It’s not every day that someone performs a gynaecological exposé at one of the world’s most hallowed art institutions. So it was surprising that the arrest of Deborah de Robertis at the Musée d’Orsay in June 2014 for ‘sexual exhibitionism’ garnered only fleeting media attention. De Robertis is a Luxembourgian performance artist (it sounds like a euphemism, doesn’t it?) who concerns herself with visceral explorations of female sexual taboos in an effort to subvert the male gaze. The incident occurred in front of Gustave Courbet’s l’Origine du monde (1866), a particularly unflinching depiction of a woman’s nether regions whose frank carnality is startling even today. A video of the performance, entitled Mirror of Origin, has been posted and reposted to youtube following its removal by site administrators.
De Robertis’s arrest was to me a source of fascination – not for the most obvious of reasons, but because of what it reveals about contemporary museum and gallery behaviour. When performance art had its heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, such spectacles were celebrated. In 1969, queen of kookiness Yayoi Kusama staged A Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead in the sculpture garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the participants’ bodies adorned with a proliferation of polka dots. Then there was American Chris Burden’s 1971 piece, Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by an assistant at close range with a .22 rifle. In my final year of university, we were treated to an exhibition of works on paper that had been strewn all over the gallery floor before being pissed on. The scent of urine persisted for some days. I’m still not sure what it all meant.
But the treatment of De Robertis seems incongruous with the ‘anything goes’ attitude that is so prevalent in museums and galleries nowadays. Indeed, it could be inferred that De Robertis was simply taking the museum selfie to an abject extreme. In its milder incarnation this behaviour is actively endorsed by curators and gallery directors the world over. Witness so-called ‘Museum Selfie Day,’ 21 January, a mass exercise in inanity whereby people are encouraged to visit museums and galleries for the sole purpose of photographing themselves in front of famous works of art. The day came about at the instigation of London mummy blogger Mar Dixon, who revealed: ‘My goal with my daughter when we go to the museum is to learn one new thing. It doesn’t have to be about art though. It can be that the museum sells good carrot cake.’ Oh, ok then.
Yes, I’m sure Museum Selfie Day makes the turnstiles rattle. Marketing departments must love it because it earns the institution and its collection free publicity on an unparalleled scale. It helps to overcome the widespread perception, even among the tolerably educated, that art galleries are fusty and elitist. On the whole though, I cannot avoid the conclusion that it is a celebration of fatuousness that appeals to the lowest common denominator. It is the intellectual narcissism that gets me more than anything else – the whole idea that by turning away from a celebrated image and sticking your ugly mug in front of it, you can portray yourself as eminently cultured. At its worst, the museum selfie phenomenon reduces the gallery visit – which used to be thought of as a quasi-religious experience – to a trip to the theme park. ‘Interaction’ with the work of art is valued in and of itself, without much thought as to the work’s intended meaning or the contexts of its creation.
An equally bizarre manifestation of this trend is the ‘DIY cataloguer’, who frantically walks from one painting to another, taking snaps of everything he likes on his iPhone. Surely it defeats the purpose of visiting the gallery altogether, if one cannot appreciate the art object in situ. Do they not realise that the gallery shop sells perfectly good reproductions of the most famous works in the collection on postcards, tee-shirts, mugs, fridge magnets and whatnot?
Don’t get me wrong – as tempting as it is to use a selfie stick as a formidable weapon against its owner, I’m not a curatorial Luddite. Ben Quilty hit the nail on the head recently when he told the Australian’s Sam Yates: ‘Today, like it or not, art might involve a video camera or an installation – and yes, a lot of [that] is crap but a lot of painting is crap, too.’
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the museum selfie phenomenon is that digital technology has so much to offer contemporary gallery visitors. At Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), visitors are handed a modified iPod touch with sat nav functionality that conjures up the curatorial details of any artworks nearby. The user can access virtually as much information as they want, and the aesthetic and spatial disruptions caused by wall-mounted captioning are minimised.
The Google Cultural Institute is a vast virtual museum, encompassing 20th and 21st-century material from hundreds of collections around the world, including the Art Gallery of NSW, Museum Victoria, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia. Our nation’s museums and galleries have never been so accessible, nor their collecting practices so transparent. This will become increasingly important as institutions struggle for public and private funds in a fraught economic climate.
Only this month, the National Gallery of Victoria announced a major ‘creative partnership’ with Telstra over the next three years. This is expected to further expand digital access and connectivity for those attending NGV exhibitions and events or undertaking research into its enormous collection. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in practice. Certainly, both parties are coy as to the project’s overall cost.
The challenge for the contemporary curator is to make the most of digital innovation in ways that genuinely promote artistic knowledge and excellence, without diminishing the experiences of those who choose not to exploit certain technologies. So please, next time you go to the gallery, look with your eyes and not your camera lens. Keep your selfies to yourself.
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Catherine Baxendale blogs at thebaxendaleblog.wordpress.com
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