Instagrammable art: does it enhance or detract from the gallery experience?

Quiet and serene. You are swallowed up by a room made entirely of mirrors. Mottled white and red amorphous drops litter the ground, giving the illusion that you are among a bountiful field of phallic mushrooms. Reflective surfaces echo your own astonished expression. You are completely alone, but surrounded by a multitude of me. You grab your phone and take a picture; in this regard, you are not alone. You are one of the million people who photographed and posted a quick self-portrait in one of Yayoi Kusama’s mirror rooms.

Attracting thousands of visitors to galleries around the world, Kusama’s famous “Mirror Rooms” epitomize dialogical art – art that engages its viewers in conversation, often through direct participation. Hoping to democratize art and attract a wider audience, galleries have turned to social media exposure. With viral posts attracting many gallery visitors, it’s unclear whether the strategy promotes engagement with the wider art world or simply encourages fun photos.

The demand for art that dissolved the barrier between artwork and viewer emerged in the middle of the 20th century. Participatory art and installation have responded to this call, allowing the public to become co-authors and collaborators. At Yoko Ono’s cut piece (1964) – which invited viewers to cut pieces of Ono’s outfit as she sat – and that of Marcel Duchamp mile of string (1942) are early examples of works that prioritized viewer experience and engagement in their presentation. Since then, the movement has inspired

more modern immersive works, those which gain their success thanks to their photogenicity.

This is more recently evident in exhibits like Van Gogh Living, which has flooded social media since the installation began touring cities around the world in 2020. Cavernous rooms were adorned with projections of Vincent van Gogh’s finest works of art, but they were confined to twenty-four-hour articles and Instagram feeds. Installation of James Turrell in 2013 Reign of Aten illuminated the floors of New York’s iconic Guggenheim, bathing the building in bold hues. He asked that no photos be taken as it would detract from the experience, but despite this, the hashtag “#atenreign” has over 500 posts attributed to it.

With the art world infiltrating social media, we are left to wonder if these captivating pieces create meaningful dialogue or simply decorate Instagram feeds. To better understand the democratization of art and the role of platforms in education, Honi spoke with artist and Sydney College of the Arts lecturer, Dr Alex Gawronski.

Gawronski described social media’s relationship with art as inescapable: “It’s largely related to things like promotion, it’s related to information – which is basically just providing information about things, which I think is a very different thing [to education],” he said.

Gawronski emphasized the distinction between the availability of information as opposed to the act of educating. “I think in terms of democratization, it comes down to education and curiosity,” Gawronski said.

“I think the trend within Australian culture is to want to disinterest [students] – contemporary art in particular as pretentious is truly culturally inscribed.

“It’s a great way to access certain things, but education is a very active space, it’s a two-way and multiple type of communication. It is not information. Information is one-way.

He also pointed out that the immediate visual appeal of a work of art dictates most of its engagement. As a result, the concept of Instagrammable exhibits has shaped curatorial practices in response.

“What’s most vibrant or prettiest is probably going to get a lot more attention than things that don’t ‘look like art’, right?”

“I think going to see the work in person is a very different thing depending on the job. I think the trend will always be [choose] things that read well in two dimensions.

Briefly discussing the type of art that social media tends to foster, Gawronski explained that “if you work in more subtle areas [ways]if you work more [in] conceptual ways where it’s quasi-visual, I mean, Instagram doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of platform because the focus isn’t really on the visual.

However, Gawronski was also careful to highlight the positive element of social media for artists. “It’s very easy to find out what’s going on,” he says, adding “it’s good for the institution. This gives a lot of visibility, more visibility to the artists.

Yet this desire for exhibition emphasizes the aesthetic rather than the conceptual quality of the art. Alluring works of art, digitized and shared, may attract people to the gallery, but what makes them stay? By celebrating what is beautiful at first sight, we can overlook what takes a little longer to appreciate. Nevertheless, I think it’s time we revered art for all its qualities, photogenic or not.

Christopher S. Washington