OPINION: The multi-dimensional facade of the “pop-up experience”

Graphic by Emma Li

You may have seen the photos. Positively blissful young people frolic through fields of giant daisies, pose next to enormous gummy bears, and fling handfuls of colorful sprinkles into the air against the backdrop of glossy pink tiles made to emulate the “sprinkle pool” of some childhood dream.

These scenes from “pop-up experiences” like Museum of Ice Cream, 29Rooms, Color Factory, and Happy Place create the illusion of surrealism, as if people can be transported into strange, alternative realities. The photos come out perfectly picturesque.

Yet, the glamour exists only within the confines of the photographs, almost tricking the viewer into thinking they have the ability to escape the mundane realities of everyday life.

After reading The New York Times article “The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience,'” I decided to give my own perspective on them.

“Pop-up experiences” are no more an escape than a caving into our social media insecurities. They are a reflection of vanity, superficiality, and our increasing desperation for social validation.

All of this is emblematic of a future fueled by social media. Social media offers digital incentives of social legitimacy, and thus, one’s actions are geared toward achieving the highest possible virtual returns (likes, comments, followers) on investment.

People gravitate toward originality in visual aesthetic, or at least the illusion thereof. This pursuit of artistic originality reaches extremes when ordinary people become so obsessed with the gratification from this illusion that they’re willing to pay to incorporate the semblance of man-made movie sets or “pop-up experiences” into their lives.

Moreover, this phenomenon exists under the guise of art. The art industry has discovered profitability in the rise of social-media-friendly art installation pop-ups. Exhibits like the viral Museum of Ice Cream, Refinery29’s 29Rooms, and Color Factory allow visitors to pose before picturesque backgrounds and create the illusion of one exploring a new world.

Companies like Refinery29, a self-proclaimed “millenial news source,” have heavily capitalized on this experience through not just ticket sales, but sponsored installations that plant the Toyota logo in the background of one’s Instagram photo.

While many of these installations are perfectly picturesque once snapped and added to one’s photo album, the experience itself can be a bizarre one.

At 29Rooms, I waited in line to take a photo in front of cheap plastic daisies sponsored by Marc Jacobs, posed in front a mirror to get the perfect shot of the phrase “you are beautiful” before it blinked away at a moment’s notice, and snapped selfies before a backdrop of “activist slogans” while actively participating in the most vapid consumer culture possible.

The artistic merits of consumer-oriented installations like these are questionable. These pop-ups are marketed as art installations, branding themselves as “museums,” but they represent a pandering to superficial society’s ideas of glamour.

There’s something creative and artistic about the eye-catching graphics, interactive digital elements of light and neon and bubble machines and television screens, and there is no doubt that a great deal of engineering and design goes into making these “experiences” come alive.

But what constitutes “art,” now that social media has given rise to a commercialized, glamorized, gaudy displays of “creativity”? Exhibits like the Rose Mansion’s “the patio” rip off the work of popular artists like Yayoi Kusama, simply gearing their visions toward what is profitable. Pop-ups can also afford to use cheap materials and still call the end result an “art installation.”

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Room” at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The experience is unreal — it simulates what I’d imagine to be the feeling of standing in the middle of the universe or some sort of galaxy.

Yet, my instinctual reaction was to pull out my phone and film it. I had seen the the photos online; I needed one of my own. Before I realized how much more beautiful the scene was through my own eyes, rather than through the digital screen of my iPhone, my 45 seconds was up, and I was escorted out of the room.

I’ve concluded that real art is an experience in real life that a photo cannot do justice. Perhaps, real art isn’t made for the sole purpose of being posed in front of and photographed incessantly.

I compared The Broad to my time at 29Rooms. Every installation at 29Rooms came with blinding white artificial photo lights for the instagram “photo shoot” enthusiast, creating discomfort for my eyes when I entered each room.

Many of the installations were much smaller and dinkier than they seemed in photos, and some of the “sponsored” art simply seemed like excuses for brands like Urban Decay and Toyota to deck out their logo in lights and glitter.

No “pop-up experience” can truly emulate the work of artists like Kusama. The art of 29Rooms lacked depth — there was nothing to analyze and explore. The cardboard scenes, the glitter, the flashing words of affirmation are fascinating in photos, but cheap and gimmicky in real life. One simply has to shoot it from the correct angle and crop it to the right dimensions.

Milly Chi PZ ’22 is an aspiring media studies major from Buena Park, CA. In her free time, she can be found marveling at the wonder that is Canva.

This article was last updated Nov. 26 at 4:54 p.m. to include a citation.

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