Leonardo had his paintbrushes, Michelangelo, a chisel (or 25), and today’s artists have their smartphones.
Or so suggests the Saatchi Gallery in London, England. Its new exhibit, From Selfie to Self-Expression (from March 31 to May 30, free) is the first of its kind to contextualize how the selfie, which is often derided as being inane (not to mention, vain), can be positioned within the world of fine art.
“For the last five centuries, humans have had this compulsion to create images of themselves and share them; the only thing that has changed is the way that we do it,” Nigel Hurst, CEO of the Saatchi Gallery and curator of the exhibition, recently told Time. “Selfies are easily the most expansionist form of visual communication that any of us have experienced for generations, which makes them noteworthy in their own right. We can’t ignore them as a cultural institution.”
Especially considering that at least a million selfies are taken on any given day.
The exhibit, which is spread throughout 10 rooms across two floors, covers 500 years of humankind’s fascination with examining the self. There are digital facsimiles of painted self-portraits by the likes of Rembrandt and Velásquez to Lucien Freud and Basquiat. There are celebrity selfies by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise, and those of the viral variety, like Ellen Degeneres’ from the 2014 Academy Awards, which garnered more than 2.3-million likes on Twitter.
And there are selfies that come courtesy of a competition: The gallery invited the public to send in their own shots. Just 10 selfies were chosen from more than 14,000 entries from 113 different countries and are showcased in the exhibit.
The gallery also commissioned 10 contemporary British artists to create works using Huawei’s new P10 dual lens smartphone, including Chris Levine, who is perhaps best known for the now-iconic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with her eyes closed. Levine likened the phone’s eight-megapixel Leica front camera and back Leica Dual Camera to having an entire photo studio in your back pocket.
The exhibit also tackles the darker, sometimes isolating, side of technology: The Zoom Pavilion (below), an installation by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, features 12 surveillance cameras that eerily display the movements and interactions of those who enter the space in black and white on the gallery walls.
Christopher Bakers’ Hello World or: How I learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise (below) is an immersive experience in which the viewer is surrounded by more than 5,000 confessional video clips gathered from websites like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. “The project is a meditation on the contemporary plight of democratic, participative media and the fundamental human desire to be heard,” the artist says.
The effect is powerful: Thousands of voices collapse into a stadium-like soundtrack of background noise. It’s an overwhelming amount of information, but just below the rumble, a simple notion gurgles: that many get lost while trying to find connections in the void that can be the World Wide Web.
New York-based artist Daniel Rozen provides two works to the exhibit that require viewer participation. His Mirror No. 12 uses a small camera and custom software to “sketch” portraits of the gallery-goer as they stand in front of the piece.
And the Pom Pom Mirror (below, at left), composed of 928 faux-fur puffs and 464 motors, tracks the viewer’s movements and in real time recreates their silhouette into an anthropomorphic, ghostly image.
There’s plenty to ruminate on—right from the beginning, in fact, when gallery-goers are confronted with a wall-size digitization of Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas (above, at right).
The 17th-century painter inserted his own self-portrait among members of the Spanish royal family. Narcissistic? Maybe. But it’s a pretty effective way to enter into history. After all, artists have long inserted themselves into biblical and mythical scenes. Raphael included his own likeness amongst some of the greatest minds of Western Civilization in The School of Athens; Caravaggio was “present” in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, as was Botticelli in the Adoration of the Magi. It’s the equivalent, perhaps, of scratching your name into a park bench or onto the base of a column belonging to the ancient Greek Temple of Poseidon, as Lord Byron did some 200 years ago.
And it’s not entirely dissimilar to the way we snap selfies with beautiful locations as backdrops—in historical places, meaningful places—as if to say, “I was here.”
From Selfie to Self-Expression, which is free, runs until the end of May at the Saatchi Gallery.