Welcome to the most Instagrammable museum on earth

Rabbit Town, a tourist attraction in Indonesia, exists solely for selfies.

Welcome to the most Instagrammable museum on earth

Rabbit Town, a tourist attraction in Indonesia, exists solely for selfies.

The Late Middle Ages in Europe were boom times for pilgrimage; beyond Jerusalem and Rome, pilgrims became spoiled for choice as sacred sites mushroomed from Canterbury to Cologne around relics, saints, and miracles. Early pilgrims chipped off pieces of shrines as mementos, but that was unsustainable, so a cottage industry of souvenir “pilgrim badges” was born.

A popular kind of badge was the pilgrim-mirror, a handheld glass that could reflect back the relic you went to see alongside your own face. You could bring the mirror, and its reflected reliquary glory, back home to your family.

To ask, at this juncture, why wasn’t simply being at the shrine good enough, or why couldn’t those pilgrims just live in the moment, would be beside the point. The fact is, as long as humans have gone places, we have wanted to have some proof: “Here I was.”

Three kings pilgrim badge, 15th century

Three kings pilgrim badge, 15th century

“The original selfie was a very, very serious object,” Negar Mottahedeh, a cultural critic at Duke University who has written at length on selfies, told me. She considers pilgrim-mirrors among the earliest instances of self-portraiture.

Seven hundred years later, in Indonesia, where I live, a popular new tempat wisata selfie, Indonesian for “selfie tourism destination,” has come under fire for blatantly plagiarizing immersive art works by the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Chris Burden, and even the “Museum of Ice Cream,” the immersive, traveling, smash-hit American exhibition whose tickets cost $38 a piece. Rabbit Town, in the city of Bandung, is a shrine to the ubiquitous life activity of taking photos of yourself.

Rabbit Town doesn’t call itself a museum, but it’s effectively the ur-museum of today, since the primary way of museum-going now is as a content-creator, to cite the artist Dena Yago’s brilliant formulation of the “Content Industrial Complex” this spring in e-flux.

Rabbit Town is a shrine to the ubiquitous life activity of taking photos of yourself.

Rabbit Town was built by a hotel magnate named Henry Husada on his former private estate of almost 30 rooms over 20,000 square meters. He realized the house was too big to live in according to Chinese philosophy, so he converted it into a tourist site. It is named it after Husada’s Chinese zodiac animal.

“I decided to create Rabbit Town because Bandung has culinary destinations and fashion destinations, but no wisel,” Husada told The Outline, creating an on-the-spot contraction for “wisata selfie.” “Everyone has mobile phones now, and it’s a big hobby for me too,” he said. “I just want people to take many photos and be happy.”

Spurred by the fashion-and-art industry watchdog Instagram account @dietprada, many Western news outlets like Dazed, The Guardian, and Artnet have breathlessly circulated reports of the ripoff hotspot.

Husada denied that plagiarism had taken place.

“There are many differences between those art works and what is there in Rabbit Town,” Husada told me. “From a young age I have loved stickers, that is why we have a ‘Sticker Room.’”

Rabbit Town’s sticker room is a close copy of Yayoi Kusama’s “Obliteration Room” installation. “As for Love Light [a close copy of Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculpture], I have also loved lamps and electricity since I was young.” He said that the exhibits will be rotated seasonally “so that people don’t get bored.”

Last month, Instagram shut down Rabbit Town’s account after the Museum of Ice Cream lodged a complaint, according to a Museum spokesperson. The account seems to be up again as of this article’s publication date.

Although the strangeness and audacity of Rabbit Town’s actions has been reported and repeated, the conversation lacks some context. Is there any recourse, besides having an Instagram account taken down, for ripping off famous artworks? (In short, no, it’s extremely difficult to litigate because of the geographical separation and the broad definition of “fair use.”)

And what should we make of Rabbit Town itself, which exists, by its owner’s own admission, for selfies? The site’s core proposition is uncomfortable, since most of us take selfies too — all the time.

Rabbit Town forces an interesting question about digital content and art: maybe providing photo opportunities should be accepted as another raison d’être of any art museum today. That’s not a neutral proposition, but it has democratic appeal: the rise of Instagram-friendly and immersive art has already drawn literally millions of new visitors to art museums in this decade.

Curious about what the museum of the future holds, I decided to go to Rabbit Town myself.

Bandung is a university town, more fresh and green than the capital, Jakarta, which is three hours away by train; it’s ringed by cloudy mountains. I stepped into Rabbit Town with a $2 ticket and immediately had to navigate around a pretty young woman in an orange satin hijab whose male friend was snapping hundreds of photos of her around the lobby.

“Now an artistic one!” he yelled, and she framed her chin with fanned-out hands under a sign reading: “Wisata Selfie Rabbit Town: THE ROAD TO MORE HAPPINESS.”

For its visitors, Rabbit Town efficiently extracts the end product of the day trip, since generating content is now the categorical imperative not only of museum-going but also of traveling, wearing outfits, and eating meals.

I looked at the site map as “Bibbity Bobbity Boo” from Cinderella was piped in on speakers, part of an endless loop of canned Disney songs. The place names had no obvious connecting thread: L.A. Store; New York, NY; Jungle Area; Love Light; Monkey Grove.

There was a row of large, individually named anthropomorphic rabbit statues to my left (Rena, Resti, Relbi, Renaldi), who might have served as guides to Rabbit Town if their concept was not immediately abandoned thereafter.

I asked a group of high school girls, standing as close together as people could without touching, which exhibit they most wanted to see.

“The bananas,” they said conclusively.

That turned out to be part of “Ice Cream Room,” a scaled-down ripoff of the Museum of Ice Cream. Rabbit Town’s version had a small ball pit and some backdrops grafted from the Museum of Ice Cream, like strings of ice-cream cone light bulbs and a wall of plastic bananas.

The banana wall was half Pepto Bismol pink and half lemon-yellow. (Gen-Z yellow?) “Please don’t pull the yellow and pink bananas,” implored a sign in Indonesian. The plastic bananas hung on strings from the ceiling; a guard disentangled them roughly every ten minutes.

But you can’t see the strings in a photo. If you frame yourself well, you can’t really see anything except bananas. It’s a context-free, absurd shot that makes a strong impression in a feed of lifestyle errata — which I found out when I posted a pink-banana selfie to my Instagram story and go six inquiry DMs (a lot, for me). “Omg where???” they said, and “take me next time!”

I continued on to the Sticker Room, which copies the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s immersive, touring “obliteration room” installation, in which visitors are encouraged to stick colorful circles on the white walls, chairs, ceiling, lamps, themselves.

Kusama also designs “infinity rooms,” which situate visitors in a field of glowing light spots. Both the infinity and obliteration rooms, which she started iterating in 1963, spring from intense hallucinations of endless fields of dots, from which Kusama has suffered since her teen years and has manifested in paintings and sculptures as well as immersive works. In a 1967 experimental film called Self-Obliteration, she uses the dot motif as a “metaphor of giving up identity, [and] abolishing uniqueness.”

I’ve never been inside a Kusama work, but I’ve still “seen” thousands of them. Today on Instagram, there are 607,335 posts tagged #yayoikusama and 55,431 tagged #infinityroom. I’ve also seen an infinity room from the outside, at the MACAN contemporary art museum in Jakarta, where it is literally a plain white box in the gallery space, like a visual pun on a “white cube” gallery. There is a permanent queue and you’re allowed to stay inside for ten seconds.

I felt bad that my introduction to the installations of Yayoi Kusama would be through a facsimile, but it turned out I couldn’t even add stickers to the room. “We’re full,�� said the guard, cheerfully. The guard said that they are going to replace the circle stickers soon with rabbit stickers.

In the West, shareable digital content is still the end product of many cultural experiences, like visiting whatever hot new restaurant in your area (they all seem to have certain photogenic dishes now) or going on vacation (even if you’ve never been to Santorini, you’ve definitely seen its whitewashed buildings, probably at sunset, on your phone), but we move through other pretexts first — wondering, like the comically self-absorbed protagonist of the Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station, if we might have a “profound experience of art.”

In this way, Rabbit Town is an ingenious institutional critique of the content-industrial complex. (Although its plagiarism is, again, bad and wrong.)

The word “museum” has anyway been stretched by social media-friendly exhibitions like the Museum of Ice Cream and the upcoming Museum, god help us, of sexy pizza (landing in New York this October). The Museum of Ice Cream is not exactly “a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited,” which is how Merriam-Webster defines the term, but it still successfully emulates the “social-media strategies of ‘real’ museums…[to] provide large-scale, dream-like scenery that begs to be used as the backdrop for selfies and Instagram posts,” as Yago put it in e-flux.

Coming full circle, a dedicated Museum of Selfies even opened in L.A. just last month, combining an educational history of selfies with mandatory photo ops.

When Japanese diplomats visited Western Europe in 1862, emissaries from the Tokugawa Shogunate to learn about Western culture and negotiate trade deals, they struggled to categorize the public shrines to looking that they encountered from the Louvre to the British Museum. The polyglot author Fukuzawa Yukichi finally came up with hakubutsukan, or “house of extensive things.”

The golden-age museums that Fukuzawa saw reflected the Enlightenment concerns of cataloguing and accumulating knowledge. (The British Museum, for instance, houses such disparate plundered treasures as the Elgin Marbles and Cleopatra’s mummy as shared evidence of… “human culture.”)

The word “museum” has anyway been stretched by social media-friendly exhibitions.

Museum paradigms are shuffled every few decades like a deck of cards. Whereas the Louvre was groundbreaking in 1793 for allowing royal treasures to be seen, a museum like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a kind of pioneer today for cannily embracing visitors’ desire for photo-friendly content.

Not only did LACMA catch on early to the magnetic power of photogenic art like Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculpture (2008), Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (2012), and the Rain Room (created in 2013 but permanently acquired in 2017); it also has a famously good social media presence, an “Instagram artist-in-residence,” and even encourages its visitors to submit selfies. Perhaps in the same way visitors have come to expect a degree of explanation and accessibility in art museums that would have been strange 100 years ago, visitors today can reasonably expect opportunities to generate digital content.

Still, art museums today can feel like nothing but a house of extensive photo backdrops – that is, they can feel like Rabbit Town.

I warily circled Rabbit Town’s outdoor centerpiece: its version of Burden’s Urban Light, the matrix of 202 restored street lamps installed outside LACMA. After I had exhausted all of Rabbit Town’s offerings, including seeing some live “Harry Potter owls” that were chained to a platform, some of them standing in crates of their own shit, I trudged over to “Love Light.”

Two college girls asked me to take their photo and hung off opposite sides of a lamp pole.

Where did you hear about Rabbit Town, I asked them. They both said “IG explore,” also known as the “explore tab,” Instagram’s bottomless content stream of things you might like from places you might be and people you might know.

I said, “There’s a sculpture just like this in America, where I’m from.” Yeah, they said, of course they know that. Feeling like a prick, I also asked them if they thought that it was weird to just copy a sculpture like that. They skillfully demurred until finally one of them said, “It’s just for photos.”

Do we lose something when museums are collapsed to their digital content souvenirs? Of course. One thing that distinguishes an art and non-art object is its capacity to express ideas, which can’t be photographed. For instance, it’s pretty hard to seriously grapple with Kusama’s vision for her infinity fields (a “metaphor of giving up identity”) when her art is mainly used as a backdrop.

And an artist’s legacy is not fixed; the paradigms of a given period determine what is considered representative of any body of work. So Burden, a rigorous conceptual artist who died in 2015, may have been surprised his photogenic lamps are so enduring in 2018, both the real thing and its ripoff. After all, he once had himself shot through the arm for a performance.

Do we lose something when museums are collapsed to their digital content souvenirs?

Today, the art that ages best is the photogenic kind. Treating art museums as sites of content-generation privileges the immersive, colorful, and legible over the conceptual, ambiguous, and critical.

In a surprising twist, Burden’s own sculpture may have borrowed from a 1993 work by Sheila Klein called Vermonica, a sculpture of 25 street lamps in an East Hollywood strip mall, designed as an homage to the L.A. race riots.

If Rabbit Town credited Burden, would it be okay? Should Burden have credited Klein? (Klein told the Huffington Post that she wasn’t too bothered: “We’re all mining the same shaft,” she said.)

But those changing paradigms aside, museum selfies can evoke a moral hand-wringing that is not justified.

“I don’t know why people think selfies are so terrible,” said Mottahedeh. “They are associated with the narcissism of youth culture. But that’s a complete misunderstanding of the medium.” She argues the selfies are “networked objects.”

“The selfie isn’t just a photograph: it’s taken with the intent of sharing it, not just as a memory,” she said. And because of that, in the very instant it’s taken, it becomes a networked object: it connects different spaces and populations.”

My friend, an Indonesian doctor who works with psychosis patients, is frequently thrilled when his patients starts taking selfies. “Selfies are a sign of wellness!” he says, when forwarding me photos of a young man we both know, who recovered from near-catatonic depression to work as a driver in Yogyakarta.

My friend, an Indonesian doctor who works with psychosis patients, is frequently thrilled when his patients starts taking selfies.

When you visit MACAN, Jakarta’s first modern art museum that opened six months ago, you will see signs that say, “Photography is not required to enjoy and appreciate the art on view. Quietly looking and contemplating artworks can deepen your experience in the Museum today.”

It’s jarring to read such a message on staid institutional signboard, but the museum’s Australian director, Aaron Seeto, told me that they have an “impressionable” museumgoing populace and he saw an opportunity to address inevitable behaviors, instead of either succumbing to them or banning them. That sounds to me like a reasonable approach for any museum today to stave off becoming a house of extensive selfies.

Anyway, what do I know? I realized while writing this that my Facebook profile photo is of me at MACAN, and my first-ever Facebook profile photo, from 2009, is of me at MOMA. They aren’t selfies, but they both use art as a backdrop, and I just thought they were nice photos.

Krithika Varagur is a writer in Indonesia. She previously wrote for The Outline about skincare.