Doctored photographs of world leaders and celebrities, often derided as cyberjunk, will grace the walls of the ICA, in the Mall in London, from tomorrow. Among the exhibits are portrayals of Kate Moss and Pete Doherty as the moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, and the Duchess of Cornwall as a horse.
Most virals - not to be confused with computer viruses - are simply still images or short films made to entertain and amuse bored office workers. They are usually created anonymously but often end up with audiences of millions when circulated by email.
Yet the ICA believes they offer a commentary on modern life and have become a cultural and social phenomenon. Art critics, though, have poured scorn on the ICA exhibition.
Brian Sewell, the commentator and broadcaster, yesterday said they were a waste of time and "not worth bothering with". "Frankly, I don't see what this has got to do with art. The ICA just doesn't know where to draw the line. It's all best ignored," said Mr Sewell. "This kind of thing really has no intellectual foundation. It's feeble rubbish. It makes me wonder why this place is given money."
Others wondered why people would go to a gallery to view things that drop into their inboxes every day.
But Ekow Eshun, artistic director of the ICA, defended the decision to mount the exhibition, which is being staged in conjunction with Channel 4.
"Technology has had a democratising effect. It now offers ordinary people the chance to react instantly to, and comment on, events," he said. "It is a fascinating phenomenon. And it is important for us to hold on to this moment and frame it. We have provided a snapshot of the current state of this art form."
The exhibition will reveal the people behind some of the most popular and controversial virals. Other images to be displayed include one of Christ with an Ikea DIY crucifixion kit and a picture of George W Bush handing guns to Palestinian and Israeli leaders. "This is a form of satire and a part of modern culture - a way of looking at the world around us," Mr Eshun added.
But a former artistic director of the ICA, Ivan Massow, suggested that, while virals were interesting, their time as a vehicle for satirical comment may already have passed. Multinational corporations had cottoned on to the power of the viral email and were creating their own to market products.
"The phenomenon is interesting, but it has already become very commercial," Mr Massow said. "There is a brief period when these things are inventive, but soon companies and advertising agencies are looking at how to jump on."
More scathing of the ICA was Charles Thomson, of the Stuckist movement that champions painting as an artistic medium. "They might as well be called the Institute of Contemporary Jokes," he said.