This spring, visitors to German artist Tobias Rehberger’s “If you don’t use your eyes to see, you will use them to cry” exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum — one of several new institutions that has sprung up along Shanghai’s Bund in recent years — didn’t exactly get a traditional museum experience. In addition to candy-colored installations and neon signage, Rehberger’s show included a butcher shop, a Japanese teahouse, and a wine bar, among other interactive attractions.
The exhibit, which seemed to welcome visitors to partake in the party, was a hit on social media, and stylish young Chinese flocked to take in — and record — the sights. Lines to take photos at some of the installations were so long that museum staff had to stand nearby to maintain order.
These scenes are likely familiar to young museumgoers around the world. In recent years, the prevalence of social media — combined with the rise of commercially focused museums and institutions — has led to a boom in so-called Instagram-friendly art spaces. Known in China as “Instagram style,” or “INS feng,” exhibitions like Rehberger’s at the Rockbund are generally brightly colored, visually exhilarating, and most importantly, photogenic and social media ready.
They’re also wildly popular. The fashion design and multimedia art exhibition “Wavelength: Reset” held in Shanghai last year, attracted nearly 120,000 visitors in just three months — and over 10 million related social media posts are estimated to have reached another 80 million people. In a sense, this may seem like a good thing: Social media-friendly shows appear to be fulfilling art spaces’ promises to be accessible, public-facing institutions, capable of reaching a wide audience and starting conversations. But rather than pushing audiences or confronting them with art capable of challenging comfort zones and starting conversations, they’re reducing themselves to social media props.
Visitors pose for photos during the exhibition“WAVELENGTH: RESET,” in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Dec. 21. 2018. Chen Yi/IC
INS feng exhibitions and institutions are part of what’s called the “clock-in economy,” or daka jingji in Chinese. Social media users follow the accounts of celebrities and influencers, then visit the same places and attend the same events as them. To “prove” they went, they snap a photo — or photos — and post them to their own social media accounts.
The desire of young Chinese to clock in has become an important source of business for restaurants, cafés, and yes, art spaces, too. These visitors care less about the actual content of exhibitions than their shareability, and institutions have responded by putting social media at the center of their design, curation, publicity, and management efforts.
Weight is placed on how photogenic exhibitions are, with details arranged to encourage photography and social compatibility. One user of a ticket-booking app tagged Rehberger’s exhibition as the “photographic holy land.”
Rehberger and the Rockbund still wanted to start a serious discussion or, to use the museum’s wording, to explore “how we interact with space and perceive the connection between everyday life and art.” But many newly emerged art spaces simply cater to visitors’ desire to relax, have fun, and take beautiful INS feng photos.
Exterior (left) and interior views of “If you don’t use your eyes to see, you will use them to cry”at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, 2019. Courtesy of Tobias Rehberger and RAM
And thanks to a central government push to support and encourage art space development beginning in 2011, new museums and galleries have sprung up across China over the past few years, especially in the big cities. In Shanghai, for example, more than two-thirds of the city’s 82 art museums opened after 2011, with 10 of them opening just this year.
Many of these are run by commercial entities — including real estate companies — less interested in spreading the joys of art than in turning a profit. Over the past few years, developers have started building museums and art spaces as a way to acquire land from local governments at a discount. Many of these new institutions don’t even bother to recruit curators. Unsurprisingly, their exhibitions are often poorly presented attempts to cash in on social media trends.
But as it turns out, many visitors don’t care about their low quality. It’s not uncommon to see visitors hanging out with their friends at exhibits, taking pictures of each other. After they finish, they may go directly to a nearby café, order a drink, and, instead of talking to each other about what they just saw, pull up the photos and selfies they took, retouch them, and post them online.
Visitor feedback reflects this reality. Some of the most common comments on ticket-booking apps and social media include things like “very photogenic,” “such a dreamlike experience,” and “all art should be as accessible as this.”
In short, institutions are losing sight of their mission to serve the public interest, turning instead toward satisfying the public’s narcissistic impulses and cravings for social media attention. Art exhibits once strove to be sites of contemplation. They were expected to challenge audiences’ preconceptions, encourage conversations between different people, and inspire us to care about something that transcends our own immediate personal interests — like environmental issues or the challenges faced by underprivileged groups.
A view of the installation “Forbidden in heaven, useless in hell (El Redomon version)” at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, 2019. Courtesy of Tobias Rehberger and RAM
Now art exhibits are merely window dressing for selfies. Visitors take photos, post them online, and count likes. It’s a short, rewarding cycle that lets people feel good about themselves, and it encourages visitors to “voluntarily” promote exhibitions online without noticing that they are being manipulated.
At INS feng exhibitions, museums’ public mission is reduced to encouraging “interactions” between visitors and installations. Visitors “clock in,” ostensibly as consumers, but are in reality unpaid producers helping promote exhibitions online by creating shareable content.
More traditional or high-minded museums and curators are struggling to adapt to this new reality. Although the exhibition at the Rockbund was perceived by many audiences as simply a good place to take photos, a corresponding lecture organized by the museum actually adopted a critical posture toward prevailing consumerist trends of visual pleasure, citing dystopian visions of the future such as those in “1984” and “Brave New World.” Yet any critical undertones were overshadowed by what became a carnival of consumerism.
It’s hard to take a critical stance here without appearing overly harsh. After all, what’s wrong with exhibitions being fun and colorful? It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically problematic about INS feng exhibitions, but there’s a real chance that their success could adversely influence the broader museum ecosystem.
The critic Alain de Botton once said that, for some, “our museums of art have become our new churches.” These solemn and grand institutions attract pilgrims, he said; our voices even instinctively drop upon entering their grandiose galleries — or at least they did.
At the end of the day, it’s about what we want our art spaces to look like, and the values we want them to reflect. INS feng no doubt has its place, but it shouldn’t be our only option.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A woman poses for a photo during the exhibition “WAVELENGTH: RESET,” in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Dec. 21. 2018. Chen Yi/IC)