Louvre Abu Dhabi: Cultural Growth or Publicity Stunt

In the age of Instagram and the selfie, how do we engage with sites of great artistic beauty? What is the art, if any, in taking photos of art?

Feb 10, 2018

publicitystuntPhoto courtesy of Karolina Wilczyńska

If you’re an NYU Abu Dhabi student, you’ve probably already scrolled past a version of this photo on your Instagram or Facebook feed: a well-coiffed classmate in neat semi-formal clothes, smiling candidly amongst azure waters and the pristine white blocks of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

It’s a photoshoot that’s hard to resist. Not to mention that the whole photoshoot setup was a deal whose name alone sold for more than 1.8 billion AED alone. The costly world-class museum was born out of an 2007 intergovernmental agreement between the United Arab Emirates and France, and finally opened on Nov. 11, 2017 to much fanfare.

Lauded as the “first universal museum in the Arab world”, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s slogan is “see humanity in a new light.”

The Louvre’s curatorial philosophy focuses on the interconnectedness of art around the world and shared bodies of thought, resulting in thematic galleries. Examples include, Universal Religions and The First Great Powers, each arranged according to chronology rather than national tradition.

Indeed, sheltered under the seemingly weightless 7,500-ton dome designed by Jean Nouvel, the museum’s collection boasts Greco-Roman sculpture, Chinese pottery, Shiva statues, Renaissance painting and Islamic calligraphy, and the likes of individual greats such as Rothko, da Vinci, Ai Weiwei, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Delacroix, Calder, Monet, Pollock, Gauguin and Rodin.

Despite the rich ensemble of artworks, you would be forgiven for thinking that this immaculate floating museum consisted of only Instagrammable exterior locations. Upon exiting the galleries, one observes almost every visitor inhaling sharply and whipping out their phones to capture the magnificent effect of the light dancing through the latticework of the dome, or the stark scene of turquoise waters lapping against solid marble. As James Langton aptly reported in The National, “Louvre Abu Dhabi is a building for the age of the smartphone and the selfie, its startling architecture and angles perfectly designed for Twitter and Instagram.”

Every museum-goer has their smartphone in hand; several asked the security guards inside the museum how to get to the open space underneath the dome. As far as I know, you have to pass through the exhibits first. Arguably, this clean-cut aesthetic — azure waters, pristine white blocks — is the most iconic aspect of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Perhaps, curiously, even more iconic than the works housed within.

Located just ten minutes away by taxi from the NYUAD campus, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has quickly become a favorite student spot, particularly for photoshoots. When I visited on opening day, I noticed a sign at the security gates forbidding selfie sticks. Most museum-goers left the obnoxious sticks at home, but not the selfies.

The choice photo spots of the day were in front of Napoleon’s portrait or da Vinci’s La belle ferronnière, directly under the dome, and around the bridge overlooking the view to the sea. Notably, not many visitors chose to hog the spots in front of non-Western artworks or lesser-known pieces — and I’m sure many tried their best to crop out the lifeguards and cleaning staff working on site. There are politics involved in what we choose to take photos of.

The experience begs questions about the way we interact with art and the reasons behind it. Perhaps taking a photo of yourself with art, as if you were part of the art, breaks a certain code of conduct for treating a museum as a revered and sacred space. In the Internet age, how do we engage with sites of great artistic beauty?

Selfies and Instagramming may take away from the actual museum experience. There are no easy answers to questions revolving around power, privilege, culture, aesthetics and art. However these questions are relevant to understanding the nuances of how we consume media in general, especially in the image-saturated media environment today.

The case of Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, is reminiscent of other major art museums. When I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence this January, the alarms near the Botticelli’s, Cimabue’s, and Giotto’s kept setting as tourists got too close during their personal photo-shoots. In a bathroom stall in the women’s toilet, an angry museum goer had scrawled and underlined in white-out pen: YOU CAN GOOGLE THE PHOTOS WHEN YOU GET HOME!

To some extent, I agree with the disenchanted graffiti. At times, the pressure to take a photo for posterity sometimes referred to as, Pics or it didn’t happen, is simply absurd. We know that we don’t need a photo of the Birth of Venus to prove to ourselves that we existed in that moment. We can Google a high-definition photo later, and it is very sad to think that, for whatever reason, some people never actually put down their cameras and see the million-dollar masterpiece with their own two eyes.

However, I don’t think Instagramming inherently means disengagement; it could be a prelude to closer study, remixing, reworking. I have pictures of my suitemates and I visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi. One of my friends is even an artist who enjoys taking unusual angles of artworks in museums and cropping them until they are nearly unrecognizable.

In reproducing the original artwork in new ways, Instagramming could incite important discussions on why certain aesthetics are privileged over others. This only happens if the tool is used purposefully and metacognitively, not just for cultural capital and showing off to others.

What matters most is that we ask ourselves why we are so tied up in taking pictures at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, or any other museum, and what those photos really show. It is true that the nature of art is radically changing with developments in technology, and we are all constantly exploring our roles in that relationship.

Jamie Uy is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]

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