art of selfie and selfie in art

The contemporary visual culture is an outcome of the subjectivity revelation which took place in 18th century, the era of Enlightenment. Then the focus of the human turn to themselves and a constant need of being an individual took in force. Human started looking on their body, behavior, place in the universe. The development of medicine, humanistic sciences re-discovered the Man. With next centuries and a technological progress the way a human body is perceived and used had changed radically. Last few decades even improved it with its artificial extinctions: a computer, a smart phone, an I-pad  – all these connected to web and equipped in other usefully-entertainment devices like camera and numerous applications. Today, taking a photo and share it instantly with others (not specifically defined) is a piece of a cake. The self-presentation nature of a  selfie is not only visible through the badly framed face of a photographer but the major part of it “value” lays in reasons of the decision to take it. I would like to omit whole group of selfies taken “after shower” or “having coffee with a friend” etc. I would rather focus on selfie taken i.e. on the London Bridge or other recognizable place or in the art space. Taken by the viewer or by the artist.

It is undeniable that selfie medium stays in a deep relation with our body perception. It is not enough to take a picture of the place, object or a situation anymore. Some internal need push a human – Facebook, Instagram or Tweeter user – to place himself in the frame of a taken photo. Even if sometimes the perspective deforms his face and creates a caricature with a big nose, which in fact obscures the important background. The physical presence is essential, even if body is fragmentized [1]. The resent exhibition of a Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska in Raster Gallery in Warsaw was entitled Selfie [2]. The viewer, directed by the title taken from a popular culture, might be surprised with a content of the show. Staying in selfie’s context the artist presents a photographs of the body. The series of images is a particular documentation of the process of recreating her own three dimensional auto-portrait within a pig skin, artificial teeth and hair. The artist makes a doll, an exact copy of Aneta Grzeszykowska. The viewer see the vanitative photograph of cut fingers with colored nails, a vagina, a cast of face all pinned to charts with needles like stuffed bugs in natural history museum. Staying in a strong reference to a performative  photography of Cindy Sherman or Alina’s Szapocznikow obsessive polyurethane sculptures of senescent and sick body, Grzeszykowska decides to use material much less resistant then these artists did. Her sculptured selfie will disappear faster than her. She also shows a process of auto-creation, so fundamental for artistic practice. This moment is substantial for her identity as a human and it obviously stays in a contradiction with stereotypical cultural habits.

Selfie may  have its roots in an auto-portraiture, which – naturally –  was  a common practice in painting, thinking here about very classical examples of Rembrandt or Van Gogh self-portraits. The recent visual revolution deposed artists and equalized them in this context with an each camera user. Sadly, even a word “auto-portrait” seems to become an  anachronism. Radek Szlaga, who in his painting connects dominating in contemporary visual culture copy-paste aesthetic still keeps a very traditional language of painting. He repeatedly uses motives from his own biography and life physically stretched between two countries and few cities. His painting Selfie (2014) is an image of a young boy holding a piglet, surrounded by chickens. Idyllic scene shows a boy dressed up in old fashion pullover, it is the artist’s auto-portrait from youth. Title, so cynical as many of Szlaga’s visual comments, is also a laugh at himself, his story but also a certain moment in history of Poland. Similarly, a critical point on selfie practice  expresses Wojtek Puś with his installation #selfie (2014). He prepared a classical movie frame 1-1,33 which  allows a viewer to see himself a cinema framework [3]. This artwork, which strictly refers to the selfie phenomenon  in a certainly critical way towards the Internet users, active superficial commentators and selfie makers in art galleries [4]., It refers also in more general way to art critics and a human sensibility today. The kennardphillipps’ cynical selfie motive occurs in art selfie context almost naturally. Photo Op (2005) is a photo montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie having his “trust me” smile is both a social and aesthetic comment [5]. He derives  from narcissist nature of selfie enforced a political statement of the artist. Tony Blair’s aggressive politic is here brought to the level of a teenager showing off in front of his lads.

The selfie making fashion become a main topic of an installation The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery shown during Moving Image Art Faire held in London [6] in 2013. Curatorial team Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina invited 19 artists and commissioned artworks-selfies. In result, they curated two channel video installation presenting the compilation of short movies prepared by invited artists. The challenge given to them was to use a short format video to express their approach to  the selfie – an one-image statement. The curators underlined that they don’t consider selfie as an  artwork. It is a practice, which done by the artist with an intension of creating an artwork, may give a selfie this status. Artists contribution were a comment to mass media photo-obsession and through dictated by curators form the perfomative part of selfie appeared: starting from the funny poses taken to make a good shot filmed by Jason Musson, through using an artist face as an artifact in Artur Porter animation to the performing practice in a studio of Petra Cortright or  Angela Washko.

This way selfie entered to the gallery spaces on the same rules as other artworks. However, it still exists in the context of art spaces in a different way – as an subject.  #artselfie, so a selfie taken with an artwork is higly popular among celebrities as Beyonce or Eminem. It seemed to be at the height of its fame since the project launched by DIS collective in collaboration with Ryan Trecartin in 2012 during Frieze Art Faire in Miami. Initially,  it suppose to encourage people to upload their photos taken in front of mirroring artworks. Soon this hashtag #artselfie attracted much more users – we can count now up to the 13 000 posts tagged with it. In 2014 DIS prepared the publication [7] consisted of artselfies published by the viewers of venues around the world. Interestingly, Marvin Jordan in the foreword to this books sees the origins of selfie not in a self-portraiture but in the person of the selfie maker itself, following Marcel Duchamp’s quotation: The observer completes the work of art. Also the act of printing the significant number of digital photos, brought selfie in a different order. Did Kim Kardashian announcing publishing her book with only her selfies [8], understood the evaluative power of the printing gesture?

Selfie practice and popular culture phenomenon  might be criticized by one or appropriated by others. It should not be ignored nor underestimated. We may say that we are facing a certain moral panic [9], where only one sided critic and testimonies against this practice are publicise [10]. The selfie phenomenon, should be considered on other levels than just representative. Of course, it is difficult to deny, that we are facing a new model of portraying, what we may see in example of a recent Richard’s  Prince exhibition in Gagosian Gallery New Portraits [11]. A new portrait for him has it roots  in the Instagram images. The reaction of people making artseflies in front Prince’s artworks on the show, create a  mise en abyme situation. They have also shown a strong selfie’s mediating potential. Is it an outcome of a long process of language economization? Are we facing the moment when the massage is compressed to the photographical sign, which tells us a story of the particular context? Art seems not accept this medium, which once used turns against itself.


[1] In example photos including feet of the photographer in different situations

[2] More on this exhibition, artist and Raster Gallery


[4] More on that in the interview with Wojtek Puś in  Ithis issue  by recto/verso

[5] It was edited as a newspaper poster, an inkjet print. It is a part of poster series STOP, which were given out for free to the audience for use in an antiwar protest activities during the eight-week installation War on War Roomi curated by Gustv Metzger, Art&Agenda. Political Art and Activism, Berlin 2011, pp. 232.

[6] More on the project and on a blog

[7] DIS, #artselfie, with Notes on Selfies by Douglas Coupland and a conversation between DIS and Simon Castets, Jean Boîte Editions, Paris 2014.



[10] In example a selfies overdose.

[11] and the feedbcak from art-world and the people from the images:

you can find more information about Richard Prince here


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