You don’t always get to see an art exhibition like this very often. The artwork resembles memes shared on the internet, perhaps because they take inspiration from them. The art pieces are memes, just very expensive ones.
Hosted at Art Chowk, ‘People You May Know’ takes our obsession with social media and what people are saying on the internet and immortalises them on canvas. Real paper canvas, not the digital kind. The artists that have collaborated on this exhibition include Numair Abbasi, Anusha Novlani, Arsalan Nasir and Shanzay Sabzwari.
These are a series of charcoal and acrylic portraits on square canvases. Iconic ‘rage comics’ which we’ve seen and used online numerous times replace the faces of the characters in the canvases. In the foreground, fictional Google searches, on tabs or depict the kind of questions that the characters may have searched for online. The titles of all of the artworks are the Google searches themselves. The artist took an interest in rage comics because they were able to communicate a range of emotions that we humans feel — angst, shock, frustration, grief, contempt etc.
“Having an interest in the internet/digital culture, I seek inspiration for my work from the lens of my cellular phone,” says artist, curator and art critic Abbasi, about the theme of the exhibition. “I am increasingly noticing the evolution of memes as interactive trauma diaries — perhaps as a reflection of the precarious times, we are currently living in led by the advancing climate crisis, ongoing global conflicts, and economic recession. These memes are rooted in absurdism and humourise collective experiences of grief, trauma, anxiety, and outrage as coping strategies. They make light of uncertainty while providing comfort through knowing that these feelings are collectively shared.”
A group show takes on the obsession with social media
Novlani has a slightly different take. Her work incorporates emojis printed or through acrylic on canvas. According to her, “The idea of being watched constantly, to curate this perfect image of ourselves is really built into us through social media, and we are made to think it’s completely normal,” she says.
“This surveillance of us by ourselves, the idea of human interaction being reduced to mere heart and sad reacts to messages, and that this need to be the best version of the self that anyone has ever seen really eliminates what is human error and makes us into robotic selves. Imperfections are what make us, but we even pick and choose which of those imperfections we will make public, who gets to see which version so we can balance our perfects with our perfections.
“We become just imperfect enough to remain believable and relatable, and just perfect enough to make everyone else want to be us,” she finishes.
For Nasir, “Our real existence is archived online as content; our real emotions are affected by quantifiable activities and interactions; our real insights are formed from the information we consume digitally; and our real relationships find their roots in direct messages and virtual communication.”
By using plexiglass, PVC, aluminium, vinyl, microcontroller, stepper motor and a PIR sensor, his installations depict the device in which we live our online lives. His work is almost like stepping back, going to the roots, the basics and see our internet world for what it really is — housed in a box with wires.
Sabzwari’s work is more focused on the social impact of the internet. “My gouache on archival paper paintings reflect the destructive nature of social media apps; of dark lies hidden beneath a rainbow of false promises,” she states. “The video ‘Into the Garden’ [installation], made in collaboration with Joel Chernin (UK), touches upon social media’s capacity to be an enabler of predatory behaviour, allowing people behind screens to wear masks and dupe, coax and manipulate others into supplying some form of personal gain; whether monetary, physical or mental. The resulting fear and chaotic distress are reflected in the video.”
Her ‘Love Bomb. Devalue. Discard’ piece show, through emojis painted on gouache on archival print, the lifecycle of modern interactions online. And how we often end up behaving that way in person, in our offline lives as well.
This exhibition was a bit like staring at the images depicted on your phone, but after you’ve put the phone away. In ‘People You May Know’ there is no escaping the internet.
‘People You May Know’ was exhibited at the Art Chowk gallery, Karachi, from November 10-19, 2022
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 27th, 2022