Part of running Cotton On MCR means trawling through Instagram and seeing what’s new; new artists, new exhibitions, new galleries etc. And when I’m visiting galleries, I’m on my phone, getting content for the feed and stories on Insta. However, should I really be doing this? Should exhibitions be kept under-wraps, sacred for those that actually get up off their ass and go and see it. The best ever gallery and art experience I had was when phones were strictly prohibited and there were limited images available online. That secrecy made a massive difference. So would gallery visits be more of an experience if we didn’t know what we were about to see? If everything was new? Should phones, be allowed in galleries and should work be shared on social media?
Our phones are obviously extremely important, I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t use my phone pretty much all through the day for one thing or another. I know everything I say negatively in this article about using phones in galleries will show that I am a massive hypocrite, because of course I use my phone in a gallery. But every time I think about it, and everything I want to say about the use of phones in galleries, is negative.
One of my worst experiences in a gallery was when I went to see ‘Life in the Heart of a Rainbow’ by Yayoi Kusama in Singapore. I was so excited to see her work and her infinity rooms, I was buzzing when I found out the exhibition was on at the same time I was there!
The National Gallery of Singapore was rammo’d. There were so many people, we had to queue in a waiting line to see the work and enter the infinity rooms. There was a sign up that said ’20 seconds per room’. The gallery assistant even said to me – “Take your photograph and go. Thank you.”
You’d think I had done something wrong! That I’d pissed someone off. You had 20 seconds to view the work, and just enough time to take a photograph. In and out, bish bash bosh. It’s not only gross that we were restricted to such a tiny time, but the fact that they know all you are going to do in that time is take a photo. What about the time to really experience the art, to take it all in, to see it from different angles, to talk about it with your peers? None of that. That’s not allowed. Take your photo and bugger off.
It occurred to us that no-one was looking at any of Yayoi Kusama’s paintings or her sculptures. Instead, they passed through these spaces checking how the photograph from the infinity room looked and uploading it to Instagram. It felt like there were only a handful of us that wanted to actually delve into the artist’s work and not just have photos to boost our Instagram following.
It reminds me of the fiasco that is the Mona Lisa at The Lourve – we’ve all seen the images and videos of this palarver! I’m not even going to elaborate on that anymore, as it is just ridiculous! I’ve been there, I know!
On the flip side of that, I mentioned before how the best ever gallery I have been to doesn’t allow phones at all! Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan, this place is known as an art island. There are tons of galleries and public art placed around the island, with some of the galleries being purpose-built for the installations and the work, rather than the work fitting into a gallery already built. The below image shows how this art gallery was built into the landscape. It’s fricking awesome! I had heard of the island when researching what we wanted to do before we went to Japan, but I didn’t know anything about the gallery itself and it’s exhibitions. Phone are strictly prohibited, which really helps in keeping the wonders of this gallery a secret. You will not experience the work in this gallery the same way, if you already know what to expect. Without blabbering on about it too much, at every turn their was a surprise, something new, something utterly beautiful and amazing. The whole experience overwhelmed me, to the point of welling up. It was a moment I will never forget. And I literally had no idea what I was going into, what work was in there, because there is hardly anything online.
There are a ton of articles about people being injured, or damaging art when trying to take a selfie. Luckily, I don’t think anything has happened here in Manchester, but there is still time. Most galleries now have to allow phones, as it has been said that it ‘was a constant battle for assistants trying to stop people from taking pictures’. Manchester Art Gallery says:
‘We are committed to allowing photography for personal and social media use. We only ask that visitors don’t take a photograph if it is a lenders explicit wish. There will be clear signs indicating this whenever that is the case.’
They still do not allow tri-pods and selfie sticks – I’m so glad selfie sticks seem to be going out of fashion now. But it’s funny that they do add the term ‘for social media’ in their policy. At the end of the day, social media is a god-send for organisations, constant free advertising! Would people be going to these exhibitions if Instagram didn’t exist? I mean, Cotton On MCR would be so much harder to do without Instagram. It’s a great way of getting your message out there with a pretty picture. I know that they constantly change and update Instagram and make it harder for people’s content to be seen. But even if Instagram dies, they’ll be another social media channel just like it round the corner.
Not only are galleries allowing phones and photography now, there are galleries and exhibitions that encourage the use of phones. There are many galleries dotted around the world that are made for Insta, all those ‘sweet’ galleries for example. But in Manchester, we recently reviewed ‘And Breathe…’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Although it doesn’t necessarily encourage photography, it does ask you to use your phone to listen to the recording that guides you around the room. And this could be misleading. If your phone is in your hand, as you walk round and listen, then they couldn’t then turn around and say you aren’t allowed to use your phone for photographs.
There are of course a ton of benefits in using Instagram for exhibitions. Promotion being the name focus as mentioned before, it’s a great way to share and hear about new artwork and new things on in your area. It’s a great way to start a conversation about art. However, there’s a pretty famous Ted Talk by Digital Strategist JiaJia Fei named ‘Art in the Age of Instagram.’ She says how, for certain work, especially installations, the re-production that is the photograph on Instagram, does not give the viewer the same experience as being at the gallery (obvious but worth noting). Instead of enhancing the work, it degrades it. It takes the hard work of that artist, the effort they have put into creating an encompassing space, a feeling and an interaction, and reduces that to a tiny photography that you will scroll by for a split second.
Technology, especially our phones, are such a huge part of our daily life that why wouldn’t it be part of visiting an art exhibition too? Maybe galleries should have two lots of showing times – one for fans to truly observe the work without the social media interaction, and one for Instagramers? I don’t see that being a thing, but I can’t think of any other way of doing it. But as I said before, I’m being a massive hypocrite as I couldn’t run this organisation without taking pictures in galleries. So I’m going to step off my high horse now and go and scroll to see whats new on Instagram.