Avoiding images of the “Wonder” exhibit at the Renwick Gallery is a nearly impossible feat, with pictures of dazzling rainbow prisms and a glowing gossamer net plastered on every major social media website. I had seen countless images of the artwork before personally going to the gallery, and I wasn’t sure how the pieces themselves would compare to their two-dimensional counterparts.
After experiencing the exhibit myself, however, I concluded that the artwork indeed surpassed my expectations, which were based off of photos that I’d seen before. I found Echelmen’s “1.8”, pictured above, and Dougherty’s “Shindig” to be the most striking in the exhibit; their texture and dynamism setting them apart from the rest of the artwork. Those pieces were also two of the most interactive from my observation. People lay beneath “1.8”, eyes transfixed on the net doused in light, and wandered amongst the swirling structures of “Shindig”. I had not anticipated that level of interaction and informality at an art gallery, and I found the lack of restraint and solemnity refreshing.
The photography aspect of the Renwick created another medium in which to interact with and interpret the artwork, and that interaction altered the climate of the gallery. While I understand the gallery’s intentions of allowing visitors to experience the artwork in the most personally gratifying way–whether that is with or without photography–I think that the photography took away from appreciation of the artwork. That may sound hypocritical since I took pictures throughout my visit, but I think that this development of photography of artwork can largely be attributed to the prevalence of social media in our society and how that development has changed our culture. I believe that if social media and photo-sharing apps did not exist, far fewer visitors would take pictures of the artwork, and practically none would walk through each room looking at the art through their iPhone screens.
Photography at a place like the Renwick seems almost futile; the sense of “wonder” imparted by the impossibly curved branches of “Shindig” or the stunning symmetry of “The Midnight Garden” are three-dimensional qualities that cannot possibly be reduced to a two-dimensional Instagram frame. The intangible feelings of awe and of being dwarfed by your surroundings cannot be conveyed in a 10-second snapchat. It seemed almost pitiful to watch other visitors search painstakingly for perfect selfie lighting or fumble through an exhibit with eyes glued to their phone screens, fruitlessly seeking a better angle. It seemed as if many people were more focused on finding the best way to visually capture their experience than they were on actually enjoying the artwork while they were there. I did not find this incredibly distracting, but I did feel as if many visitors valued getting a new profile picture more than they valued immersing themselves in the “wonder” that was right in front of them.