Beauty In The Age Of Selfies: Exploring Beyond The Binaries
The cult of beauty is one of cognitive dissonance. The certainty of ever-evolving beauty ideals meets the insatiable, never-ending chase of the illusionary perfection.
Beauty ideals are not universal or permanent, but the pursuit of them is shared. The neuroscientists we consulted for the exhibition explained to me how, in neurochemical terms, one might experience desire and undertake activities believed to enhance one’s beauty in a similar way to any addiction.
But it would undermine the complex weight beauty holds in intertwining societies and personal identities if our motivations for pursuing it were reduced purely to dopamine rushes. Across time and cultures, philosophers look to define beauty, artists try to capture it, scientists innovate to achieve it. Even those who claim not to care about their appearance are taking a stance on it.
The Cult Of Beauty at the Wellcome Collection in London – a journey exhibition in three parts: The Ideals Of Beauty, The Industry Of Beauty and Subverting Beauty – is an invitation to widen and consider our understanding of beauty beyond the binaries of beautiful or ugly, natural or artificial, physical or digital. It is not about bringing forth a new, alternative definition of beauty over any existing ones, but an attempt to open up – despite being bound by the gallery walls – a space capacious enough to hold multiple polarities; even conflicting beliefs.
Instead of charting a linear chronology of beauty, the exhibition uses historical objects and contemporary art to bring often-polarised debates – such as those on racialised beauty being hyper-focused on Black vs white complexions, and the ethics of plastic surgery and selfie culture – into a space that is non-judgemental, yet provocative enough to stimulate new ways of seeing.
We put morality, status, health, age, gender and race in dialogue and investigate how beauty ideals are constructed in different communities and contexts. We contend that beauty is as scientific as it is poetic, as engineered as it is inherent.
In a cultural landscape where it could feel crippling to tackle any topics concerning intersectional identity, the more conducive work might be to highlight the human experiences that resonate. How does one navigate the complications of existing in our increasingly digital and polarised world? The culture of beauty is a manifestation of our relationships with ourselves, as much as with the world around us.
Many of the new commissions and contributing artworks in The Cult of Beauty – the likes of multisensory installation Beauty Sensorium by Baum & Leahy and Renaissance Goo, the film Permissible Beauty, and feminist performance artist Narcissister’s sculpture (Almost) All Of My Dead Mother’s Beautiful Things – are intended to make you feel things: about aspirations, intergenerational entanglement and, most importantly, the joy of self-acceptance.
This exhibition invites you to question established norms, challenge preconceived notions and engage you in dialogue, reflection and more inclusive definitions of beauty.
The Cult Of Beauty runs from 26 October 2023-28 April 2024
Janice Li is a curator at Wellcome Collection and is based in London
Image credits (from top): 12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time (2013), Juno Calypso, courtesy the artist and TJ Boulting: Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Beauty Unravelled In The Virtual Scroll (2023), Xcessive Aesthetics. Beauty Sensorium, Renaissance Goo x Baum & Leahy, installation view © Benjamin Gilbert; Permissible Beauty (2022) © RCMG/Soup Coy; (Almost) All Of My Dead Mother’s Beautiful Things (2023), Narcissister, installation view © Benjamin Gilbert