Here comes the Museum of Selfies to stoke your Instagram-art obsession
Your sister's friend's duckface selfie might not compare to the Mona Lisa on first glance (or at all), but a new experiential museum is challenging that notion.
The Museum of Selfies, opening in January in a Los Angeles suburb, purports to raise — if not answer — lofty questions like "is the selfie art?" or "why do we disdain selfies?"
Along with art inspired by selfie culture that's designed to educate comes photo ops and interactive spaces built for Instagram. As much as this museum is about meditating on the roles selfies play in our lives, it also feeds into a larger trend hitting cities across the world: spaces like the Museum of Ice Cream and Happy Place specially made for social media. Even before we were all taking pictures in sprinkle pools and confetti rooms, we were using Jeff Koons' balloon dogs to capture our reflections in the perfect pic. This is how we interact with art now.
The museum cofounders, who are also escape room designers, know this and wanted to play off our new reality.
"We definitely want people to laugh or be surprised by the entire exhibit," said cofounder Tommy Honton. "So we have the visual humor where people walk up, and they engage with the space. And we're hoping they laugh, or they're surprised, or are amused, and that they can't help but want to take a picture with it."
You'll see photo ops inspired by selfie tropes like food and mirror-bathroom pics. There's also an Iron Throne made out of selfie sticks. Ok then.
This isn't the first art installation dedicated to the selfie phenomenon. Like others, the Museum of Selfies democratizes or degrades (depending how you see it) both art, and the the concept of a museum itself.
With the ubiquity of smartphones, the flutter of appreciation you feel when encountering a work that shakes you is dying as we broadcast our sepia-filtered sophistication and good looks on Instagram. Whether the Museum of Selfies will be able to offer meaningful commentary on this phenomenon remains to be seen. But what better way to acknowledge a fundamental shift in our interactions with art than with a little meta-self-reflection.
Presenting the Museum of Selfies
Through the exhibit, cofounders Honton and Tair Mamedov want to make the art world accessible by connecting the selfie with the legacy of portraiture.
"People know selfies, people know the word, and they do it," Honton said. "So the hope is that when they come in and see, oh wait, people have been depicting themselves for a lot longer than I realized, they can start feeling that art and history is a little more open than it seems."
They liken selfies to cave-man drawings, Renaissance portraits, and self-portraiture, and also want to tell the story of the technological and artistic convergence that made selfies in their current form materialize.
The museum's origin story is also fitting for a space that aims to collapse artistic elitism and populism: It's independently funded and has no connections to artistic institutions.
Honton and Mamedov have commissioned new works from independent and international artists. There will be a "narcissist" installation that examines the selfie's role in people's lives, such as how many people have died taking selfies. Expect a Guinness World Record stunt, the details of which the museum has yet to reveal, too.
While many museums and world heritage sites have banned selfie sticks, the Museum of Selfies welcomes them.
"The relationship between people and art has changed," Mamedov said. "Now people don't want to just be a silent consumer, they want to be a part of the art. There are many more selfies with the Mona Lisa than actual Mona Lisas."
The Museum of Selfies is the latest (and perhaps most self-conscious) manifestation of "Art in the Age of Instagram," as Jia Jia Fei, director of digital at the Jewish Museum of New York, calls it in her TED talk on the phenomenon; or the "Made-For-Instagram Museum," a term coined by Wired.
There has been a proliferation of pieces, commissions, and spaces that blur the line between art and backdrop.
This phenomenon has a range of manifestations, from using a work of art as the background for a selfie (an Ellsworth Kelly, for example, makes for a particularly vibrant tableau), to a three-dimensional space specifically designed for your feed. (According to Wired, the head of Los Angeles' "Color Factory" chose lighting that looks better in iPhone photos than it does in person).
Pieces like Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror rooms and James Turrell's "Breathing Light," once art for art's sake are now art for "pics or it didn't happen." The work of these respected artists, which they've been pursuing for decades, has gained popularity in the last few years because of social media.
There are over 100,000 photos tagged with the Infinity Room on Instagram and 84,000 tagged with James Turrell. "Breathing Light" looked an awful lot like the set of a Drake music video.
Another example is the famed Rain Room, which actually started as a commission for Restoration Hardware and is now a part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's permanent collection. The work's retail roots show that corporations are in tune with our desire to photograph ourselves with art and have the ability to capitalize on that predilection. Refinery29's 29Rooms pop-up exhibit featured a sponsored installation by Toyota.
Whole experiential spaces like 29 Rooms fall into this, too. They may call themselves museums and some like the 14th Factory have the veneer of art, but let's be real, they're photo ops. They capitalize on our desires for the perfect selfie backdrop. That's not necessarily a bad thing, they provide experiences consumers want, but let's call a spade a spade.
Even the Museum of Selfies, which wants to encourage some selfie reflection, may find visitors are just there for Insta pics, not the lesson.
Beyond the fact that photos like those taken in Infinity Rooms and other Instagram-friendly art locales look really awesome (if not repetitive en masse), they simply make you look cool. The impulse to take a photo when presented with a mirror, a stunning location, or the cultural clout of a museum is understandable.
But through mass-depiction on social media, the art loses its ability to startle, and becomes a prop, an accessory. There is no ideal, high-brow museum "experience" everyone should aspire to. But one wonders whether capturing the perfect photo in a museum (selfie or otherwise) precludes visitors from feeling that something that occurs when marveling at an almost alive Michelangelo sculpture, a hypnotic, emotive Rothko masterpiece, an expanse of canvas covered in blues and grays, the massive randomness of which makes you tingle with anxiety and awe.
It's undeniable that social media photography fundamentally changes how we interact with art. But whether this change is for the worse, better, or just different, is in the eye of the beholder (and their followers).
So let the Museum of Selfies chronicle that phenomenon, sure. But please, let's not glorify or prolong it. Sometimes the best way to see art is just that: to see it, to feel it, and then to move on.
The Museum of Selfies will be located at 211 N. Brand Boulevard in Glendale, CA. Tickets cost $25, but the exact opening date in January has yet to be announced. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/TheMuseumofSelfies.