What makes us visit galleries and museums? Is it the very personal pleasurable gain through enjoying the artworks, or is it the social recognition that we try to obtain by taking and posting selfies in the cultural context online? On International Museum Day, when many world museums and galleries open their doors to the public for free, thousands of people rush through the exhibitions with cameras memorizing their encounters with the art. There is no time to take a better look, breathe in, and reflect!
In Jakarta, Indonesia, I have even witnessed visitors walking through the galleries with their mobile phones recording the whole experience of looking around. Is it reporting live on Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat? Or is that postponing the pleasure for later viewing? Do we not have time to stop and enjoy the art? Why do we have time to stop in front of the painting and pose for selfies? Why do we have time to retake the photograph, in case our firstly shot facial expression didn’t turn out the way we wanted? Does this kind of behavior raise our social profile of supposed art lovers or art connoisseurs?
You might think this proof of our tragic sadness ends here. But what I witnessed at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia, on the day when museums should be celebrated, was a true escalation of art raping for the sake of our egoistic need for public attention. Even if this surely is not a single example, I was genuinely shocked.
Hunger for likes
Evelyn Huang and Shila Ghaisani have curated 15 young Jakarta artists who have previously participated at EXI(S)T, the mentoring program affirming their presence in the Indonesian art landscape, by showcasing their latest works under the umbrella theme of “Tomorrow As We Know It”. Fransisca Retno was one of these perspective artistic forces; at Galeri Nasional Indonesia she exhibited a very self-explanatory work. The table was set, as for some dinner, with flower arrangement and a bottle of wine. Yet, in the plates – Instagram photos of the food were served. How do you like your dinner? Actually, the dinner with the Instagram menu can only be loved, not liked; this social network recognizes and counts only hearts! On the walls of the gallery more Instagram photos with numbered hearts decorated the dining room.
Fransisca Retno literally served Instagram likes as dinner, and this clueless visitor greedily jumped on the hook
The two young girls visiting the gallery on the free-visits day understood they were invited to join this dinner. Even if there was only a chair at the head of the table, even if there were “do not cross” demarcation lines on the floor, one of these two girls decided to, literally, cross the line. She concluded that the chair is meant for her to sit on, and take selfies. So she sat and posed like that in front of her friend’s camera. For probably the same heart-shaped signs of appreciation which Fransisca Retno has served as the main course.
Selfies in interaction with the art
I know, interaction with the art might be the response the artist could have only hoped for. However, there is something substantially wrong when one decides to appropriate the decision about the interaction, without the consent or invitation by the author. These two young art-in-social-media lovers entered the next room and lowered the bar of politeness even more.
Ratu R. Saraswati‘s work was named “I Beg I Promise”. The durational performance in which the artist wanted to translate the feeling of burden, self-punishment, helplessness, and hope, left on the floor of the gallery three jute sacks, shredded kapok, and a dress on a hanger. The interactive girl picked up the hanger with the dress as if being in a self-service supermarket. She took off, running over the jute sacks, trying to get the dress fly as if it was a kite, while her camera-operating friend was shooting the scene. They repeated the jogging over the artwork several times so that they could choose the best moment later. They were not even slightly disturbed by the presence of my clicking camera. I guess they were thinking “the more, the merrier”? One could never overdo the internet fame?
Selfies out of control
To appreciate the art, one needs to look at it from an appropriate distance. Entering the artwork’s space doesn’t allow us to perceive the context. And the context in which these two girls readily jumped in was very clear. The artist even wrote it on the wall if they would have wanted to read it: our beliefs in the existence of sin, guilt and shame affect our seeing of the self-image. Those feelings can influence our ability to stop actions that are contrary to the moral and civilized, explained Saraswati.
The thing is that our selfies-driven interaction with the art that never asked us for such a response doesn’t only make us look stupid. It actually confirms we are. Otherwise, we would do the wrong thing and hide the evidence, and not promote it on social media.
Lines should not be crossed
Monica Hapsari‘s work “Antara” was also provoking the interaction (when using the word ‘provoke’, we should immediately remind ourselves of the rapists defending their actions with arguments of how the raped girl dressed provocatively). The big black sphere was rotating on the top of the pyramid, placed in the corner of the room. The rectangular carpet of sand was covering the floor, with concentrating circles drawn in the sand. Probably the first visitor’s foot that crossed the line invited others to follow in his/her footsteps. The sand rings were now only looming. The interactive girl stepped courageously from sandless to a sandfull area, put her sunglasses on, sat down, and posed as if she was on the beach.
We can witness this kind of brainless behavior invading many world museums and galleries, or cultural spaces in general. Art is becoming merely a decorative background of the truly remarkable content: our own image. If we didn’t record ourselves, our selfies, in front of the “Mona Lisa”, it is as if we have never been in front of it! Likes and loves and pins approve our existence; they comfort our experiences. Without our selfies, we are not ourselves.
Selfies in the shadow of small and busy personnel
I was curious about Galeri Nasional’s intentions for this exhibition – was I missing something? These were clearly not the only visitors crossing the lines of artwork and good manners. The only official person working in this part of the complex was a young man at the entrance who was making sure that all visitors leave their bags there.
“No, it is not allowed to touch those artworks”, he answered my question and added: “I think.” The instructions on how to treat the art are not clear even to the gallery’s employees! “There had to be another colleague of mine here, but he couldn’t come today…”, the young man started to apologize, as if I was trying to find the guilty person. I stopped his excuse delivering and explained how I only wish to understand the gallery’s policy, which results in the actions I find shocking.
What is the purpose of NOT being allowed to take your bag in the gallery? If on the other hand you can walk over the artwork, jump on it, dance with it, handle it in any way you can think of?
Counterproductive restrictions of the old age
Obviously, many galleries have completely outdated restrictions. I am telling you: what is the purpose of NOT being allowed to take your bag inside? If on the other hand you can walk over the artwork, jump on it, dance with it, handle it in any way you can think of? The dress from Saraswati’s work you could even put on and leave the gallery dressed in the art piece! But bags are being demonized?! What is the purpose of the restriction for not using flash photography in the gallery, if all other kinds of photographing are allowed?!
It seems to me as if the restrictions we blindly follow were once printed on the entrance doors of our institutions, and now we actually believe that bringing a bag, French fries, or an ice cream inside the gallery are the most probable ways of making the damage? Damage is always the product of unavoidable circumstances or human behavior. This means we should be applying common sense, and instead of requesting our rare personnel to guard the visitors’ bags, relocate them to sit in the galleries and secure the artworks from ever-growing social media aggression, led by selfies.
Flood in the shadow of the selfies
Finally, I would like to add that it was me who first noticed the big puddle of water in between the artworks on the first floor and informed the staff. The broken air conditioning system created the little lake two meters wide, without any personnel noticing it. I guess they were all occupied by protecting the artworks from the dangerous attacks of bags and purses.