The National Portrait Gallery, London

Review: Instagram: Power of Beauty - Exhibition fails to put the 'art' in Smartphone

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The images curated by the likes of Kylie Minogue and Jared Leto are not art except in the ad-hoc sense that anything can be art with an Instagram filter on it

How has Instagram managed to seduce 130 million daily users? The app possesses the magical ability to make the present look like the past, to make the boring look beautiful, and indeed, to make life seem worth living. Everything’s so much better, isn’t it, when it’s seen by others? In fact, what is the point of doing anything at all, unless it is seen by others? This seems to be the message encoded in Instagram’s phenomenal popularity.

A pop-up exhibition of Instagram photos, curated by “five iconic and influential individuals from the world of arts and culture” including pop-star Kylie Minogue, Hollywood actor Jared Leto, and British Vogue online editor Dolly Jones, was held at The National Portrait Gallery in honour of Kevin Systrom’s first ever trip to the UK. Along with fellow Stanford graduate Mike Krieger, Systrom launched Instagram in 2010 and sold it a mere 18 months later to Mark Zuckerburg at Facebook for $1 billion. There is big money to be made from making the world look whimsical.

The images selected for this exhibition are absorbing for the two seconds it takes to look at them, before looking at something else. They are part of the endless cycle of looking and discarding that make up our image-mad culture. They are not extraordinary, they are not particularly offensive. They are not art, except in the ad-hoc sense that anything can be art with an Instagram filter on it.

Leto has chosen a nice close-up of some piano keys: they loom diagonally, their ivory gleaming. The wood of the piano appears grand and old: an antique. Of course Instagram makes everything look like an antique, but in this case the piano might actually be one. It was posted by IFeelLikeATourist and tagged, rather unimaginatively, “#piano.”

Leto has also chosen an image of a door with a number seven above it. I like it because seven is my lucky number. It’s difficult to have stronger feelings than that: the image looks like the result of someone’s holiday. And indeed it seems to be so: the photographer tagged it: “#Germany #doorsofdistinction.”

Instagram launched its video sharing app in June this year, thus putting the company in direct competition with Vine. Minogue has selected a video of a dog floating past on a lilo in a swimming-pool. The video is quite amusing in a You’ve Been Framed kind of way. It’s not as amusing as one commentator seems to think: “Lol I didn’t see that coming xD.”

The app isn’t all pointlessness though. It allows anyone with an iPhone, and now other android phones, to be creative. It “democratic.” All these words should be taken with a pinch of salt in this context.

Hans Ulrich-Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine, has chosen a striking abstract image of birds pecking at rubbish in a pool of florescent light. It is by far the most compelling – part collage, part digital dystopia. But he has also selected an image of a kitten clutching some mint leaves – back to You’ve Been Framed. His final image is likewise annoying: a male model in a transparent pink plastic mac. Someone has commented: “Want!!”

Jones’ final image points to both the glamour and the idiocy of the medium. It shows supermodel Gisele Bundchen splayed on a yellow floor with her legs open, her bronzed and slender arms raised, wearing a very nice red and black floral dress (what more to say?). There is a bunch of brilliant red flowers sprouting out of her crotch, as though Bundchen were not merely a supermodel, but a superhuman, capable of giving birth to flora and fauna.

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