Nicholas R. Bell, the curator of “Wonder,” disagrees with the idea that there’s a “proper” way to experience art, or that large-scale installations are somehow inferior. “Have we not clamored for spectacle for thousands of years?” he says. “People like large things that overpower them in some way. I think it’s part of human nature.”
Over the last few years, a number of immersive exhibitions have drawn huge crowds, in large part thanks to their social-media potential. In 2012, “Rain Room” debuted in London at the Barbican Center, offering visitors the chance to walk through a space filled with falling water while miraculously staying dry (the installation’s sensors shut off flow when they detect bodies below them). The show prompted unprecedented lines during a later run at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it’s completely sold out.
Last summer, the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. installed a huge ball pit for adults called “The Beach” in its central atrium, inspiring thousands of playful pictures. A 2015 exhibition in Tokyo, “Floating Flower Garden,” enabled visitors to walk unencumbered through a hanging garden, where the flowers rose as they approached. At the newly opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles, visitors with pre-timed tickets can spend 45 seconds alone in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room,” a mirror-lined space filled with an array of twinkling LED lights. It was previously at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, where visitors spent hours in line in order to contemplate the room for a brief moment. The installation elicits feelings of serenity and intimacy with the universe—and, according to The New York Times, “makes for the ultimate selfie.”
These exhibitions are often more akin to stadium concerts than museum shows, starting with the lines that precede them. They overwhelm the senses, offer a communal experience as opposed to a personal one, and provide fantastic photo opportunities while making friends jealous. It’s been particularly noted that “Wonder” is an Instagrammer’s dream—the exhibition was trending on the picture-driven social-media app from the very first day it opened. Signs in the galleries actually encourage photography (unlike the typical notices requiring visitors to put their cameras away), which has resulted in 35,000 photos being tagged at the Renwick in the past three months. “Rain Room,” too, has a powerful Instagram presence, with more than 30,000 images and videos posted to the app with the hashtag #rainroom.
Nowadays, artists and curators usually anticipate that many viewers will be photographing their art. Alexander Alberro, an art history professor at Barnard, told me via email that this has increased the impulse to make and feature artworks that will “smoothly slide into image-based formats” like Instagram, because this kind of art is more likely to bring in visitors and even buyers. Meanwhile, museums in general have become the backdrop for their attendees’ photoshoots—the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, for example, has inspired thousands of images—meaning that many contemporary institutions have changed their lighting from traditional spotlights to high-wattage fluorescent lights. The effect, Alberro says, makes “the white walls of the gallery pulsate like the white liquid crystal screens of smartphones and tablets.” One writer has even likened the Whitney’s new design to Instagram itself.