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Art's big battle: The selfie

Instant self-portraits may make artists trend, but is art playing second fiddle to narcissism?

It was with bitter-sweetness that installation artist Nitant Hirlekar saw the end of this year's edition of Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF). The public-art starved crowds at the festival went gaga over his work, Borders of Grid.

Akshay Utekar and his friends pose against an Eiffel Tower installation at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. Pic/Akshay Utekar
Akshay Utekar and his friends pose against an Eiffel Tower installation at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. Pic/Akshay Utekar

How did they show it? With selfies, selfie-sticks and photo-ops destined to make their way into social media paradise. When KGAF wrapped up, Hirlekar's seven-and-a-half-feet high installation, built on the idea of tesseracts (Marvel and Interstellar fans will know about the cosmic cube-within-a-cube) lay reduced to a pile on the ground. The mob was ecstatic, interacted with it, Instagrammed and hashtagged it, and then, simply walked all over it.

Festival-goers take pictures with Nitant Hirlekar's installation at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival
Festival-goers take pictures with Nitant Hirlekar's installation at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

"Art has become a means for people to take selfies. They no longer want to deliberate on an artwork; art has become an accessory," he says.

The selfie, and the pressure to perform on social media, have spelled absurd and tragic deaths in India, which accounts for 19 out of 49 selfie-related fatalities worldwide since 2014. The city's seafront has inadvertently become a death-by-selfie zone, with enthusiastic teenagers falling prey. The obsession with photos now raises a grim concern with the life span of artworks, especially those in public spaces.

However, by the end of the  week-long fest, his seven-and-a-half-feet high installation, built on the idea of tesseracts, had been torn apart
However, by the end of the week-long fest, his seven-and-a-half-feet high installation, built on the idea of tesseracts, had been torn apart

A different psychology
Hirlekar adds, in a tragic-comic vein, that visitors engaged with his installation even after it was reduced to what looked like a bonfire set-up. People picked up pieces of the tesseracts, used them as frames, and the selfie-games continued, uninterrupted. "They loved it so much that they pounced on it," Hirlekar chuckles.

PM Narendra Modi on a visit to China last year where he was caught touching the terracotta armies of Sin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, at the famous Terracotta Warriors Museum. Subodh Kerkar, installation artist and founder of the Museum of Goa, says a better attitude towards art needs to be inculcated right from school.
PM Narendra Modi on a visit to China last year where he was caught touching the terracotta armies of Sin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, at the famous Terracotta Warriors Museum. Subodh Kerkar, installation artist and founder of the Museum of Goa, says a better attitude towards art needs to be inculcated right from school. Pic/AFP

Could the demand to constantly 'feed' the insatiable appetite of social media mean that the way we interact with art changed? Artists and gallersits who attended art fairs held this year, observe that the number of people who indulge in self-portraiture is absurd. Artist Reena Saini Kallat says with reference to the selfie culture, "What kind of meaningful engagement can be expected from those obsessively taking selfies whose backs are constantly turned towards works of art?" Then there is the story of a gallerist, whose name we will not disclose, who screams at selfie-takers at art fairs. 'Why don't you turn around and look at the work?' is the person's warning in the face of a selfie-fuelled apocalypse of art.

Krsna Mehta
Krsna Mehta

"I do feel that more visitors to public art events look at art from the perspective of a selfie," says Tarana Khubchandani, the visual arts curator for KGAF. She recalls a couple of visitors who were overheard approving of KGAF because "there are lots of places here to take photographs". "There was an organic designation of selfie zones at the festival. The social message that comes with visual arts at KGAF gets sidetracked in this process," she says. In the last few years, the rise of good phone-cameras, especially the front-facing cameras (which have the designated task of capturing selfies) has equipped the trend.

Designer Krsna Mehta illustrates the downside to selfie-dom with this photo-collage. A broken down installation of obseliks, but selfie-takers carry on. PIC/Krsna Mehta
Designer Krsna Mehta illustrates the downside to selfie-dom with this photo-collage. A broken down installation of obseliks, but selfie-takers carry on. Pic/Krsna Mehta

Public versus intimate
Public art installations are the first to get hit by selfie-crazed mobs. The situation is better controlled in galleries and museums, where there is more scrutiny and streamlining of visitors. Last year, the New York Times reported how the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for instance, politely dissuade the use of the "wand of narcissism" (the poetic epithet to the monopod that is the selfie stick), citing invasion into other visitors' personal space, damage to exhibits, and potentially falling from balconies and stairs. Selfie sticks belong in the great outdoors, is the general consensus among museums.

But the likes of Hirlekar, who found people prodding about his installation with their selfie-wands, will not agree. Kanika Bawa, who recently made it into the Limca Records for her installation art, found similar enthusiasts. Her Kismat Konnection (a towering chair with Kathakali elements) was meant to be interactive, an installation with Kolhapuri chappals was not. Apart from ruing over vandalism (read missing LED lights and digtal equipment), she found eager visitors fiddling with the installations in the name of taking photos. Another installation, outside Churchgate station, the Art Yogi placed on a podium, found better treatment, with security guard monitoring it.

Brownie points
Bawa however feels that social media and selfies are double-edged swords. "It is a thrill to see people share your work and hashtag it. It has a positive vibe," she says.

The Mumbai police announced "no-selfie" spots in the city last week. Should the art world follow suit, then and keep public art off limits? Bawa suggests that exhibition and fair organisers need to keep in mind the selfie-happy crowds and incorporate that into the layout. Kallat feels that public art however, should at the end of the day, remain accessible. Barricading them defeats the purpose.

Subodh Kerkar, founder of the Museum of Goa, suggests that a culture of respect for art be inculcated right from school where kids are taken on visits to art spaces. "But look at our behaviour," he begins, alluding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's moment in China in May 2015. Sporting sunglasses, Modi was caught touching the third century BCE standing armies at the Terracotta Warriors Museum. "We don't have the culture of understanding art," he says.

Designer Krsna Mehta Instagrams regularly, and loves selfies with his works. "The trend with selfies is not just in Mumbai. Everywhere, be it Hong Kong or Seoul, the pressure to post, and engage with social media is there," he says. Stating that artists need to design with responsibility, and use sturdier material. But Mehta is far from threatened by the selfie.

"It is a way for people to state 'been there, done that', and, when shared on the Web, it generates more eyeballs. It is especially great for emerging artists who exhibit at fairs and want to get the word out."

However, Khubchandani is quick to note a difference. "That the selfie with artwork is a great promotional tool is not true. A selfie is about the person; not about the art in the background," she says.

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