Art galleries have long been the home for self-portraits, but over summer the Museum of Contemporary Art became Sydney’s most popular selfie destination. Specifically, the blockbuster Pipilotti Rist exhibition Sip My Ocean, and more specifically her ‘Pixelwald Motherboard’, a room full of hundreds of hanging lights that act like pixels in a giant TV set.
If you look at the museum’s location tag on Instagram, you can see literally thousands of exhibition shots and selfies taken in the space. If you didn’t Instagram your visit to Sip My Ocean, were you even really there?
The MCA is pretty chuffed that so many people have engaged with the exhibition and that word has spread so far: they say the #PipilottiRist hashtag has reached 4.1 million people over the course of the exhibition. It’s an absolute marketing dream and has drawn in hordes of new visitors to the gallery.
But as the exhibition enters its final month, the museum will be hosting an after hours “unplugged” session, requiring visitors to switch off their phones and enjoy the exhibition with their own eyes for two hours.
“The idea of ‘unplugged’ simply stemmed from this increased social media activity seen in the exhibition,” says Gill Nicol, MCA’s director of audience engagement. “We’re always looking for alternative and meaningful ways our visitors can experience contemporary art, and for Sip My Ocean, a phone free night seemed like the perfect fit – it’s a digital detox for the new year.”
There’s a significant challenge for galleries everywhere in striking the right balance between encouraging visitors to stretch their own creative muscles and allowing others to enjoy the artwork in an old school way, without the interruptions of amateur photoshoots.
“There’s a natural affinity between visual arts and Instagram as a medium,” Nicol says. “Many artists are now using Instagram as a vehicle for showing their work, and their ideas. A large proportion of our audience love visual inspiration and ‘shareable’ experiences that they can show to their friends and followers. It’s great to see so many people getting creative in our galleries, plus social media allows us to have a high level of dialogue with our audience.”
But there are also risks that come with this level of photography at exhibitions. The MCA has a photo policy – no selfie sticks, no tripods, no bulky items – but the gallery hosts also keep a close eye on visitors to make sure they don’t bump into the artworks and damage what can be quite fragile elements. The MCA puts a strict limit on the number of people allowed in certain installations at any one time to ensure visitor safety – there haven’t been any reported selfie-related injuries just yet. The aim is for everybody to have a comfortable experience – and sometimes, that might mean putting the phone away.
Check out our hitlist of the best art to see in Sydney this month.