They are everywhere now. Satellite museums and universities: Guggehnheim Bilbao, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Disneyland Paris, Disneyland Tokyo, NYU Abu Dhabi, Temple University, Tokyo, Saint Louis University, Madrid. They aspire to assert themselves as leaders in the relatively new global business of improving a country’s image and reputation or otherwise giving it the edge.
I live far away from such big cities, and universities. You could say I am not included amongst the experienced customers these satellites target. I have never visited such destinations. I inhabit a no man’s land in the Canadian prairies and, as an art historian, I work roaming the floors of my local gallery, which shall remain unnamed, for obvious ethical reasons. In my private life I am also your average museum visitor. A Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde persona split does exist in my digital life, though. I post these images alongside presumably witty captions on my Facebook and Instagram feed. As a dutiful digital citizen, I sporadically write on my blog SpectatorCurator (also my Instagram and Twitter handle). I have branded myself, and I have an edge over the Louvre Abu Djabi or the Guggenheim Bilbao – I exist everywhere and nowhere. We know by now we are virtual brands in open competition with the brands and artists of yore, redefining them, submitting them to our capricious gaze. If the Mona Lisa was an example of the quintessential open text, now the whole museum is the viewer’s canvas. It is both an exciting and an uncomfortable instance of negotiation between the self and former colonial models of appropriation. Because our selfies are an extension of our bodies.
During a shift at the gallery, I open my Twitter feed and encounter Youssef Rakha’s tweet, a series of images of visitors seeing themselves reflected in the glass vitrines protecting the artifacts of the Abu Dhabi Louvre as he writes: “At the Abu Dhabi ‘Louvre’, with people snapping away at the exhibits without bothering to look at them, you get the feeling it is the relics and art works that are viewing museum visitors, not the other way round”. I think of my compatriot Julio Cortázar. In his “Instructions to Wind up a Watch”, Cortázar explains how, when you are gifted a watch, it is you that is gifted to the watch – not the other way around. He knew all along about the agency of objects, perhaps he inspired the writings on art objects and agency by Alfred Gell? Now I hear Julio whispering in my ear, “I told you so.” I promptly erase the idea out of my head, a trace of the North American academic training that focuses almost exclusively on readings of critical theory, explaining how whatever is considered art by the artist must be art because the artist says it is. I wonder whether a work of art can be a prop because viewers take it to be one.
The ghosts of museum visits past assault me. I reckon with my alternate feelings of shame, for having engaged in snapping away at myself – mainly, vainly, as an improved version of the artwork in front of me – in open competition for digital attention. I also experience puzzlement, realizing the existence of a collective phenomenon across museums around the world, regardless of their brand, the art or relics they house, the aim of their curators and artists, or the nationality of the visitors. I realize that the only brand that matters today is that of the individual spectator: the aura of the work of art has shifted from the work itself to the mindless cinematic shot and finally, thanks to the digital realm, to the viewers, spectator-curators of their own selves. In due time, we need to move from the anecdotal to the quantitative. For now, though, I am going to offer a few theory-free vignettes of personal encounters with the novel viewers’ aura, and the process taking place at museums around the world like individual accounts of being exposed to and surviving the new Covid-19, an unknown scourge of the Twenty First Century:
February 28, 2020: Having read Youssef’s Tweet, I begin to pay attention to the use of the work of art as a prop, and the viewer’s aura. Three teens walk inside the exhibition space. As if they own the place, they resolutely seek the best background. They finally decide to arrange their mini photo-shoot in front of Arlene Stamp’s grid-like diptych made with very pedestrian kitchen tiles. The hardware store staple serving as sophisticated modernist tessellation hovers between the wall and the floor, neither a painting nor a sculpture. I must remind them to keep a safe distance from the work, and their backpack away from the “table” titled Tableaux because it is “art”. The girl poses in a determined power stance. I snap, contravening gallery rules. I feel like a National Geographic photographer snapping at the “exotic other”.
February 28, 2020: Morning before commencing shift. I have just arrived and peeled all the winter layers off my body: my parka, beret, gloves. Coronavirus paranoia remains. Off the photo frame, I have my black clutch with enough disinfectant and gum to survive for a month. I head to my sanctuary, the gallery’s bathroom. Then to the lunchroom, where I leave my outdoor shoes in their cubby. I also leave my lunch, which I will take for thirty minutes whenever the lead gallery attendant deems appropriate. Note to self: it is never the first shift, that is always hers. That is why I look resigned in anticipation of six hours on the floor, mostly signalling visitors towards the elevators to the right of the front desk when they reach the end of the exhibition space and, having taken their selfies, wonder where the exit is.
February 25, 2020: Already on the floor. I am seated in the tall bench reserved for gallery attendants and security, anticipating my readings for the upcoming Rembrandt tour. I hear the loud, chunky heels marching resolutely inside. This is none other than my manager. “Luciana, let’s quickly take the picture for the promotion of the special tour of Rembrandt you are giving soon. Because the actual paintings are not here yet, I want you to hold the catalog, make sure the title is fully legible, and then I want you to look through the open book, as if you were reading it, but looking at me with smiling eyes, like this” – she models, eyes pointing way above the ceiling, in case I have failed to understand exactly the way she wants me to pose. “Now let’s choose a proper wall.” I point to the wall that will end up being “the chosen one”, having posed and discarded poses against walls of her choice. “Hmm, let’s try this one, with some images on it, no, no, no, it is better on a blank wall, yes, this one.” “Ok, Luciana, now look at the book, let’s see…” I look at the book so intently I cross my eyes. She snaps away. “Ok, Luciana, this time, you are going to look at me, smile with your eyes, please! Ready!” My boss shows me the result of her work, and business-like, she shakes my hand, “always a pleasure doing business with you”. Our joke of the day. She shows me the two images and agrees to discard the one with my eyes crossed. I thank my lucky stars, and settle on that other one, with my wrinkly eyes in open competition with the wrinkly eyes of Rembrandt’s tronie, Old Man with a Cap.
January 22nd. 2020. It is the official opening. We gallery attendants are stationed on the third floor. For three hours I must remain by the hot tub. It is an installation by two artists who will remain unnamed. The installation, apparently, is a mockery of self-care culture in a province in crisis due to its decimated oil industry. It is a protest also against said industry and the artificial consumerism it creates all around. I remind myself of Duchamp’s tenet, “it is art because the artist says it is” and I cannot see this hot tub as anything but his “fountain”. At the end of my shift I must add the pool chemicals to keep it fit for use. But this is a long way away. At the time I decide to snap this selfie, the official opening is taking place. The artists arrive wearing swimsuits and bathrobes, they are followed by the audience that gasps, ohhs and ahhs. There are two more spots in the hot tub reserved for the VIP (the curator of the show and a friend). They all hop in the tub, first the artists, who enjoy their time in the spotlight, inhabiting the full auratic effect of their work as it spills over them like a golden shower. After fifteen minutes, the curator of the show cannot stand being ignored any longer and decides to join in, making sure her armpit hair is showing to great effect as she lifts her scrawny arms pointing with her claw-like hands at the screen that documents the artists’ statement. The executive director documents the proceedings for posterity as she schmoozes with the local equivalent of the Medici. At the end of three hours, I’ve forgotten I have a masters in art history. I am now a life-guard on duty, inviting people to get out of the pool so we can pour in the chemicals and close the show.
March 15, 2018. I am visiting Calgary, accompanying my husband who is receiving a lifetime achievement award. He is a noted scientist in his field. In a month he will have a prostatectomy. It is cancer. Now I am at the Glenbow Museum, relishing in becoming Frida for a couple of hours. The museum knows that any exhibition with Frida on its title will bring in solid numbers. I dutifully oblige and take a selfie in front of the main panel, a black and white photo of Frida, competing with her on whose gaze is more enigmatic. The colour image is deliberately transformed thanks to my phone’s filter into a black and white digital original. I crop the most unflattering angles and file the image in my “iconic” folder. I construct my online persona after this image. It is my Twitter and Instagram headshot. Inside the exhibition, however, the sense of disillusionment quickly sets in. Inside glass vitrines, Frida’s old Coty perfume, lipstick, and nail polish vaguely evoke the reds of her self-portraits with the scissors, blood and water. The queen of the oil-painted selfie is nowhere to be found. There is no real aura to steal from. No valid props. Glenbow Museum 1-Visitor 0.
October 2017, Argentina. My family does not want to visit the MALBA Museum, the largest collection of Latin American art by a single collector. I finished my masters of art history a year ago and, having specialized in Latin American art, the pilgrimage to Malba is de rigueur. I roam their modern, sterile glass, concrete and steel envelope, and hone in on Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporú. Tarsila was a modernist Brazilian painter who enjoyed the expat life in 1920’s Paris alongside her husband, Oswald de Andrade, the father of the Anthropofagia movement. I think of colonial museums and the dialectics of appropriation. Can we eat, cannibalize our colonizers in the Twenty First Century? Or is it just more of the same? How can we get away from the dichotomy, the word colonization at every turn? Here in Canada, “decolonizing” institutions in practice has meant hiring more indigenous people across all disciplines, without accommodating or protecting them from the white backlash. In the gallery environment, I have witnessed how my indigenous colleagues are ignored, even asked why are they there, on exhibition floors, by white patrons, their knowledge dismissed. They have told me they feel out of place. Sometimes I feel out of place as well. To eat – shit – or not to eat. To Be or not to Be, to persist, to occupy space, even if the limbs are too big, as in the case of this hybrid that is do Amaral’s character. Appropriating the melancholy pose of Abaporú, based on Dürer’s character in his print Melancholia, I occupy the space of the Malba Museum with renewed joy, a joyfully thinking woman, breaking the frame, basking in Tarsila’s lemon yellow sun with an orange centre. The all-seeing eye eyeing the camera.
May 2017, Paris. This is the girl of my dreams. I encountered her for the first time inside a picture book my parents gifted me for my sixth birthday, “My Marvellous Museum”. I was nowhere near Paris then. My only experience of looking at paintings was through that book, and a painting of a sailboat amidst a storm in shades of green at my grandparents house in the middle of the Argentinian pampas. But I am now in front of her, at the Louvre, and as I look at Mademoiselle Caroline Riviére’s icy beauty, I go back to that image in the book in my old house, with crumbling walls and sinking wooden floors. I am not looking at her, I am looking inside my memories of her. The Caroline in the Louvre does not hold a candle to the Caroline in my memories. Still, we compete over who has the heaviest eyelids. Louvre Paris 0-Visitor 1.
Moving away from the institutional framework, though, I want to pose one final question about image creation, museum selfies, in this case – along with the distribution of images and their use in social media. Does the process only represent bodies, or does it generate them too? And isn’t the museum, with its own choreographed layout, the ultimate frontier where bodies can be created – and re-created, invented and re-invented against the backdrop of exhibits that were once, or should’ve been, sacred objects?
Images courtesy of Luciana Erregue