SAN FRANCISCO — At the end of the exhibition “Snap+Share,” visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will see a small cat staring down at them from a crudely cut rectangular hole in the ceiling. This is “Ceiling Cat,” a 2016 work by Eva and Franco Mattes, who have used a taxidermy kitty to re-create one of the Internet’s most popular and persistent memes: an image of the feline accompanied by variations on the phrase “Ceiling Cat is watching you . . . ”
The original Ceiling Cat meme emerged more than a decade ago, with the tag line “Ceiling Cat is watching you masturbate.” But it has morphed and evolved with the usual rapidity of online culture. Among the many iterations is Ceiling Cat as God the Creator, speaking in the “lolcat” meme translation of the Bible: “At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz.”
Like several other works in the show, the Mattes sculpture makes physical something that exists primarily in the weightless, substance-free environment of the Internet. It captures both the playfulness of the culture that has evolved around snapping and sharing images, especially memes, even as it suggests the darker side of surveillance and control latent in our social networks. It’s also the main marketing image for the exhibition, and perhaps one of the few missteps in the curation of this otherwise thought-provoking and enlightening exhibition.
Just in case you might miss “Ceiling Cat” (which is small and above eye level), the museum has a little note on the wall: “See the artwork in the middle of the ceiling in this gallery. Photographs are not only permitted but encouraged.” With that, a bit of critical distance breaks down, and the thing that was otherwise being examined dispassionately — how our habits of transmitting images have evolved over the past century and a half — suddenly feels more like a game we’re required to play. The invitation to participate, to snap a picture of “Ceiling Cat,” doesn’t feel right, especially given the fundamental tension that develops in this show — between participation and conformity.
But of course no museum on the planet today would undertake a show about memes and snapshots and social media without expecting everyone to Instagram it, hashtag it on Twitter and flood Facebook with selfies. Resistance is futile.
Conceived by Clément Chéroux, the museum’s senior curator of photography, the exhibition connects our current moment with a longer, more complicated history of disseminating images. It begins in the 19th century, with the emergence of the postcard, which by the early 20th century in France was overwhelming that country’s postal system with some 173,000 cards being sent every day. By the 1930s, photographs also were traveling regularly through wires, and wire services brought the news of the world, including wars, disasters and other miseries, into our living rooms, collapsing distance and time such that the world seemed almost instantaneously available and painfully intimate.
In the middle of the 20th century, color postcards and popular photography made the world’s tourism icons as familiar as fast-food joints, circulating through untold millions of brightly colored images. And included in the exhibition are the Motorola flip phone, Toshiba laptop and Casio digital camera that French inventor Philippe Kahn used to send what is probably the first cellphone camera image to a large network of people. The grainy 1997 digital photograph of his daughter, born only a few minutes earlier, was received by an audience of about 2,000 people.
What actually changed with this revolution in image-making, which made images instantly available to thousands, or now billions, of people? In many ways, nothing. People have been sending images through the mail since almost the invention of photography, and we have been distributing images of ourselves long before the invention of the word “selfie.” Peter J. Cohen, a collector who has focused on snapshots and vernacular photographs, has assembled a wide and varied array of images in which people have written the word “me” next to a photograph, presumably of themselves. These span decades of black-and-white photography and suggest a persistent and unsurprising consistency in our relationship to photographs: We use them to assert our existence, to mark our place in the world. That hasn’t changed even as the means of making and distributing images has evolved.
Artists, too, didn’t discover ideas about social networks and circulating images with the invention of Facebook and other online social spaces. The mail art movement, in which artists use the mail to create patterns of circulation independent of traditional museums or galleries, and invite collaborative image creation, long predates our 21st-century snap-and-share world. Some of the most visually evocative works in the show are by the German artist Thomas Bachler, who created small pinhole cameras in cardboard boxes and sent them through the German mail system, where they passively recorded spectral and accidental photographs. They are hauntingly beautiful and look a bit like medical images, blurry and gray with weird tubes and lines and threads of seemingly organic material running through them.
But in other ways, the change is huge, and so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to take stock of it. Erik Kessels’s well-known installation work “24HRS in Photos” is made from giant mounds of printed photographs culled from 24 hours of uploads on social media. It has been restaged for this exhibition, creating a roomful of pictures heaped on the floor and climbing up the walls. It seems ominous at first, a warning of the great deluge of images made possible by cellphone cameras and digital photography. But it is also curiously charming, with the photographs refusing to be trash, and draws one’s eyes to beautiful people, sunny beaches, children at play and all the rest of quotidian life that we never cease to document and expose.
It isn’t just the volume of images that has changed. People, especially young people, now speak or converse in images, sending pictures instead of words, to express their thoughts and feelings. And there is growing awareness of how our dependence on smartphones is becoming pathological, an addiction that scatters attention and fritters away our relationship to real things and real people. Artist Kate Hollenbach hints at the psychological changes this entails in a video work called “phonelovesyoutoo,” in which she rigged her phone to record video of her whenever she engaged with it, to check mail or surf the Web or use its GPS function. The result is a matrix of small videos of the same face, in light and dark spaces, morning, noon and night, in bed, on the street, walking through buildings, a self-imposed form of reverse surveillance. The emotional valence of this room-size grid of images is one of nervousness, fretfulness, restless, undirected energy and dissonance.
Then there’s “Ceiling Cat,” which comes right after Hollenbach’s evocative video. It’s a good conversation starter for the museum world, a way to think about the dangers and opportunities in exhibitions such as this one. Art museums are exactly the sort of institutions that can deal with a broad, complicated subject like “Snap+Share,” which involves not just changes to visual culture, but also social, technological and psychological change.
But there is always the danger of becoming too entangled with the subject matter. Cultural institutions crave the kind of energy that seems to be flowing through circuits of the Internet. They crave the audience that has grown up with these systems of imagemaking and distribution, and they crave the money of people whose fortunes were made in the digital gold rush. There is also a tendency, not uncommon among museum professionals, to look at the world explored in shows like “Snap+Share” as “the future,” and because everyone wants to belong to the future, there’s a kind of tacit endorsement of the technology, which brings with it an implicit endorsement of the industry behind it.
It’s a small thing, but this exhibition would have been stronger if it hadn’t invited audiences to participate. “Ceiling Cat,” as an artwork, is an invitation to think. But by inviting visitors to dematerialize the Ceiling Cat sculpture back into an Internet meme, the curator seems to say: “This was all in good fun.” The critical detachment of the show is replaced with coos and giggles and feel-good vibes. The exhibition smartly balances historical observation of an old phenomenon — our need to make our presence in the world known to others — with lucid observations about how technology is changing our inner life and our social relations. But with “Ceiling Cat,” and other invitations to take pictures and send them out to the world, the show succumbs at the end to the magical thinking with which we keep our anxieties about social media culture at bay: It’s harmless if we just treat it a little ironically.
A truly radical show wouldn’t let us off the hook so easily. It would have demanded that people leave behind the impulse to snap and share long enough to explore what snap and share is doing to us.
Snap+Share Through Aug. 4 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. sfmoma.org.