A new exhibition at Frankfurt's Kunsthalle Schirn explores changing perceptions of the private sphere in art over the decades. The influence of social media provides rich material for artists and curators alike.
"Facebook is the next logical step from Big Brother" - You could be excused for thinking that this line comes from some stodgy media critic, but they're actually the words of artist Edgar Leciejewski.
Born in Leipzig in 1977, he's one of the 30 artists whose works are on show in a new exhibition at Frankfurt's Kunsthalle Schirn. Titled "Private," the exhibition explores the changing nature of artistic representations of the private sphere.
Topics such as the impact of social media on personal privacy and the dangers of making the private public on the Internet are all examined in the show.
The exhibition raises a number of interesting issues and questions about how we relate to technology.
Elements of Edgar Leciejewski's work suggest online social networks are viewed with a surprising amount of mistrust. Three of Leciejewski's large-format photographs depicting pixelated portraits of people in New York are included in the exhibition. The idea behind the images came to him a couple of years ago when he was first confronted with Google Street View in the great American metropolis, Leciejewski told DW.
Back then, Google Street View was not yet available in Germany. For Leciejewski, the images are 21st century portraits. "The people were made unrecognizable by the service operators at Google in order to protect their privacy. But because they were made unrecognizable, they became empty characters, projection screens."
"Artists have always examined their innermost feelings and then exhibited them," said Hans Hollein, director of the Kunsthalle Schirn, who points to self-portraiture as a long-standing example of how artists convey intimate aspects of themselves.
Taking pictures of or writing about oneself - both have a long tradition outside of art. The exhibition documents these traditions by way of diaries, private photographs, Polaroids and Super 8 films.
What is new, however, is the inconceivable breadth of influence the issue has had on society in the past few years. Social networks like Facebook and YouTube have made it possible for people to broadcast the most intimate aspects of their private lives 24/7.
Many contemporary artists have produced artworks in dialogue with these developments. Pieces such as those by Leciejewski, explicitly dealing with new media giants such as Google, are a part of that.
Possibilities and risks
"Of course, we're happy about the many technological possibilities that are available at our fingertips, and transparency can surely also be a positive thing," the exhibition's curator Martina Weinhart noted. But, she added, there are always two conflicting powers at play, namely, the power of self-representation and that of being portrayed by others in ways we cannot control.
"If we are no longer in control of images, of our private lives, if we are shown in the most ugly of situations, in a public forum, then we need to recognize that there are two powers at play, both working against one another," Weinhart said, noting that it's up to each individual to decide exactly how best to navigate the Internet.
Weinhart talks about an "electronic loneliness" affecting many people, and about a "cell phone fetish," as people can no longer bear to be separated from their mobile devices. The exhibition takes a close look at the uses and possibilities, but also the risks, of such new media technologies.
Evan Baden's "Emily" (2010) plays on the performative nature of private images made for public consumption
But the "Private" exhibition also explores the positive aspects of online social networks, for instance the countless possibilities now available to artists and the public alike. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is probably the most internationally famous art activist making use of the Internet.
Ai Weiwei once described the Internet as his "private shield." When the state encroaches upon his human rights, he can relay his experiences and reach a worldwide audience in an instant.
For Ai Weiwei, the public nature of the Internet provides him with a certain level of protection and security and can strengthen his power in the face of a repressive state.
Performing the private
But how can one find the right balance in the media jungle, where sometimes people even need protection from themselves? Artist Edgar Leciejewski has a simple suggestion: "Politicians have already proposed it in different ways; we just need to introduce media as subject in schools."
For Martina Weinhart, the topic raises another key point. Public displays of the private are almost always inauthentic. "The private is always staged. Every image is staged. No image materializes out of thin air. The private is always a construction. That was even true in the 1960s, with Andy Warhol."
And it remains the case today: "Real" private life still takes place behind closed doors - away from the prying eyes of cameras and smartphones.