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How Instagram became a museum in our palms

In the long months of the pandemic, Instagram has not only been our daily supplier of art but also made us rethink what art really means

Detail from a work by Christoph Niemann.
Detail from a work by Christoph Niemann. (Instagram/@abstractsunday)

In one of his columns on photography for The New York Times, published in 2015, writer Teju Cole put his finger on the protean character of Instagram. Instagram is, he wrote, “like any other wildly successful social-media platform…by turns creative, tedious, fun and ridiculous”. If the medium bred the usual cult of the celebrity (with stars like Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, who get thousands of Likes irrespective of what they post), for Cole it is also a fount of curiosity, a virtual peephole into the minds of great photographers (Cole wrote particularly about Stephen Shore, Dayanita Singh and Gueorgui Pinkhassov). These serendipitous encounters, he wrote, left him with a “jolt of wonder”.

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In the intervening six years, Instagram has morphed into another kind of beast, with a barrage of targeted advertisements and shopping baits woven into its infinite-scroll format. But the essential appeal of the platform for the visually inclined—makers and consumers of art—remains steady, if not even more relevant. Especially during the long months of the pandemic, Instagram seems to have assumed the kind of cultural capital that traditional connoisseurs of art are usually loath to accord to social media ecosystems—but like it or not, Instagram is now a daily source of art for many.

We may no longer be able to visit our favourite galleries and museums, travel to far-flung places to immerse ourselves in the magic of the European Old Masters, but art has found a way to reach us through the tiny square “windows” on our phone screens, allowing us to hop, skip and jump from the Louvre to the Alhambra in seconds. This mode of experiencing art isn’t novel for those who live in developing countries, encumbered with passports that don’t make border-crossing fun, to say nothing of the forbidding exchange rates.

A comic strip posted on the Instagram page @dinosandcomics.
A comic strip posted on the Instagram page @dinosandcomics. (Instagram/@dinosandcomics)

If the World Wide Web democratised access to art, Instagram has given the phenomenon further momentum since its launch in 2010. Not only did it create a level playing field for image- and video-makers of varying skill sets, it also forced us to rethink the age-old feuds about what is and isn’t art (or simply “content”, if you like). Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the platform has felt like a museum of sorts—small enough to hold in our palms, a self-regenerating powerhouse of images, which can be enjoyed without leaving home.

During the early days of the lockdown, for instance, I realised with a start that I was beginning to draw as much comfort from the still-life paintings of the Old Masters as from the amusing creations by illustrator Christoph Niemann. Best known for the stunning covers he designs for The New Yorker magazine, the German artist’s favourite bag of tricks involves the stuff of everyday life—from a humble spoon to a cup of coffee—around which he creates a quirky visual field.

On his @abstractsunday handle, Niemann regales his million-plus followers with these multidimensional creations—a real apple turning into the head of a character drawn by him, seated in front of the sketch of an apple pie; the snout of a spray bottle assuming the body of a rhinoceros; and a red lighter becoming the nose and mouth of a polar bear. Looking at Niemann’s work and following the arc of his eclectic whimsy can become an unconscious exercise in honing our ways of seeing. Weeks of being locked away at home brings the prospect of staring at the same things day in and out. But once your eyes are touched by Niemann’s sorcery, even mundane office supplies begin to appear slightly askew, a little queer. That water bottle on your desk in the morning, which reminded you of an empty aquarium, looks like a lighthouse by a storm-lashed sea as the fading light of the evening closes in on it. Niemann’s visual medley may be too clever and witty for the “high-brow” interiors of the white cube of a gallery, but it is artful in more senses than one.

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The web comics that writer James Stewart and artist K. Roméy post on the Instagram handle @dinosandcomics, among other social media platforms, are even farther away from the staid conventions of art-watching. They make fixed-art comics in which a handful of characters, mostly dinosaurs and turtles, recur. The exchanges between them are usually laconic, spread across a set of four panels, and tend to deal with loneliness, mental health, anxiety, productivity, self-esteem and every other shade of existential angst that can afflict us mortals.

Much like the fixed format, the panel colour schemes barely change but there is always a subtle inflection of a mood, the texture of a fine feeling conveyed through little details of speech—usually delivered as anodyne understatement. These strips often remind me of the endlessly repeating imageries created by Andy Warhol—his famous painting of rows of soup cans, for instance, all seemingly identical, but not quite. The point is all of us are damaged goods, even as we go around like dinosaurs and turtles, looking spiffy. If art provokes us to look deeper into ourselves, so do these deceptively cute panels.

A post by Marvin Heiferman.
A post by Marvin Heiferman. (Instagram/@whywelook)

The question of looking—carefully and at times cruelly—at what lies beneath the surface is also at the heart of American writer, curator and photographer Marvin Heiferman’s handle @whywelook. Although he has been posting on Instagram since 2014, for a little over a year Heiferman has been grappling with the devastating loss of his spouse, writer and cultural historian Maurice Berger, during the early days of the pandemic.

Since March 2020, when Berger suddenly died of complications due to suspected covid-19, Heiferman has documented his grief with a raw candour on Instagram. At the same time, he has also charted out a map of survival for others like him who have lost loved ones. Drawn to his daily updates, thousands of strangers from all over the world come together daily to navigate their personal maps of loss—and be reminded of what it means to be human.

The photographs, outwardly placid most of the time, punch you viscerally as you get to the caption. From the detritus of a deeply felt absence to haunting close-ups of Heiferman’s stricken, tear-stained face to occasional flashbacks to the life that was—@whywelook is a testament to the slow accretion of the past, even as we struggle to bear witness to the present. It’s a mode of keeping time, teaching us the one art that matters—of being humane and vulnerable during our time on earth.

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