Exhibit of the week
Snap+Share: Transmitting Photographs From Mail Art to Social Networks
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Aug. 4
Because almost all of us have used photography to make ourselves known to others, this deft show “feels much larger than it is,” said Richard Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. Curator Clément Chéroux is determined to prove that today’s selfie culture is more an evolution than a revolution: Around the world, enthusiasm for photography has depended since its early days on the relatively high speed and low cost of sharing images. More than a century before French engineer Philippe Kahn took the world’s first camera phone picture—a 1997 image of his newborn daughter that he sent instantaneously to 2,000 people—visitors to Paris were snapping up postcards of the Eiffel Tower, making them their own with personal messages, then distributing them around the globe. Those 19th-century postcards and Kahn’s primitive camera and cellphone setup appear in this “mind-expanding” exhibition, which tracks the story it tells right up to the present moment.
The art-historical lineage of today’s photo sharing comes across most dramatically in the so-called mail art of the 1960s and ’70s, said Jori Finkel in The New York Times. The most prescient example here is On Kawara’s “I Got Up…” series, a collection of the postcards with which he notified friends of the exact time he rose each morning from 1968 to 1979. But to say social media was prefigured by mail art is debatable. Mail art “was one of the 20th century’s most subversive forms of art making, with roots in the anti-art and anti-commodity movements of Dada and Fluxus—in contrast with the commercial DNA of image sharing today.” Some contemporary artists are adding to this history by “looking askance at a visual culture angling increasingly toward showing at the expense of seeing,” said Jonathon Keats in Forbes.com. In 2011, Erik Kessels printed every image uploaded onto Flickr during a 24-hour period and filled a room with them. Even with the pile slightly reduced here, the work “retains its paradoxical power”—as a monumental expression of banality.
Though it’s no surprise that the exhibition invites museumgoers to take some selfies of their own, it “would have been stronger if it hadn’t,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. In the show’s final room, a taxidermied calico cat looks down through a small rectangular hole in the ceiling. Ceiling Cat, created by artists Eva and Franco Mattes, makes physical a decade-old internet meme, and as an artwork, it provokes thoughts about how the playfulness of the internet obscures its surveillance power. But because we’re explicitly encouraged to snap a photo, the curator seems to be saying social media culture is harmless if we simply treat it with a bit of ironic detachment. “A truly radical show wouldn’t have let us off the hook so easily.” ■