49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL
Doug Wheeler: The Latest Instagram Filter
Hypebeasts, art & design students, and collectors alike crowd into the stuffy glossy-floored, neon-filled room in New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. It is almost obligatory to make a snarky comment about ‘Drake songs’ as one enters the latest Doug Wheeler installation in NYC.
The widespread photo on Instagram feeds of a human silhouette standing in Wheeler’s 49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL is likely responsible for the dense crowd in Zwirner’s 19th St gallery. While there wasn’t a block wrapping queue like Kusama’s infinity room a few months back, this crowd was definitely on the denser end of gallery occupancy.
Wheeler’s 49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL falls into the California Light and Space movement genre, which includes artists such as Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell. 49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL is meant to disorient the viewer with ambiguity of depth and distance through the diffusion of soft light on perfectly smooth sheet rock and curved corners. Yet, unlike the anticipated calmness and silence of viewing a Light and Space piece, the experience at Zwirner was quite the opposite - viewing Turell’s lobby on 505 Fifth ave from the street would yield a more serene experience.
Wheeler however, cannot be faulted for the chaotic and noisy experience of his installation. It is perhaps the way Zwirner directs its visitors and the current climate of image culture that results in this disorderly experience. The most apparent deviation from the typical mode of viewing these spatial works was that there was no queue, time limitation, or immediate concern for occupancy. Visitors were free to enter and exit Wheeler’s installation at their discretion, with docents at each entrance only advising visitors to not lean on walls as they weren’t solid, but made of stretched fabric. In contrast, only one or two visitors are allowed in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms at 30 second intervals, with photography permitted depending on gallery.
As a result, the expected experience of Wheeler’s installation is completely transformed for better or for worse. For those attempting to experience the piece as designed, it is nearly impossible to defocus one’s eyes into Wheeler’s void as there is constant disruption caused by passing silhouettes or flickering phone screens. Countless smartphones disrupt the singular glowing border as visitors attempt to replicate the press release photo or achieve the perfect instagram story. An ocularcentric experience is no longer the primary mode of interaction - there is a second form of depth erosion, consuming the piece through a smartphone where Wheeler’s work is reproduced and flattened on to a digital screen. Regardless of intention, no one seems to be able to completely achieve their goal, be it sensory deprivation or art as backdrop due to the shear density of visitors.
The altered experience of Wheeler’s latest installation poses a number of questions for the spectatorship of Instagram/hype friendly art or ‘backdrop-ism’. The often criticized queue and time limitation of similar installations would clearly be beneficial for visitors in this situation. It is difficult not to compare Zwirner, a large institution dedicated to ‘high art’, to more trendy pop- ups such as Arctechouse or The Museum of Ice Cream due to their photographic-friendly environments. The commodification of contemporary art largely relies on social media/virality for engagement, and many galleries directly encourage this phenomenon with the argument that exposure on social media encourages a democratic distribution of art and erodes the exclusivity and opaqueness of the art world.
On a broader spectrum, Instagram does not discriminate, as everyone is a user, spectator and critic with platform for communication all at once. The common knee-jerk statement to art being used as backdrop is that the piece is de-valued or it’s how contemporary art dies. The art isn’t necessarily devalued, but has the potential to expand on existing questions about reproduction and commodification - in fact, I personally think the phenomenon of backdrop- ism bares many similarities to Richard Prince’s controversial Cowboy works, where his mode of recontextualization involved re-photographing Marlboro ads and enlarging them. The reproduction of art through social media establishes a more egalatarian medium or gateway environment for art exploration, particularly with abstract or non-representational works which otherwise can be intimidating to grasp or approach.
The misuse, or atypical chaotic environment of Wheeler’s latest installation reveals a different kind of individualized perception, and reinforces problems with art spectatorship infiltrated by widespread social media backdrop-ism - one which portrait modes and temporal social media posts take precedence over embodied immersive experiences in the form of image-based aestheticization. It is almost as if our phone screens take on the original premise of the white cube. While museum spaces are intended to be places one could learn how to see and gain new perspectives through art viewership, tours, audio guides, and services encouraging exploration and deeper investigation of art are no longer as popular for visitors. For many museum goers, art viewership becomes more of a bucket list item and spectacle rather than an investigation into cultural significance.
Galleries like Zwirner are then presented with a dilemma - They are not a non-profit or federally backed institution like the MoMA or The Met, they must turn a profit by catering to wealthy clients while appealing to more diverse crowds for exposure. Marketing their shows as temporal spectacles or novelty that visitors ‘must see or it will be gone forever’ has proven successful particularly with the phenomenon of FOMO. The turnaround time for shows in independent galleries are much quicker than museums - some lasting less than a week, such as the traveling shows at Sotheby’s on York Ave. As social media has become more visual and image based as opposed to the written blog form, galleries must provide a visually enticing spectacle that is friendly to the smartphone-based gaze and documentational medium.
Independent galleries then exist in the liminal space between the traditional intellectual museum and hype pop-ups. While not entirely superficial like the Museum of Ice Cream where exhibits encourage picture taking and are not meant for deep contemplation, galleries like Zwirner do not necessarily discourage the use of smartphones.
As such, an opportunity for recapturing gallery agency in art spectatorship emerges through a deeper consideration of spectator presence - one that extends beyond crowd control and occupancy, while anticipating the smartphone-based gaze or backdrop-ism. 49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL, requires a more curated, choreographed experience with a limited number of spectators at a time, versus a painting or photography based exhibit which naturally promotes queuing to view each piece. Democratizing and creating exposure for work without undermining the artist’s intention or ideas during this time becomes a complex problem for galleries, to which its resolution can begin at a spatial level.