From Selfie to Self-Expression

Adult Entry: Free
Nearest Tube: South Kensington, Circle and District Lines


If there’s one thing people love, its themselves. The moment humankind found a suitable surface 30,000 years ago we have not stopped drawing, painting, and photographing our own image. Gods, monsters, predator and prey- all have been the subject of humanity’s artistry. Most alluringly though, we have forever sought to depict ourselves. From stiff militaristic portraits to bold exposures of vulnerability (perhaps merely two sides of the same narcissistic coin) we are desperate to understand ourselves through self-expression. Such a topic would self-evidently be too broad for one exhibition, and so this entertaining installation at the Saatchi Gallery cherry-picks some interesting juxtapositions, and current observations, to explore.

The Saatchi Gallery sits behind a strictly manicured lawn just off Sloane Square. The classically-fronted structure is a blistering white inside, and surprises with the number and size of its galleries. These rooms fan out from a central lobby, so where to start is left largely to you. I chose to go left. Left brought me to a gallery of TVs mounted on the walls, showing famous self-portraits from Van Gogh to Rembrandt, with an Instagram style ‘Likes’ counter in the bottom corner of each screen. Assuming the obvious metaphor was all there was to see, I almost missed the real genius: A smart phone is mounted next to each TV, showing the same portrait. Tapping the phone screen ‘Likes’ the portrait, adding to the counter on the TV. Suddenly a passive gallery became an intriguing playground. Whose portrait was most popular? The big artists obviously had the most likes, but some obscure artists were gaining traction through an arresting style or interpretation. I dashed around the space, adding my opinion to each self-portrait, reveling in knowing that my opinion was not only being registered, but was actively changing the exhibition. What a clever way to engage visitors, while simultaneously highlighting the entirely cosmetic attribution of attention. Is a portrait with a greater number of ‘Likes’ a better picture? Is the artist with most ‘Likes’ most talented? Of course not, and what a better way to demonstrate it.

2Moving on to the next few galleries was a bit of a disappointment. After formulating such ingenious interaction, the firmly static interpretation in the other galleries is a let-down. In fact, the degree to which the interpretation stagnates is almost bizarre, with one section simply presenting a series of selfies, apparently grabbed straight from the internet considering the appalling image quality.
The label content in these galleries is striving for redundancy, providing little more than a description of what is in the image. Perhaps that is just the foible of selfies- there’s quite literally nothing behind the eyes.

123To avoid ending my review on a dull note, I have saved a treat for last. The last gallery I entered held a single large installation housed in a darkened room. Entering the space, I found a floor-to-ceiling projection covering three walls. The projection is comprised of hundreds of ‘YouTubers’ presenting their videos, all playing simultaneously on loop. The result is an unintelligible static hum, a blur of shuffling colour, and a glorious mic-drop of a metaphor; in their desperation to be heard, they merely add to the general indistinct mess. Grandiose comments aside, the installation is surprisingly engaging for a simple projection, I found myself immersed by the noise and colour and movement, surrounded by people desperate to be heard. The effect was something memorable.

And so, the verdict. I cannot truthfully claim that the exhibition is excellent because it has too many disappointing rooms. Yet I have frequently lauded the innovation of the two galleries highlighted above. I suppose a compromise of sorts would be to say that if you find yourself in the area, you could do much worse than spend half an hour exploring From Selfie to Self-Expression.


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