the piece. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith criticized Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors which was exhibited last year at the Hirshhorn for being “too in step with our narcissistic times.” But it’s all part of the #yayoikusama experience, which has taken cities including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York and other cities by storm.
Peg Streep, a New York-based author of twelve books and blogger at PsychologyToday.com, believes that social media is not only diverting our attention, but also deflating our expectations for moments that haven’t even happened yet. When she recently went to the Dale Chihuly show at the New York Botanical Garden, her attempt to do something out of the ordinary backfired.
“I didn’t know many people who went to the Chihuly show, so it seemed fresh to me. As it happens, friends of mine went right around the time I did and their photos followed mine on Facebook. Social media has impacted the way in which art and exhibitions are unveiled for the first time, and not necessarily in a positive way. Instead of creating the expected FOMO reaction, Instagram enforces the ‘been there, done that’ effect.”
An art lover who actively seeks out new exhibitions, Streep is planning a visit to the Infinity Rooms strategically. “Timed exhibitions,” or exhibits that limit the amount of time a person can stay inside are, she says, “nothing new, but social media has made this rule a bigger pain than ever as people are wrestling each other to get the perfect selfie. I want to spend my time in the Infinity Room looking at the art!”
A few museums have already taken a firm stance on selfie-taking, and more can’t be far behind. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has declared that photography is only allowed in designated areas where no artwork is on show, such as the central atrium. They reason that allowing photos to be taken next to Van Gogh’s masterpieces causes too much distraction for the museum-goers who are there to actually see the art. The National Gallery, The Getty Center, The Dallas Museum of Art, The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, The Smithsonian and The Metropolitan Museum of Art are still figuring out what to do about our obsession with taking pictures. While issues have come up with the popularity of the selfie stick, none of these institutions have instituted a full ban on photos so far.
Will we one day live in a world where we are forced to put our phones down at the door and enjoy art for arts’ sake? It seems unlikely, but the dialogue has begun. Besides, distraction can be destructive and expensive. Just consider the Kusama pumpkin, that was allegedly crushed by someone trying to take a selfie at the Hirshhorn Museum last year. It better have been a great shot.
Did You Know?
#InfiniteKusama reached 91 million Twitter and Instagram accounts, with 330 million impressions. (source)
As of print time, Instagram users posted 34,000 images of the Infinity Mirrors exhibition. (source)
Nearly 100 visitors with mobility constraints were able to use virtual-reality (VR) headsets to experience VR versions of the rooms, part of Hirshhorn’s commitment to radical accessibility. (source)
A four-foot-high sculpture of one of her polka-dotted gourds went for $784,485 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2015. (source)
Wanna Dig Deeper?
Association for Psychological Science: No Pictures, Please: Taking Photos May Impede Memory of Museum Tour
Psychology Today: Tech Support by Peg Streep
Background, Context & Reference
Sage Journals: Point-and-Shoot Memories by Linda A. Henkel
NY Times: Into the Land of Polka Dots and Mirrors, With Yayoi Kusama by Roberta Smith
Apollo Magazine: To Shoot or Not to Shoot: Photography in Galleries by Estella Shardlow
Condé Nast: 13 Landmarks That Have Banned Selfies
Hyperallergic: Museumgoer Breaks a Kusama Pumpkin, Allegedly in Pursuit of a Selfie by Claire Voon
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