The queues began forming at 8 a.m., outside of the David Zwirner gallery on 19th Street in New York’s Chelsea. Visitors waited upwards of eight hours to spend 45 seconds in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room—a mirrored space in which the Japanese artist hung 75 multicolored LED lights—and take pictures of themselves. In late 2013 the New York Times dubbed it the ultimate selfie.
“Of course, it’s a good thing for the gallery and the artist to have people coming in,” says Julia Joern, a partner at David Zwirner. “Though certainly some of them had no clue about who or what they were coming to take a picture of.”
The art-exhibit snapshot, a means of broadcasting one’s cultural savviness, has become as common an Instagram trope as the filtered sunset. Other Instagram-ready shows in the last few years include Random International’s Rain Room at MoMA PS1, Kara Walker’s Sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory, in Brooklyn, and Ai Weiwei’s show at Alcatraz.
What is evolving is the level of self-insertion and audience participation that Instagram allows. At the Kara Walker show, for example, the interaction between viewers and the artwork became such an interwoven part of the exhibition that Walker herself recorded visitors’ behavior—posing in front of the Sphinx, photographing it, physically embracing it—to create a 27-minute video called An Audience, which was shown in a recent exhibition at Chelsea’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Art-world alarmists have fretted that the Instagramization of art could mean that galleries and artists will begin pandering to the medium—it certainly didn’t help that the Whitney passed out fliers at its blowout Jeff Koons retrospective that read, “Take a selfie and post it on Instagram! Use: @whitneymuseum and #Koons #ArtSelfie.”
The most concrete impact of Instagram and social media on art-going, though, is how they have forced museums and galleries to confront their relationships with audience photography, which was once so reflexively forbidden but now seems almost essential. “Museums and galleries have found an engaged community on Instagram,” says Kristen Joy Watts, the team leader for Instagram’s community activities in art and fashion. “We see evidence of this everywhere. I was at the Vancouver Art Gallery recently, and there was a sign that said photography welcome.”
Resistance seems to be futile. “James Turrell asked that there be no photography [at his 2013 retrospective], because the nature of the experience of his light installations is so immersive,” says Nancy Spector, the deputy director at the Guggenheim. “And we tried to respect that by having security ask people not to take photos, but of course they made their way onto social media.”