The selfie is perhaps one of the most universal phenomenon’s, simultaneously championed and condemned for its accessibility. Encompassing associations ranging from ‘a bit of fun’ to fuelling the so-called generation of ‘narcissistic millennials’, it is undoubtedly perceived as both a blessing and a curse to our current society. Curated by Nigel Hurst and Charles Saatchi, ‘From Selfie to Self-expression’ explores the history of the selfie, comprising of the gimmicky, the skilled, and works that would cause those to ponder the very activity itself.
Interactivity is intrinsic to the display, simulating the thoughts and feelings behind taking and viewing selfies. Bridging a connection between the old masters and the ordinary people, portraits by renowned artists were posted onto Instagram and displayed on screens throughout the space, with the option for the public to press ‘like’ as they would on social media. This combination of traditional visuals with contemporary ideals results in a unique displacement between the singularity of a painting and the widespread nature of social media, dismantling the elitist system that lay inherent within their artistic period. This contextual combination addresses the question as to whether (acknowledging the role of intention within art) portraits and selfies are synonymous in their aesthetic value, a nod to one of the most profound philosophical questions, ‘What is Art?’
Interactivity also takes hold in the form of many selfie opportunities, which feature frequently during the exhibition. For the art lovers, there are a quirky set of mirrors that result in a doubled effect, and for the gimmick lovers, a video screen fitted with filters that appear to pay homage to snapchat. By literally embodying the process of taking selfies within the exhibition, visitors can gather internal and external perspectives of the activity.
From the ‘Oscar selfie’ to a sea of selfies around the world, and even a selfie from outer space, for better or for worse, it becomes apparent through the display that the selfie has become a pandemic, striking those in its expanding path with the insatiable desire to participate in the trend to document, and acquire the feel-good factor that follows from it.
The ease and satisfactory nature of capturing oneself through the photographic medium can lend itself to that of a visual diary, highlighting its ability to express rich information and visual intrigue through simple documentation. This is demonstrated by the inclusion of Juan Pablo Echeverri, who took a passport photo of himself every day. Working upon a timeline enables the viewer to observe any sense of transition exhibited by the person, suggesting that the selfie can hold importance and result in an interest and connection with the person depicted.
Much against the popular belief that the selfie is purely a form of documentation, the display additionally integrates works that contrastingly involve creativity. In putting your best self forward, the selfie aligns itself with performance art, becoming an appropriate vehicle for representation within the digital age. Capturing herself clutching shopping bags while pouting in an elevator mirror, and posing in expensive lingerie, Amalia Ulman exemplifies this performative potential in her reality distorting series, ‘Excellences and Perfections’ (2014). Parodying feminine stereotypes, Ulman took to Instagram to stage herself as the stereotypical woman, convincingly enough, that it was initially believed to be genuine. In lying so close to reality, Ulman commentates on the nature of the selfie; is what we put forward on social media selectively performed and curated by ourselves? Is there any hint of truth behind our posts and what can it truly tell us about somebody?
Perhaps more blatantly performative is Juno Calypso’s ‘The HoneyMoon Suite’ (2015), in which Calypso utilises elements of self-presentation to enable the viewer to step into her eerily beautiful constructed bubble of femininity. Portrayed by her character Joyce, a woman is depicted both dressed and undressed emerging from a pastel pink heart shaped bath tub, captivated by her multiplied reflection in a hall of mirrors. The presence of a mirror has been integral to the selfie, enabling the individual to capture themselves from a multitude of angles. Whilst seemingly admiring herself, Joyce’s contorted facial expressions and jittery movements hint at a sense of unease, as though she is scrutinizing herself for any visible imperfections. Embodying a sense of ambiguity, it is somewhat difficult to decipher whether Joyce is on a path to loving herself or a pursuit towards unattainable perfection. We may ask, is there a limit to selfies, and if exceeded, will an act of healthy self -love spiral into a destructive path of self-obsession? How do we know when to stop?
Addressing the fun to the downright thought provoking, ‘From Selfie to Self-expression’ debunks the misconception that the activity is purely a mind-numbing search for attention, proposing it as a medium with creative potential, possessing components that have existed within self-portraiture from the 16th century onwards. With it now having a purpose within the art world and being virtually accessible to everybody, how may it change the nature and our perception of the arts?
‘From Selfie to Self-expression’ can be seen at the Saatchi Gallery until 30th May 2017
Text: Libby Festorazzi