Review: From Selfie to Self-Expression, Saatchi Gallery ‘Lightweight’

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The Saatchi Gallery Exhibitions team is not having a great period right now for following on from its Painters’ Painters show, which managed to include not a single female artist, we now have the lightweight From Selfie to Self-Expression, which seems to offer up no meaningful insight or platform no truly new artworks. Instead it’s a loose theme around which to pull together a bunch of images which has enough commercial appeal to bring in the masses.

The Gallery’s claim that this is “the world’s first exhibition exploring the history of the selfie from the old masters to the present day, and celebrates the truly creative potential of a form of expression often derided for its inanity,” is embarrassing and disingenuous.

Not only did Tate Modern’s recent Performing for the Camera exhibition strongly embrace a similar theme with its examination of performance art on camera (and *cough* some of the exhibits from that show are included here, such as Amalia Ulman’s constructed reality Instagram project), but it’s a cheap and rather petulant shot to try and link Picasso and Rembrandt self-portraits with crowds trying to get selfies with Leo DiCaprio on the red carpet. The intention is different, and even setting aside any debate on ‘high art’ to compare the two in terms of talent is, well, it’s just silly and desperate.

Not that there are actual self-portraits from the Masters on display here. Instead, the first few galleries see rows and rows of large phone screens covering the walls. And onto each screen, a masterpiece is placed, whether it’s an image of the instantly recognisable Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon’s self-portrait in triptych, or one of Picasso’s many extraordinary paintings. And we’re invited, via these large phone screens, to ‘Like’ our favourites, reducing masterpieces to Instagram hits.

It’s eye-rolling stuff. Trying so hard to be cool and controversial but actually this insults the audience more. To suggest, as this does, that art will get more attention from the next generation if we stick the greats in an iPhone… I mean, that patronises the next generation and the wider population immensely.

The rest of the galleries bring little in the way of enjoyment with the theme being stretched ever so thin to include pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing U2 on the Oscars red carpet a few years ago (that’s not a selfie, Saatchi Gallery) and some of Sergei Vasiliev’s photographs of Soviet prisoners (also not selfies).

Sure, there’s the instantly familiar – Kim Kardashian’s famous selfie of her reflection with the emphasis on her bottom, Ellen’s big-hitter from the Academy Awards, and Dave Cameron’s selfie with Barack Obama (with Michelle Obama getting plus points from me for looking off into the distance completely unimpressed) – and, I suppose, we are being asked, is this art? But the problem is, the show is so lacklustre that I just don’t care. The theme is just too loose. On the basis that a lot of the images have been included on the basis of ‘self-expression’ rather than ‘selfie’, well, almost any portrait or photo of people could be included under that theme. It’s just too vague.

If Saatchi Gallery had stuck to purely self-portraits and the strictest definition of selfies, maybe. But nope, that opportunity was missed. The Tate show was far slicker. It took a tight theme and stuck to it and, as a result, offered up an interesting perspective.

There are some gems amongst the rough – I’m always happy to see a Francesca Woodman, and there’s some photos from Cindy Sherman’s project to show herself as a character from a 1950s movie – but they are quite thin on the ground. Even the Gavin Turk representation of himself as Elvis has just been shipped over from Newport Street Gallery.

But instead your main takeaway are the endless scenes of selfies that swamp the later rooms and leave you with a disappointing feeling that Saatchi Gallery thinks dumbing down and lazily curated shows are the way forward.

Saatchi Gallery, London, to May 20, 2017
Admission free

Image Credits:
All installation images by me.
Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

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