It’s a bright Sunday morning in 2073. Your sleeping pod on the Meta-established moon colony created after the climate collapse doesn’t allow you to physically walk around, but you can plug into a virtually rendered museum and wander.
Hanging on the “walls” of this museum, you won’t find works by the Old Masters. Instead, there’s art from a more recent period: the heyday of scrolling. The particular gallery you find yourself in centers around six pandemic-era memes from Anglophone Tumblr and Reddit that feature some kind of mirroring or reflection, a common visual motif of the period that demands further explication in era-appropriate artspeak — preferably, of course, at an unwieldy and altogether unnecessary length and level of syntactic complexity.
This is not the future we want. But at Hyperallergic, as readers know, we take memes seriously. So we’ve written some of the copy for the wall labels that might accompany these memes when they’re exhibited in some other dimension 50 years from now.
“I Really Thought I Did Something” (“Spiderman Pointing”) (2021)
The crisis of self-identification articulated in the Spiderman Pointing meme seen hanging in the gallery above, a format widespread both across Black Twitter and the major meme subreddits of the mid-2010s, refigures the finger-pointing gesture of accusation into one of dubious self-recognition. Remixed in December 2021 by X (formerly Twitter) user @samuraiprincess, this work illustrates the turbulent emotional landscape and predominant theory of mind of the middle-to-late pandemic period, labeling the Spiderman figures as varying proximate causes of negative affect within an internally divided 21st-century subject.
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” (“Cat and Cat Cake”) (2019)
Sprung from the dynamic mid-2010s Tumblr tradition, this object-labeling meme limns the fraught line between representation and reality. The figure of the cat (chat), which for Jacques Derrida in “The Animal That Therefore I Am” (2002) represents the essentially social construction of nakedness, is to the Tumblr catposter representative of a particularly human desire for the spoken word (parole) to live as flesh and fur do, rather than stand in the place of what is always-already an absence.
“Why You Bake Me?” (2017)
Recapitulating the cat-turned-into-dessert motif of the meme shown in the adjacent gallery and discussed above, this work again emphasizes the tension between representation and the real. But here, the act of visual depiction is interpreted by the cat as a form of predation. Considered more broadly, the speech act attributed to the cat (“why you bake me”) is in itself a question not marked as such, through which the cookie’s inception is echoed by the meme’s own “baking” of the cat’s image and fundamentally non-verbal meow into a second-order digital representation of its fundamental catness, or cattitude.
This early-2020s meme is part of a Commedia dell’Arte-esque posting tradition featuring stock characters such as the modified Wojaks comics of Doomer Girl (top left), Tradwife (top right), and Yes Chad (bottom). The work performs a double maneuver through which Yes Chad’s reflexive address to himself in the mirror parallels the meme’s own auto-reflexivity vis-a-vis medium. By depicting the typically macho blonde-bearded Yes Chad as an eccentric younger brother, the meme rubs against the grain of its own interpretive frame, calling into question the assumptions about masculinity and the 4chan-derived four-panel form on which Wojak Comics traditionally rely.
“Little Red Riding Hood” (“They’re The Same Picture”) (2020)
Wryly reinterpreting the cultural touchstone of Little Red Riding Hood, this work transposes the fairy tale into a two-panel format referencing the hit television show The Office. Old and new fruitfully blend in a pastiche that bridges three communication technologies: an oral tradition, a broadcast tradition, and a digital tradition. By equating the word “grandmother” and the image of “the wolf” in the first panel, the meme works to elide differences between the graphic and semantic modes, while rearticulating their productive image-text tension into yet another mode (the digital) where image and word are each equally reduced to the status of pixel.
“A Trace of the True Self” (“Dinosaur Nuggets”) (2020)
This work implicitly equates evolution with the synthetic processes of early-21st-century capitalism, but even as it naturalizes the extractive excesses of late capitalism, the image calls into question the capacity of those same reifying industrial processes to fully commodify the seen world. Whether human interventions are simply a reflection of broader organic processes remains open to interpretation, as this meme nods towards an essentialist concept of transhistorical truth or at least contiguity with respect to the speculo-ontological status of “the dinosaur.”