Through January 12th, Memphians will be able to see the first-ever Instagram exhibit to be featured in a local museum. "#MemphisShared," at the Brooks, features 192 smartphone photos sourced from almost 100 Memphians.
The exhibition includes photographs of dogs, of fall leaves sitting on top of a thin blanket of snow, and of a bunny drinking from a straw. There are pictures of the Pyramid and of the inside of an abandoned brewery. There is one snapshot of a vehicle stalled in the middle of an intersection, its hood engulfed in flame. The show, interestingly, does not include some Instagram standbys, such as screenshots of memes, pictures of artwork in other media, or photos that were not taken with a phone.
The small exhibit is held in the education department gallery, off to the side of one of the boldest and most striking photography exhibitions the Brooks has ever shown, "Shared Visions." "Shared Visions" occupies eight downstairs galleries and features work by Diane Arbus, Francesca Woodman, Rosemary Laing, among many other canonized photographers. It is not to be missed.
"#MemphisShared," on the other hand, can't be missed — at least for anyone with a smartphone, an Instagram account, and a passing online connection to Memphis. Prior to the show, Memphians submitted thousands of photos to the Brooks via the Instagram hashtag #MemphisShared. A group of curators culled the submissions for work that exemplified the Memphis community. Curator Jenny Hornby says, "It's an exhibit about lifestyle."
The recognizably square photos are loosely grouped by color — robin's-egg blue (Hudson filter) fades into burnt orange (Kelvin filter). Beside each group of photos is a display of Instagram usernames, such as "sim1levine" and "you'vehadyourwholelife." An exhibition plaque features a quote by photographer and critic Stephen Mayes, who declares that photographs are no longer made as "documents" but for the real-time sharing of experience.
"#MemphisShared" is an art exhibition meant to be a compendium of community work. It falls short of that title, because, to put it bluntly, Instagram photos are not art. They are rapidly dispatched notes that say "I am crossing the bridge to Memphis" or "I am eating curly fries with my boyfriend" or "I am standing next to a sculpture of a giant spoon." Instagram is a frontrunner among the social media that have changed, at a core level, how our communities understand themselves. It is very, very important. But it is not an art form.
Art does something different. Art has its own conversation. As novelist Marilynne Robinson once said, "You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as 'beauty.'" Instagram — with its filters, identifiable square format, and inseparability from the smartphone — is about as large a set of quotation marks as you can place around beauty.
An Instagram photo frames every moment as if it took place in a feathery, half-lit past. It makes the winter look cozy and the summer look breezy. It capitalizes on the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of how we present ourselves online, giving us a neatly packaged tool to make our lives look cool.
The best art, including photography, is concerned with the destruction of the packaged image. Museums are special, because they are a stronghold for the sorts of images you do not see elsewhere; images that tell different, often more honest, stories.
The Brooks education department has a history of launching excellent community shows. Crowd-sourcing work for group art shows is a great idea. It honors underrecognized and budding artists in our city and is a real way to encourage creative community. But Instagram, as a medium, already creates the kind of community it is meant to create, and it does so efficiently. The most interesting form of "#MemphisShared" exists in its 1,831 raw submissions that are accessible 24/7 in the app.
This is not the first attempt by Memphis art to engage with viral image-making or social media. In the past, we've had cat video festivals and unicorn shows. It is a good cause. Local museums and galleries need badly to showcase more digital artwork. But other social media such as tumblr or even deviantART offer more interesting arenas for the new media conversation to happen, even when placed in the museum context.
Memphis has many incredible digital artists, such as Lance Turner or Christopher Reyes, both of whose work draws from many different computerized aesthetics without giving allegiance to any particular "look."
These artists make good art. Their Instagrams? Who knows?
#MemphisShared will be on display through January 12th at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.