Art goes Virtual

Sara Elkamel, Tuesday 10 Jul 2012

The trend of online art is one of the most exciting developments in art today and Egypt’s art scene is making steps towards presenting art online. Ahram Online weighs the pros and cons of virtual art

Hany Rashed

In Egypt, as is the case globally, artists are increasingly turning to online activities. Artwork and artists alike are much more accessible online, the volume of art has increased, and the chances of interaction with artists soar.

Artists are nurtured by many new ideas and exhibitions available online and as such are exposed to a wide array of artwork, and Egyptian artists have also starting presenting their work online.

The proliferation of internet art today is positively mind-boggling. Yet how viable is online art as a commercial model? And how is the artistic experience altered online? Today, artists are turning more and more to the internet for inspiration. The world is now online, and so arguably, artists today have an avalanche of subjects to paint, with a clear advantage over the Cézannes and the Chagalls, who had to closely observe fruits or dancers (respectively) to find inspiration. Today, all artists have to do is tap their keyboards, surfing the internet, until they find suitable subject matter.

Young Egyptian artists who spoke with Ahram Online say that they spend hours on end on Facebook, looking for inspiration. The work produced nowadays consequently carries a distinctively ‘digital’ air; Facebook logos appear here and there, Google images are recreated on canvas.

At a recent solo exhibit at the downtown Mashrabia Gallery, emerging artist Ahmed Sabry recorded a year of social and political transformation in Egypt on canvas, through recreating popular photos and images that first appeared on Facebook. Sabry told Ahram Online that his exhibition was a satire on the behaviour of Egyptians, and thus he had spent almost entire days on Facebook, using it as a window through which he could watch people.

Sabry’s collection is not unlike Politica, an exhibition by Ahmed Kassem held in February at the Safarkhan Gallery. The artist represented the political scene through oversized board games resembling snakes and ladders, sprawling with familiar socio-political symbols and icons that appear and reappear on Facebook and other social-networking sites.

In keeping with a certain revolutionary spirit whereby action is either online or on the streets, art is also relocating. More and more art is being created outdoors, beyond the borders of flashy galleries. Street art is a flourishing phenomenon; everyone is an artist with walls as canvas. Similarly, the internet and social media, are used to circulate art by young artists. Moreover, avoiding the wrath of security forces, charged art finds a home online.

One clear example Mohamed Abla’s decision to exhibit his provoking series Wolves using Facebook last January. The highly politicised paintings boldly criticise the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and military police, portraying them as beastly wolves. Abla regarded Facebook as a much more interactive way to exhibit his controversial work, and welcomed the large amounts of feedback he received online. He also believes that private galleries tend to stick to a more conservative approach and refuse to show work that is too scathing.

Online art therefore transcends the limitations set in place by censorship and authoritarian governments that seek to limit the revolutionary forces at play in the art scene. We can say that on the internet, the scope of art is stretched, from the same faces that have the luxury to wander into galleries with pricy paintings, to the everyman, who can have access to fine art at the tap of a button.

Art is going viral. Perhaps one of the characteristics of art has been its confinement to gallery walls, but this is changing. The art market used to consist of the same faces, the same eyebrows that go up and down in appreciation or dismay, the same voices that throw around words of amazement or disgust, as they look at canvases held firmly to the white walls of a gallery. Today, art is bounced around the world, online.

But there is a question that needs to be asked: What if the need for physical exhibition spaces starts to wane? The experience of standing in a space surrounded by art, staring up at a canvas and deciphering the artist’s hidden meanings has a certain allure. Visiting galleries is certainly one of the hippest activities to do in cities, and Cairo is no exception. What if artwork is limited to your computer screen?

The flat screen has its limitations; there’s no doubt about it. Paintings, despite common physics, are not two-dimensional. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Starry Night are all the more alive because of the paint that protrudes from the canvas. Gazbia Sirry’s half-finished canvases are all the more intriguing for the contrast between colour and emptiness. These aspects are lost when the work is online. So despite the convenience and accessibility of the medium, there is nothing quite like experiencing art face-to-face, asking it questions while knowing you may never hear the answer.

But the virtual world is all about answers. Online exhibitions have emerged, and established galleries therefore respond with supplementing their wall-bound shows with virtual tours. The goal becomes shrinking the distance between the artist and the art enthusiast, and creating a space for art to be more accessible to more people.

The digital medium is also helping curators and gallery managers reach out to both artists and potential buyers, while diversifying their scope of work. Calls for submissions are posted online, artwork is exhibited in online albums to strike the interest of buyers, not to mention constant correspondence with art fans.

Still, the viability of online art on the commercial level is something to watch closely. While established auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s may have the clientele base and resources to adapt, and make profit out of, the new online model of making, publicising, and trading art, smaller and less established galleries may not. Should the culture of gallery-hopping fade from the cities and move to the global village, galleries may very well suffer in the process.

Another feature to consider with regards to online art is its geographical confinement due to disparities in accessibility to the online platform itself. Moreover, while galleries emerge in even the most underdeveloped cities, internet may not be so readily accessible. So, once again, developing countries are disadvantaged on account of being at the losing end of the digital divide. But here we have a seesaw situation, as the scenario may be wholly reversed, and citizens of underdeveloped countries with no distinct flair for the arts may become increasingly exposed to global artwork online, in turn stimulating local talents. We can already catch a glimpse of hope, as artwork now seems to circulate the web freely and indiscriminately, so that it reaches East and West.

The whole art experience is changing, on account of the existence of the wondrous thing called the Internet. Artists are supplied with countless ideas as they watch global events play out on their screens, and so today’s artwork tends to reflect the workings of the world rather than the artist’s imagination. Paintings that may have once occupied canvases of various ranges are confined to little flat rectangles that stare up at you across the screen, but at least, you are exposed to an endless supply of art online.

The trend of online art is definitely one of the most exciting developments in the art scene today, and how artists, curators, and fans make use of the medium will be extremely fascinating to watch.


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