No Escape

Girl with a Pearl Earring and a Silver Camera. Digital mashup after Johannes Vermeer attributed to Michell Grafton. Image Source.

How social media platforms are being used by young people for experiencing art is a current issue that most people can have an idea about or be familiar with, as it is being focused on and explored constantly. In this short story, I wanted to take a slightly different approach and reflect on the role of social media on experiencing art not from the point of view of a young individual or a millennial; but from the perspective and experience of a pre-social media generation. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Helen was turning 72 today, and she was alone, like every other day since Jack passed away. She didn’t have many close friends or any children, so when her husband died from a stroke one year ago, the feeling of loneliness became an undeniable, inescapable part of her life

Jack was a painter, a very talented one – at least in Helen’s eyes. He painted landscapes and portraits, usually of women, but they were imaginary. He didn’t have models like most artists did. He was a loyal man, he surely had some unpleasant qualities, but infidelity wasn’t one of them. She sometimes caught herself imagining who might the women in his portraits be in real life – if they were real, she never asked about it and he didn’t say anything. But she always trusted and counted on him, and when he was gone, it became harder and harder for her to cope with his absence and her loneliness – some days it was just unbearable.

It was on one of those days that she decided to go to this art gallery that recently opened on her street. She enjoyed art, but she wasn’t a regular museum or gallery visitor, she didn’t have the habit to go and explore artworks regularly. But that day she just wanted to get out of the house, do something different to distract herself from her overwhelming thoughts.

After that day, she started going to this gallery once or twice every week, sometimes even more – spending hours in front of the paintings and looking at them like they were masterpieces. At first she didn’t understand how this happened, as she didn’t have this urge to visit a gallery before and there wasn’t anything special about this place. But then after a while she realized, she somehow felt closer to Jack while she was there, closer to his world. She could feel and remember his presence more, surrounded by all these paintings. This small gallery became her shelter in a sense, her best way to connect with Jack. She had lost him, but finally found a way to nurture her memory of him.

So on her 72nd birthday, Helen decided to go to the gallery again. Jack wasn’t a particularly romantic man, but he never forgot her birthdays and always gave her a small present, sometimes a painting, even though they were getting old this habit of his always continued. So on this day, she wanted to go to the gallery, to somehow feel like she was celebrating her birthday with him, even though she knew this would never happen again.

There was something extraordinary going on in the gallery that day. Well, maybe it wasn’t that extraordinary – people were constantly taking ‘selfies’ , a term that Helen learned recently, in front of the artworks. On her regular visits to the gallery Helen noticed this was happening quite often – visitors, especially young people, taking selfies or photos of the artworks, and spending most of the time looking at their smartphones, rather than focusing on and observing the works. As an old woman, she thought this was the new ‘trend’, one that she wasn’t able to understand and thought was quite meaningless and distracting, but who was she to judge?

On this particular day, this trend seemed at its peak to Helen. Almost everyone and especially youngsters were taking selfies, some were using long sticks attached to their phones to take them – Helen hadn’t seen one of those before. They were rushing around, stopping in front of the paintings and changing the position and angle of their phones constantly. Helen couldn’t understand what exactly was going on and started feeling very overwhelmed – then she saw the poster on the wall. The poster said it was the “#GallerySelfie” week, the visitors were encouraged to take a selfie in front of the artworks and post it on ‘Instagram’ with the ‘hashtag’ #GallerySelfie and the gallery ‘tagged’ in it. Then the best 3 selfies chosen by the curator and the director of the gallery would be featured there, as artworks themselves.

Helen didn’t know what most of the terms in this poster meant, but she knew that her idea for her birthday was ruined. Not being able to focus on any work or to feel that calming atmosphere and connection with Jack, she left the gallery perplexed.

She didn’t go there the next week, or the week after that. She felt like after her last visit on her birthday, being in the middle of all the rush and chaos, her vision of this gallery as some sort of haven, as an imaginary link between herself and her beloved Jack, was damaged. She didn’t know why this has affected her so much as she used to notice this behaviour on most of her visits, but perhaps seeing too much of it at once made her feel this distanced towards it.

One day, after two weeks passed by without her visits, she started feeling very suffocated in the house, alone with her thoughts. She wasn’t sure what to do, she got quite used to going to the gallery when she felt this way in the past few months. So she decided to go again, hoping the atmosphere wouldn’t be like the one in her last visit.

Upon entering the main space in the gallery, Helen noticed it was much calmer and she felt pleased. Walking around the space slowly, she started feeling her bond with this place becoming strong again, allowing her to feel a connection to Jack once more.

Suddenly, she came across the section of the room reserved for the 3 selfies – the winners of the #GallerySelfie week. Getting curious, she started looking at them carefully. In the first one, a man in his thirties was doing the exact surprised facial expression as the portrait behind him. In the second selfie, a mum and her little son were hugging each other, she wasn’t sure of the work behind them. In the final one, two teenage girls were looking to each other and laughing in front of a beach landscape painting, and there were people in the background, as the frame of this one was much larger compared to the other two. While taking a closer look to all of them, she needed to put on her glasses to be sure of what she was seeing in the final selfie – she was there too in the background, looking around with her puzzled expression.

The contrast between her confused image in the background and the laughing young girls was so strong that Helen couldn’t take her eyes off of the photo. She stood in front of it for a long time, looking at it over and over again- and then took her old fashioned phone off her pocket, and decided to take her first selfie.

This story has been featured on the blog of the BA (Hons) Contemporary Media Cultures course at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

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