Inside the inflated hyper-lit cavern of the Dodecalis Luminarium, a large immersive art installation in Darling Harbour as part of the Sydney festival, I try to stay out of people’s photographs. As they flick their hair, pop their backs and inch carefully into the perfect spot against the curves and lines of the artwork, I awkwardly hover back out of shot. And then I give up. It is a photographic free-for-all.
I almost roll my eyes, then take out my phone. I take 49 pictures and two videos in my 20 minutes of allocated time.
I know this is exactly how it is supposed to work. Even the promotional shots of the Dodecalis Luminarium feature people on their phones taking pictures. Across Australia, city arts festivals now include immersive Instagram-friendly exhibitions as a staple. This year’s Adelaide festival has a supersized doll’s house. In Perth, the Supreme Court Gardens are being transformed into a Brothers Grimm fairytale forest. At Launceston’s Mona Foma, Architects of Air, the same British artists behind Sydney’s Dodecalis, are exhibiting the Daedalum Lumniarium, a similar immersive piece. Last year in Brisbane there was an installation of infinite doors, and in Darwin a giant inflatable artwork called Blue Air.
Instagram turns 10 this year, and within this decade there has been a global trend towards large-scale installations, exhibitions and museums which are conducive to sharing on the social media platform. From established artists such as Yayoi Kusama exhibiting her supersized dot artworks in top-tier galleries around the world, to upstart Museums of Ice Cream (a hugely popular installation which extolls the power of ice cream to bring people together) and pop-up festivals, these experiences draw thousands of visitors. And they are photographed. Again and again and again.
Criticism of these made-for-Insta art experiences can easily trip into elitism. And the truth is that art has for centuries been about vanity, personal shows of wealth and cultural access. The great masters’ portraits of the nobility, set against backdrops designed to enhance the perception of their wealth, status, beauty and virtue, are really just the commissioned selfies of dead rich people. So what harm is there in extending this privilege, of putting oneself in the artwork, to the general public?
After all, it brings massive footfall to festivals, opens up the arts to people who might not be inclined towards going or would otherwise be unable to afford to go. These are child-friendly installations: noisy, unpretentious, democratic, fun. There are no furrowed brows or stroked chins here. They are a critical part of a city arts festival becoming part of the city, and not just a self-satisfied section within it.
And yet, the irony is that these immersive exhibitions in practice become anything but immersive. They instantly become two-dimensional. Being encompassed by a womb-like circuit board in the Dodecalis Luminarium could be powerful. Being lost in its soft, depthless tunnels of light could be otherwordly. Instead, it is of this world in a way that feels more colluding than critical. These installations that draw crowds together in a single creative experience can feel lonely and narcissistic.
In 2007, I attended an Antony Gormley exhibition, Blind Light, in London. It comprised a large glass box, filled with a kind of cold steam such that, once inside, one could barely see their hand in front of their face. We moved through the space almost formless, simultaneously alone and part of one amorphous human whole. As people drew nearer, you could see a face at close range surrounded by mist. An arm. Part of a foot. This would have made for spectacular photographs. But, three years before Instagram was born, instead we met the art as art. We experienced it as humans, not their ultimate digital avatars. I have no pictures of it, so I remember it for the way it made me feel.
Photographing and sharing an artwork is obviously a kind of response to that work. It’s a form of participation in the art. But it is limited, as constrained as an Instagram square.
The arts are supposed to challenge us, to make us feel things and view the world in a different way. As I walk through the Dodecalis Luminarium, among others holding their phones aloft like some kind of libation for a misplaced altar, I wonder what this experience would be like if we were all discouraged from using our phones. If we were asked to be in the work, see it and move around it, just for a moment. I wonder how different it might feel, and I imagine it would be quite a lot.
On the light rail home I scroll through my pictures of the Dodecalis Luminarium and fight the impulse to upload them to social media. I pause, and share four on WhatsApp instead.
• Dodecalis Luminarium is showing at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour, as part of Sydney festival until 26 January