Last week, news broke that Amalia Ulman, who graduated from Central Saint Martins BA Fine Art in 2014, would be included in Tate Modern’s upcoming show Performing for the Camera, an exhibition that explores the relationship between photography and performance. Yves Klein and Yayoi Kusama are included, as are artists like Francesca Woodman and Marcel Duchamp. Amalia’s most noteworthy work existed on Instagram, where through crafting a persona and her narrative, she created a piece of performance art that is characteristic of our digital era. Whoever said that Instagram cannot be a valid art output?
Instagram’s CEO, Mike Krieger, mentioned in an interview with Hans Ulrich-Obrist for 032c that he sees the sphere as ever expanding for emerging talent, and how it opens up a different (either ‘real’ intimate or ‘fake’ intimate as with the Ulman case) area for being personable and bringing context to your work. “I’m very interested in ways of playing with medium to mess with your usual expectations,” Krieger told Obrist. “For example, one sculptor that I really love is Ricky Swallow, and he posts quite often on Instagram. So I understand his sculpture and his way of seeing far more now, because I get to see how he interacts with the world.” But what about the other level of artistry, that of art being created almost merely for the sake of being Instagrammed? Set designer Robert Storey, a sculpture graduate from CSM who counts Vogue, Nike and Christopher Kane among his clients, admits that he often gets commissioned to create a set with the photographic outcome in mind. “I think Instagram has been huge for me,” he told us last year. “Quite a few times, brands have come to me and they want me to create an ‘Instagram cool’ image. So they want me to make a set that people are going to want to take a picture of and put on Instagram. That’s what makes it timeless, and that’s what gives it purpose or relevance.”
Finger painting by Margot Bowman
Ultimately, for big brands, it’s a form of cheap and effective advertisement, and holds the capacity to invade the private space by blending seamlessly with the content that your friends publish. Or even better: for them to be the content that your friends publish, because their shop layout / (fashion) show set fits so well into a square, that it’s irresistible to Instagram the experience. But does the multiplication of images actually give the work of either an artist or a big brand a timeless value or relevance? Interdisciplinary artist Frances Stark argues in a Huffington Post interview that “Instagram is this thing where you have to get a bajillion likes for something to be relevant — you have to have a certain number of eyeballs on it. But actually, in the scheme of human history, that’s not really true. And I believe in the other thing. Franz Kafka, for example, how many people were like ‘Woo! Thumbs up baby’? People weren’t, and think how valuable that is.” Value is a sociohistorical concept after all, though its definition is subject to change in our digital age.
The exerting influence of Instagram nowadays remains unrivalled. Nobody is going to screenshot your Facebook status, appropriate it, print it and call it literature (OK maybe a Vanessa Displaced-like poet may take your Twitter updates), but when artist Richard Prince saves your unprotected Instagram picture, blows it up, throws an exhibition and ends up selling it for $100.000 during Frieze, you can start to wonder if you could’ve just come up with this art concept while in college, and not having to worry anymore about those burdening loans you’ll be facing for a good number of decades. In the work of Ulman, however, there is both a concept and a provocation, a sort of social experiment. She had the intuition that this was the product of our time, and big institutional powers of art like Tate are keen to play the game. Have we landed in an era where both Instagram is art and can act as a digital gallery space for art?
Body Insert by Margot Bowman
CSM graduate Margot Bowman is one of the founders of 15 Folds, a digital gallery for original GIF art, who have staged augmented reality exhibitions. She was also commissioned last summer to create an artwork for the Secret Garden Party — a piece which turned out to become an Instagram moment in the festival, she tells us over the phone. It was a structure that resembled wings spanning six metres wide, made of bottles filled with flowers, which were sourced just the day before. One of the ideas behind it was to test how the community deals with the topic of ‘trust’, as you can either take the flowers like a greedy human being or leave them there for others to enjoy. Besides, the flowers would die anyway when you would take them out. “I think what’s interesting is that it’s not going to be perfect, and nobody’s going to get the same picture. Actually you can get a fucked up picture because there are no flowers, because someone is really selfish and they took all of the flowers. I think that it’s kind of an anti-Instagram piece, because it’s always changing. You never get ‘the picture’.” But while the work may have widely been instagrammed by festival goers, in whichever thinkable state, “it’s really hard to get away from the impact that a physical piece of work has, but I think that there are going to be more and more digital exhibitions. Your Instagram and all the others you follow are digital ones, and they’re an opportunity for you to look at the world and see things. I don’t know what the official definition of an exhibition is, but that is definitely one, in a way.”
For Fine Art students who are only months away from their degree show, Instagram could indeed become a valid tool to share their works beyond the physical exhibition space, and mix traditional ways of presenting painting or sculpture with the digital spheres. For all we know, it may result in your graduate piece selling for $100.000 during the next Frieze.
Words by Jorinde Croese