What the internet did to art: a people review. Spoiler alert. The exhibition was sensational.
Let’s talk about why we take so many pictures of art.

by Edina Horvathova  | 23 November 2022

A couple of weeks ago, an email landed in my inbox about the Cornelia Parker exhibition at Tate Britain ending on 16 October. After a thorough two-minute contemplation of my future intentions I declared Monday as the perfect day for cultural enrichment. Parker’s work has always represented the impossible made possible with her brave and experimental approach to how art can be perceived. She was a part of the Young British Artists (YBAs) that in many ways were the pioneers of what we now know as the modern contemporary British art scene.

 

‘Cornelia Parker’s widely celebrated immersive installations have become significant presences in Britain’s cultural landscape. Transforming everyday objects into extraordinary works of art, she pushes the boundaries of what we understand sculpture to be.’

Tate Britain exhibition booklet

Upon arrival, confused about the entrances and corridors, I was struck by the statue of The Distance (a Kiss with String Attached), a work by Parker inspired by Rodin. These things only ever seemed to be of a celestial nature and seeing it in person always brings a thrill of butterflies (followed by an uncontrollable urge to cry).

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The Distance (a Kiss with String Attached), 2003

After navigating through the staircases of the Tate, we entered the exhibition. There was nothing to sugarcoat: the first room of the exhibition was Thirty Pieces of Silver. Parker stated: ‘Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale.’ Boy, and epic it was. Entering the space, Thirty Pieces of Silver mesmerises you. And it, no doubt, had an impact on everyone who walked into the room. The precise positioning of each and every single piece of silverware created a dreamlike experience. In short and sweet words, the work was sensational. As I was looking through the strings holding the silver, I started noticing something.

 

It was the people, watching people watching people. People watching, in my opinion, is a sport older than mankind. People watching at exhibitions, however, is a whole new educational experience. What was even more interesting to see was the person who, for the sake of the perfect post, was willing to risk paying a fine for setting the alarm off, as they crawled under the installation. And in this moment, it occurred to me: is our social media image a measuring tool in how culturally educated we are?

 

Galleries and exhibition spaces, for some time now, have been working hard to make arts more accessible to the public, The exhibitions are welcoming people from different backgrounds, not just those involved with the arts, which makes a huge impact on where visual arts stand within popular culture. Continuous encouragement by big institutions such as the Tate Britain also invites people to see shows in smaller spaces which opens a conversation within the public.

 

Overall, I spent 40 minutes at the exhibition, in which I encountered three groups:

1) the students who were there on a trip with educational purposes;

2) the academic group, and members of the art industry who were carefully discussing the works.

…and the group that was most interesting to me:

3) the group who was there for the aesthetic experience.

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Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988-89

Every room had a group of people aiming for that perfect picture, with the right angle and perfect lighting just to say, ‘yeah, I was there, I saw it.’ Don’t get me wrong, I did the same. Guilty as charged. I took a photo of Cold Dark Matter from four different angles: three close-ups, one video and one square photo just in case I’d like to post it online, justifying it by ‘oh but I am here on a professional account.’ It seems that the age of social media brought upon us a new passive way of viewing art in its given space. We moved on to taking photos of description labels instead of reading them because ‘we’ll get back to them when we have more time’. We book a morning slot to see the exhibition so we can get back home sooner, before the rush hour. The art of watching fundamentally changed the way we perceive art. What is the reason for seeing it in person if not the self-marketing strategies demanded by social media?

 

Halfway through the exhibition I started to ask myself: ‘Why are people not living in the moment and experiencing this amazing event?’ but almost every time my answer to this question was a click of a camera. My conversation with the audience, which consisted of my questions and their clicks, flew through the rooms as if we were dancing. Every dark room had a screen glowing in someone’s face, a little bit like when you try to enjoy the cinema, but someone has a different idea of what a public cultural experience should be like.

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Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991

The rooms in between the well known installations were the quiet before the storm (of another room). The indescribable joy of public spaces is the participation in strangers’ conversations just from being around them. These rooms were exactly that.

 

“If I could somehow plump their depths, tap into their inner essence, I might find an unknown place. Which by its very nature is abstract…both representational and abstract at the same time.

Cornelia Parker

 

The room Abstraction was the only one, apart from the rooms with films, that had benches to sit down and look at the art. This made me wonder whether we have completely abandoned the idea of slow watching. It’s true, I overheard two ladies talking about it. Out of all the rooms, however, the one entitled ‘Abstraction’ raised the most conversations. The four groups scattered across the space were actively engaging with the works, talking to strangers about them. …And to my surprise, there were barely any cameras in this room. Funny, if you think about how much meaning these works were bearing, very few found it captivating enough to post about them.

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Poison and Antidote, 2012
Perpetual Canon, 2004

Past the Perpetual Canon, the more dramatic sister of Thirty Pieces of Silver, in the ‘Film’ rooms, people set up their cameras to take a video of the videos. Capturing the aesthetic of the moving image in this speedy way passed beyond my understanding of watching. Is the familiarity of our own camera roll a better translator for the artistic message than the artist’s own words? Boomerangs are not in fashion anymore but, in that moment, it felt like they were flying around everywhere, coming back just to hit the viewer with an empty message. Out of context, what are we left with?

 

Towards the end of the exhibition, one of the most impactful rooms was hiding in the corner, the War Room. This room was covered in red paper with poppy cutouts to remind us of the emptiness that loss leaves behind. What was, in my opinion, one of the three most impactful rooms in the exhibition, was overlooked. Just as I had to hustle my way through the Cold Dark Matter room and the Perpetual Canon installation, there was one person in War Room frustrated because the whole thing wouldn’t fit into one standard picture. Not much of a conversation was flowing around this installation which I found quite anti-climactic. As I found myself alone in the room someone walked in and out mumbling ‘Oh, there is nothing here, we can go.’ The silence of the room spoke, and it was the loudest message that I could hear that day.

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War Room, 2015

The surreal experience I just came out of lingered with me. The social media culture of the art world is creating a by-product where people don’t really engage with the meaningful side of art and it makes me ask myself: ‘what did the internet do to us?’ To turn artistic practices into educational experiences we have to unsubscribe to the idea of ‘pretty pictures on the wall’. As I walked out on the street standing in front of Tate Britain, it was a beautiful day. You know one of those very last days of autumn when you know that it might just be the very last one before the dreaded and cold winter. Cornelia Parker’s exhibition achieved just that feeling. The warm fuzzy feelings of a great day, that moves you, but you know you have to cherish it because you don’t know when the next one like this is going to come along. But then again, we have the pictures to remind us of it.