What is beauty in the era of TikTok and AI?

An exhibition in Basel puts the spotlight on beauty in the post-internet era. The result is an investigation into the alteration of identity and the fragmentation of the self, obsessively searching for an unreachable ideal.

In recent years, the development of technology has suggested that our limits, which used to seem insurmountable, could finally be overcome once and for all: it is the case of the fragility and transience of the body, now becoming obsolete because of meds, or even the biological process of aging, thwarted by medicine advancements and more or less invasive aesthetic treatments.

Gradually, progress led us to think that death was now just a bad memory. As post-human aesthetics became increasingly "hybrid", the advent of digital media, social media filters, dating apps and, finally, artificial intelligence and deep fake technologies has irremediably altered the concept of "beauty" as we used to know it. 

Virtual Beauty, Hek, Basel, Switzerland. Courtesy Hek

At the HeK (House of Electronic Arts) in Basel, the exhibition Virtual Beauty investigates how the digital realm has shaped this new notion of "beauty", deepening how this evolution has changed (and still is changing) the way we perceive our own identity (both online and in the real world). 

The history of beauty in the post-internet era is that of an obsession with body modification that finds a neuralgic background in cosmetic surgery: not surprisingly, the exhibition starts with a documentation of one of the famous performances of the French artist Orlan, which since the Eighties underwent a series of surgical operations, making it a public spectacle that raises questions about social taboos and unattainable standards. Omnipresence (1992) is the video testimony of his 17th surgery. A reflection, that of Orlan, which develops within the historical context of post-human theory, which was emerging thanks to the efforts of the curator Jeffrey Deitch – who, in the same year of Omnipresence, conceives the iconic touring exhibition Post Human, also hosted at Castello di Rivoli – and seminal texts such as Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway (published for the first time in 1985). 

Virtual Beauty, Hek, Basel, Switzerland. Courtesy Hek

In the same years, the heroin-chic style – an ideal of emaciated, unrealistically skinny and worn-out beauty – flourished among the US celebrities. Loneliness Besides The Swimming Pool (2023), by artist Maria Guta, is a monumental collage that extends on the wall as soon as you get into HeK’s exhibition spaces, paying homage to the covers of the magazines of those years, in which the artist finds a precursor of the idealization and media exposure of nowadays influencers. Again, we are dealing with the theme of immortality, which seems to be earned through the self-staging of one’s own altered image. 

The history of beauty in the post-internet era is that of an obsession with body modification that finds a neuralgic background in cosmetic surgery.

This process inevitably passes through the rise of social media: Kylie Jenner x Beauty_GAN (2019) by Daniel Sannwald proposes three gigantographs that portray the youngest of the Kardashian with half of her face distorted by a program called Beauty_GAN, one of the very first filters that use artificial intelligence (and that draws on a dataset of over 17 thousand Instagram selfies). Again, filters are the main features in the video The Product is YOU, (2022) by Bunny Kinney, here in a dystopian version à la Black Mirror: the artist proposes a fake commercial of a cerebral interface that apparently allows you to alter the perception of your own face in real time, making plastic surgery obsolete. 

Virtual Beauty, Hek, Basel, Switzerland. Courtesy Hek

In this odyssey to the discovery of beauty in the post-internet era, another aspect that cannot be ignored is the hypersexualization of the female body, investigated in the multimedia installation A Cybernetic Doll’s House (2023) by Arvida Byström. In the room, a video shows the artist interacting with the sex doll Harmony, generated by an artificial intelligence. In front of the screen, two mannequins – objects (and subjects) that are recurrent also in post-human philosophy and uncanny aesthetics – deprived of their head, silently invite the viewer to reflect on the complexity of intimacy and on the ways in which digital acts on it, making it public or putting it in the hands of synthetic intelligences. Curated by Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, Bunny Kinney, Mathilde Friis and Marlene Wenger, the retrospective is on view until August 18th.

Opening image: Courtesy Hek Basel

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