PGo through the gallery window and you will see a holographic alien dancing in space. Get inside and a creepy, vague soundtrack will play as the smell of wood smoke hovers through the air. Five VR headsets greet participants, and each offers a different simulation of extraterrestrial life. Put on your glasses and you might find yourself, like me, surrounded by a flock of electro-blue pixels moving together like a jellyfish. In that part, I felt slightly insecure, as if my neurons had been massaged.
This experience is part of Alienarium 5, a new exhibition by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at the Serpentine Gallery. The art of installation that uses technology such as augmented and virtual reality to “immerse” viewers, connecting the physical world with the digital experience, has become popular in recent years. There have already been impressive exhibitions by David Bowie and Abba, while Avicii’s impressive experience has just opened in Sweden, and Prince will follow in Chicago later this year. There are so many impressive Go Gogh experiences that this phenomenon has its own page on Wikipedia. These projects vary greatly in scope, from elaborate, high-tech installations to projection shows of deceased painters adapted to Instagram.
Lounge, perfumed rooms Alienarium 5 are a welcome break from the experience of navigating claustrophobic public spaces in a wet face mask. “The show is a mixed reality – both virtual and physical. That includes touch, smell, all kinds of things you might not have in front of a screen, ”says Serpentine’s artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist. After two years of occasional social isolation, events that call for sensual immersion in the company of others are once again appealing. People want “something they can’t experience in front of their computers at home,” Obrist says.
Installation artists have long worked with new technologies: Obrist quotes Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, who has collaborated with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer to create kinetic sculptures and sonic landscapes. Artists like James Turrell and Olafur Eliason made ecstatic, light-filled rooms an institutional element. More than one curator I spoke with said Rain Room Random International, a feverishly successful installation first exhibited at Barbican in 2012 that allowed people to walk through the rain without getting wet, helped catapult this form within the art institution. “It was a point of conversation that became very popular, with long queues, a lot of people waiting and a lot of other institutions saying things like‘ we need a rain room ’because they had to attract an audience,” says Justin McGuirk, curator at the Museum design.
Serpentine exhibitions are free to the public, but most impressive exhibitions are commercial ventures that charge high prices. I recently attended Van Gogh’s experience staged at a warehouse in Shoreditch, which promised to “rethink the concept of the museum”. Photographs of the artist’s self-portraits were blown up on canvases, and crowds of visitors watched the strokes of a sunflower brush as they projected onto a static vase. The space seemed temporary, like a traveling show to get out of town at night. Labels relating to the artist’s biography seemed to be drawn through the translation application, creating strange, schematic sentences. Still, people didn’t seem to mind. “It’s so beautiful,” I heard someone say, staring at the reproduction of the textured Café Terrace at night. In the last room, visitors sat on the floor and watched the dizzying close-ups of Van Gogh’s starry night projected onto the tarp. Glissando music played through the speakers. The show seemed to be trying very hard to cultivate a sense of importance, but the overall impression was accidental, as if its creators didn’t want people to look at the details too closely. One record informed us that he was a “Van Gogh rock star,” citing the five highest prices his paintings achieved at auction.
FeverUp, the entertainment platform that organized the experience, is planning a series of similar exhibitions in the UK this year, including Frida and Diego Experience and Klimt: The Immersive Experience. The platform asks Internet users to vote on which works of art or artifacts they would like to be immersed in next (Dalí’s experience is ongoing; as is Titanic: The Exhibition. The company stressed it wants to “democratize” culture and make art “accessible”. Still, Saturday’s ticket to the Van Gogh experience costs £ 25 (the VIP ticket, which includes a poster and a 12-minute virtual reality show, is around £ 40).
Because immersive installations do not rely on the display of rare objects, they can be reproduced on an almost industrial scale. Theoretically, you could license the intellectual property of an art collective and show it anywhere in the world, a model that has more in common with a technology platform than with a museum or gallery. “During the pandemic, the gaming industry flourished. The art world has become very aware of this, as have the roles of platforms like Netflix – digital platforms that share forms of culture and make them extremely successful, ”says Kay Watson, director of Serpentine’s Arts Technologies. In January 2020, the program released a report identifying how the ticket experience brings art closer to the financial model of circuses and theme parks. “For some actors in the art world,” the report’s authors wrote, “that might raise the question of whether [these] are truly ‘artistic spaces’. ”
It’s easy to be sarcastic about how such events turn art into “content” ready to be recorded and shared on social media. The drive behind immersive art is undoubtedly financial: its growing popularity coincides with the pressure faced by many art institutions to secure funding and diversify audiences, whose expectations in turn have been shaped by the internet. “There’s probably an internal joke in every museum about the‘ Instagramable Moment ’,” one curator tells me. “Sometimes curators plan for the moment – because they know visitors will be looking for it anyway.” Art galleries and museums have realized that built-in “user-generated content” (UGC) capabilities can be profitable; as artist Dena Yago wrote in a 2018 essay, “a company’s marketing plan may include a UGC campaign that broadcasts a call to action, or CTA … this response is often to create more content – posting selfies, photos and videos”. Inevitably, works of art that fit this format are maximalist spectacles with excellent lighting. Among the installations that best reflect this change are The Rain Room, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room, Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest, and “Anything by James Turrell,” Yago wrote.
Some in the art world are optimistic that impressive installations could free their producers from relying on selling works to generate revenue; instead, artists could charge visitors admission for ticket experiences, bypassing the traditional art establishment altogether. The Tokyo-based team of more than 500 artists, designers and technologists, teamLab, is already doing it. Known for its saturated, reactive light installations, teamLab launched the “Digital Art Museum” in 2018 in partnership with Japanese developer Mori (tickets cost $ 30). The group has since opened another museum in Shanghai, an impressive art space at a luxury hotel in Macau and exhibitions in Paris, Prague, Barcelona and New York. In 2024, TeamLab will launch “Europe’s largest digital art museum” in Hamburg.
Another organization that pioneered the immersive model is Superblue, founded in 2020 by Marc Glimcher and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst of London’s Pace Gallery. Superblue has locations in Miami and London, and recently opened an installation at Rockefeller Center in New York City. At his cave base in Miami, housed in a refurbished warehouse, visitors travel through the mirror maze of English set designer Es Devlin, a reactive floral installation of teamLab lights and a purple Ganzfeld from Turrell. “When you run a painting exhibition, there’s one business model – let’s sell paintings,” Glimcher tells me. “In the world of music, you buy a song for 99 cents. In the art world, you buy a museum ticket for $ 25, and that money doesn’t go to the artist. The question is: can there be a commercial, experiential world of art, just as there is a commercial world of painting and sculpture?
At Superblue’s recent exhibition in London, Silent Fall, the ethereal forest of Tokyo art duo AA Murakami was set in the outpost of the Royal Academy. On a cloudy Wednesday morning, a line of people was already lining up outside. The show’s curator, Margot Mottaz, took me through a darkened space, describing thinking behind robotic trees, which produced “chemically complex” bubbles that swelled sweetly before descending to the floor and evaporating into smoke. The air smelled of patchouli and fir needles; the light changed from amber to silvery white. Walking around the room, I saw small children playing with bubbles on the floor. The couple took pictures of each other. People seemed to be having fun. But after touching one of the bubbles and taking a few photos, it occurred to me that true immersion is the rarest thing; More than spectacle or technology, it requires actively concentrating on what is in front of you.