There is no method of 21st century expression more maligned than the selfie. It’s synonymous with vanity, the currency of a disposable culture where quantity trumps quality and ‘likes’ outweigh value.
Saatchi Gallery’s From Selfie to Self-Expression attempts to frame the selfie differently, linking them to the more artistically palatable self portrait. One room is filled with screens, in portrait orientation to mimic a smartphone, where classic self portraits are shown next to a button allowing gallery-goers to “like” them. Rembrandt: 154 likes. Van Gogh: 129 likes. Monet: 54 likes (#sadface).
Next comes a room filled with more contemporary self portraits (a few framed works but mostly screens again): a naked, saggy Lucian Freud; a series of close ups of Tracy Emin’s feet, breasts, thighs, neck, hair; Andy Warhol’s screen-prints; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s vivid graffiti. Most of them look terrible because of the poor reproduction on the monitors.
Elsewhere we have rooms dedicated to selfies with or by famous people (Obama, Trump, Beckham, Kim Kardashian); pictures of other people taking selfies; selfies taken at famous locations. None of them convince me in the slightest that they belong anywhere but the corner of the internet from whence they came. It all feels like a punchline without a joke.
There are occasional highlights: young artists Alma Hasser and Johnny Briggs both have interesting series of photo collages, and Daniel Rozin’s Pom Pom Mirror, which uses a camera to track your silhouette on a wall of fluff, is fun.
But there’s a pervading sense of cynicism to the entire affair. The exhibition’s headline sponsor, a smartphone manufacturer, plasters its marketing bumf over everything. I’m all in favour of alternative funding for the arts – the Tate Modern has corporate sponsors for all its major exhibitions – but in this case the entire enterprise seems geared towards selling phones.
There is probably a fascinating show that uses the selfie to chronicle modern life, or examines its impact on our sense of identity. But this isn’t it. It’s brash and pointless, overwhelmingly middle-class and overwhelmingly white, no more enlightening than a teenager’s star-struck Instagram feed.
First published in City A.M.