Selfie please?

By | July 29, 2016

I’m a big fan of photography, but I don’t enjoy seeing scores of tourists holding up iPhones (or worse – iPads!) and seeing their entire holidays through a screen. Still we cannot deny that a selfie has become a staple of the modern diet. The American artist (and a congressman), Sandy Levin, has recently immortalised THE ACT OF TAKING A SELFIE in a bronze statue now proudly displayed outside the City Hall in Sugar Land, Texas.

The idea was to represent the activities that normally happen in the town square, and this statue has been the subject of many aesthetic debates over the past couple of months. It is part of a 10 piece city wide public art donation. The first depicts a guitar player sitting on the edge of a fountain. Two girls taking a selfie is the second.

Critics have not been kind to this work calling it anything from “the most basic thing ever” to “embarrassing”. It has even been labelled by some media as “controversial”! Local residents have complained that it promotes a narcissistic society. Mind you, the local residents are the ones who approved the commission of the work! Maybe we just can’t make up our minds. (First world problems?) Or maybe we just need to realise that the response to something banal and basic is actually what contributes to art which goes down in history as representative of the current social norms.

The selfie has become the norm for social expression through the western world. It is hard to walk through any main street in Europe without being hassled by salesmen of the-one-and-only selfie stick! (And they won’t shy away from interrupting anything and anyone!) Since the beginning of time people recorded their experiences. Cavemen left drawings on the walls; painters commemorated significant events; photography in the 1800s made it more accessible, accurate and instant than ever before; and the invention of a smartphone saw everyone becoming an amateur photographer unbounded by any restrictions when it came to sharing on social media.

Yes, the selfie is a BIG part of our social life. If you take a picture, the moment is treasured through the image and lasts longer. If you put a statue in a public space, it lasts even longer! In a bizarre superimposition of visual intertextuality, the statue of girls taking a selfie immortalises the act of immortalisation.

Napoleon_selfieAs a piece of art (and it is!), this statue will add to the world collection of interactive 3D art that has been around for ages. And some of these are out-of-this-world moving, thought provoking and mesmerising! In Odense, you can take a photo sitting next to Hans Christian Andersen on a bench. In Bratislava, Napoleon (pictured here) will leans on the park bench behind you – he is keen to just chill out and listen in. The bronze boy, “Le Badaud de Sarlat”, by Gerrard Auliac in Dordogne will make you want to just sit for a few moments by his side. The adorable “Make Way for Ducklings” by Nancy Schön in the Boston public garden can’t help but make you smile. And the massive bronze tribute to Rembrandt’s Night Watch in Amsterdam offers endless opportunities for public interaction!

What’s the attraction? Well, there are several actually. The first one is that sculpture in public place connects with people – especially when it comes to recognizable people, significant figures from history, or identifiable human behaviour (like the selfie!). The human likeness and emotional engagement means we don’t need words to relate to this art. For a change, no labels or explanations necessary! They create a beautiful connection with the past, or the stories from our childhood. Will I sit on the bench with Napoleon leaning in behind me? Absolutely! I’m sure this ruthless and amazing man will send chills down my spine as I take my selfie with him. And sometimes these art works simply mimic a basic human behaviour so effortlessly that it makes us want to jump in and sit next to the young man in Dodogne just because we have once sat on the ground like that – lost, hurt, or simply contemplative. Remember Mannekin Pis (1619) statue in Brussels? The obsession with this oldest citizen of Belgium stretched geographically and conceptually through country! You will find Jeaneke Pis (girl version) and Zinneke Pis (peeing dog), as well as peeing boys in other Belgian cities. Ludicrous, yet strangely appealing, such banal action immortalised through public sculptures are certainly not something that we can imagine Brussels without!

All in all, the Selfie statue seems like a daring and honest portrayal of social life today. I’d like to think that a few hundred years from now, art students will study it as a tribute to the modern girl and to the explosion of phone photography. If anything, I think this statue is overdue! And in twenty years from now, I’m sure the critics will be smiling and calling it a tribute to the selfie era.


Night Watch public sculpture, Amsterdam

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