The art of the ‘selfie’
London’s Saatchi Gallery has called itself the world’s first gallery exhibiting the history of the selfie in its brand new exhibition, ‘From Selfie to Self-Expression’, which is perhaps a fitting edition for a gallery that calls itself “the world’s number one museum on social media”. Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, for those not familiar with the selfie, the trend has been defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”.
Starting chronologically in the 16th Century, the exhibition explores renowned Dutch artist Rembrandt, whose numerous self-portraits were according to Reuters “created an intimate autobiography with confident brushstrokes”, before sweeping through other famous artists who immortalised themselves through the medium of self-portraits, including Van Gough, Picasso and Frida Kahlo.
The exhibition progresses through the ages, before celebrating the modern-day selfies as depictions of “how we would like the world to see us, rather than how we are and who we are—it’s not about sharing our humanity, it’s really about sharing a version of our identity that we would like people to believe”, or so says Chief Executive of the Saatchi Gallery Nigel Hurst.
Exhibition attendees will be treated to the evolution of selfies from self-portraits long before the creation of photographic technology all the way through to today, with a host of celebrity selfies from the likes of David Beckham and self-professed “selfie queen” Kim Kardashian showing the breadth of this fundamentally conceited trend. However, it’s not just the world’s ‘beautiful people’ who have captured their likeness through the medium of a selfie, with inclusions from filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and George Harrison as surprising yet refreshing additions.
Those who aren’t convinced of the relevance of ‘selfies’ to the art world may be shocked to learn that the subject is so broad that the exhibition occupies ten whole rooms in the Saatchi Gallery, spanning two floors. This exhibition has intended to be much more than a display of vanity and narcissism through the ages, callingit a “celebration [of] the truly creative potential of a form of expression often derided for its inanity…[by] showing the beautiful and sublime, to the mad, bad and downright dangerous”.
The exhibition, which opens to the public from Friday 31st March to Tuesday 30th May, alongside celebrities’ filtered headshots will also display some hard-hitting images, including a selfie captured by photographer Nan Goldin entitled “Nan One Month After Being Battered” (depicting her vivid black eye as an everlasting reminder of the damage inflicted by domestic violence) and a selfie by young British artist Juno Calypso, capturing loneliness and heartbreak in her image “The Honeymoon Suite” which documented her solo trip to a honeymoon hotel in Pennsylvania.
Given the fact that until very recently the most liked photo in the world was Ellen DeGeneres’s now-iconic Oscars selfie of 2014, an epic “photo-bomb” style photograph in which a selection of Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Julia Roberts (all adorned in their Oscars finery) gathered together to get involved in the photograph, it’s hard to dismiss the growing importance of this emerging form of digital self-expression. Gallery spokesperson Hurst seems to embody these ideologies—although admitting that he himself had never taken a selfie until very recently, he does attest that “the selfie is by far the most expansionist form of visual self-expression, whether you like it or not…the art world cannot really afford to ignore it”.
Be that as it may, it seems unlikely that the art world will welcome in with open arms an art form which even animals can participate in (as shown at the exhibition by a Sulawesi macaque monkey, an animal who went viral in January of 2016 as arguably the first animal to take a selfie). Whether selfies can really be deemed an art form remains to be seen, but in an industry which has in the past has widely praised Damien Hirst’s taxidermy ‘art’ in which he displays an array of dead animals cut in half and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed as revolutionary pieces of abstract art, then why can't selfies be considered with the same deference?