• Alexandra Graff

Skeptical about selfies at Saatchi

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

More beneath the surface at the Saatchi Gallery, a review of "From Selfie to Self Expression"

Mona Lisa Selfie

Prepare to be inundated with selfies at the Saatchi Gallery’s latest exhibition – and not just on the walls. It’s selfie inception at “From Selfie to Self Expression,” as you’ll have to compete with people taking selfies with the selfies to see the works.

Although initially unsure about an exhibition dedicated to such a popular culture phenomenon, the juxtaposition between the two main types of images presented was both thought provoking and surprisingly well executed.

The idea behind the Saatchi Gallery’s “From Selfie to Self Expression” exhibition, which opened 31 March, was to trace the history of selfies from fine art masters to present-day social media users, linking the idea of self portraiture to selfie culture. On the one side, you have a gallery full of contemporary examples of selfies, everything from celebrities posing (such as the infamous “Oscars” selfie from 2014) to the smiling face of a macaque monkey (is there an underlying connection to be made here as well?), highlighted as the world’s first selfie taken by an animal. These are works we’re used to seeing on a smartphone or computer screen format, but here they are reproduced on large monitors or actually printed and hung in a traditional gallery setting. Not all of these selfies were trivial, however; many represented astute artistic intervention, as with the inclusion of an Instagram post from Spanish artist Amalia Ulman’s “Excellences and Perfections,” performance. Elina Brotherus’ “Femme à sa toilette” helps close the gap between selfies and contemporary self-portraiture, alluding to female nude representations by the impressionist and modern masters. And although comical, the image of two men’s faces contorted and wrapped in clear plastic tape alludes to the iconic self portraits of feminist artists in the 1970s like Annegret Soltau and Ana Mendieta.

On the other side, you have a room full of the so-called masters, including self-portraits ranging from Rembrandt to Kahlo, reproduced on large screens and displayed in a way resembling Instagram’s format. These screens scroll through various images and allow visitors to “like” an image by tapping on an attached smartphone, simulating a live Instagram-like experience. This interactive feature is also a way to gauge people’s reactions to these historic images. It’s here that the exhibition becomes interesting; the idea of authenticity is subverted, and we are reminded that this need to see the “real” authentic version – in the flesh so to speak – is a western societal construct. Are these digital reproductions any less valuable? Should they be? With increasing importance on market values, Saatchi’s presentation of these works is a reminder that it’s just as much about dialogue surrounding the works as it is about their physicality.

This juxtaposition was very clever; arguably, many more of the visitors have seen these important artworks in this setting – on a screen– than on a canvas anyway. However, it is hard to pinpoint the motive of this curatorial decision. As an element in the curation, this idea might have been conceived as a way to get around the logistics and costs of amassing the originals of all these works.

Nonetheless, this could be a game changer to contemporary curating. Reproduction and licensing fees are considerably more affordable than loan fees, especially when considering insurance costs accrued during travel and display. And the comparison between the two sides of this exhibition was heightened in this format; in fact, much of that connection may have been lost had the original works been presented.

The inclusion of interactive art installations strengthens this presentation as well; Rafeal Lozano-Hemmer and Krzystof Wdicizko’s “Zoom Pavilion” (2015) fills an entire gallery and uses 12 robotic cameras that record and zoom in on the people who enter the room. Using a face-recognition algorithm, the cameras detect viewers and project their images on the walls in black and white. Akin to something you’d expect from the CIA, this interactive installation speaks to the power of surveillance, and while the in-gallery participatory experience is fun, it also serves as a reminder of the sheer number of times our image is taken every day.

Unfortunately, the underlying motivations are unclear, yet again, at the Saatchi Gallery. Just like this time last year, when Saatchi came under heat for allegedly renaming their all-female exhibition, “Champagne Life” after announcing Pommery as their sponsor, this time, technology company Huawei is the corporate partner – and is central to the exhibit’s competition component in which the gallery received more than 14,000 submissions of selfies from people around the world. The 10 shortlisted winners will have their selfies included in the show and will receive Huawei’s newest smartphone…

While the exhibit might be criticized for playing too overtly into millennials’ hands and overhyping the phenomenon of selfies, the show does have its merits. The works presented are engaging and approachable. If anything the interpretation could have been more present, but perhaps that’s not giving the target audience enough credit.

"From Selfie to Self Expression" is on at the Saatchi Gallery until May 30, 2017. The Saatchi Gallery is located at Duke of York's HQ, Kings Road, London. 

To view the selfie submissions, visit:

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