plook through the gallery window and you will see a holographic alien dancing in space. Enter and an eerie, indeterminate soundtrack plays as the smell of wood smoke wafts through the air. Five VR headsets greet participants, each with a different simulation of alien life. Put on the glasses and you might find yourself, like me, surrounded by a school of electric-blue pixels that move in harmony like a jellyfish. That part made me feel a little unsteady, like 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. Installation art that uses technology such as augmented and virtual reality to “immersive” viewers, fusing the physical world with digital experience, has become popular in recent years. There have already been immersive exhibitions by David Bowie and Abba, while an immersive Avicii experience has just opened in Sweden with a Prince set to follow later this year in Chicago. There are so many immersive Van Gogh experiences that the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page. These projects vary greatly in scope, from elaborate, hi-tech installations to Instagram-friendly projection shows of deceased painters.
The loungey, perfumed rooms of Alienarium 5 are a welcome change from the experience of navigating claustrophobic public spaces in a damp face mask. “The show is mixed reality – it’s both virtual and physical. It’s about touch, smell, all kinds of things you couldn’t have in front of a screen,” says artistic director of the Serpentine, Hans Ulrich Obrist. After two years of intermittent social isolation, events that invite sensual immersion in the company of others have a newfound appeal. 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 cites Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, who collaborated with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer to create kinetic sculptures and soundscapes. Artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliason have turned ecstatic, light-filled rooms into an institutional fixture. More than one curator I spoke to said that Random International’s Rain Room, the feverishly successful installation first exhibited at the Barbican in 2012 that allowed people to walk through a downpour without getting wet, helped shape this form within art institutions. catapult. “It was a topic of conversation that became very popular, with long queues, a lot of people waiting and a lot of other establishments saying things like ‘we need a rain room’ because they had to power the audience,” said Justin McGuirk, a curator at the Design Museum.
The Serpentine’s exhibits are free to the public, but most immersive exhibits are commercial ventures that charge high prices. I recently attended a Van Gogh experience in a warehouse space in Shoreditch, which promised to “reinvent the concept of museums”. Photos of the artist’s self-portraits were blown onto canvases and a crowd of visitors watched as brushstrokes from sunflowers were projected onto a static vase. The space felt temporary, like a traveling show that would roll out of the city at night. Labels related to the artist’s biography appeared to have been run through a translation app, producing strange, schematic sentences. Still, people didn’t seem to mind. “It’s so beautiful,” I heard someone say, staring at a textureless reproduction of Café Terrace at Night. In the last room, visitors sat on the floor and watched spinning close-ups of Van Gogh’s starry night projected onto a canvas. Glissando music played through the speakers. The show seemed to try very hard to cultivate a sense of importance, but the overall impression was haphazard, as if the creators didn’t want people to look too much into the details. A sign told us that ‘Van Gogh is a rock star’, listing the top five prices his paintings had fetched at auction.
FeverUp, the entertainment platform that hosted the experience, has a number of similar exhibitions planned in the UK this year, including the Frida and Diego Experience and Klimt: the Immersive Experience. The platform asks internet users to vote on which works of art or artifacts they want to immerse next (a Dalí experience is in the works; so is Titanic: The Exhibition. The company emphasized that it wants to “democratize” the culture and wants to make art “Accessible.” Still, a Saturday ticket to the Van Gogh experience costs £25 (a VIP ticket, including a poster and a 12-minute virtual reality show, costs 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 display it all over the world, a model that has more in common with a tech platform than a museum or gallery. “During the pandemic, the gaming industry was booming. The art world became very aware of that, and of the role of platforms like Netflix – digital platforms that share forms of culture and do it with extraordinary success,” said Kay Watson, director of Serpentine’s Arts Technologies program. In January 2020, the program released a report identifying how ticket experiences are bringing art closer to the financial model of circuses and theme parks. “For some actors in the art world,” the report’s authors wrote, “may this raise the question of whether? [these] are indeed ‘art spaces’.”
It’s easy to be scathing about how such events turn art into “content” ready to be captured and shared on social media. The driving force behind immersive art is undoubtedly financial: its rising popularity has coincided with the pressure many art institutions face to secure funding and diversify audiences, whose expectations have in turn been shaped by the Internet. “There’s bound to be an in-house joke in every museum about the ‘Instagrammable moment’,” one curator tells me. “Sometimes curators plan that 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 the 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 creating more content – posting selfies, photos and videos”. The artworks that fit this format are inevitably maximalist spectacles with excellent lighting. Installations that best illustrate this shift include the Rain Room, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room, Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest, and James Turrell’s “anything at all,” Yago wrote.
Some in the art world are optimistic that immersive installations could free their producers from selling works to generate an income; instead, artists could charge visitors access to ticketed experiences, bypassing the traditional art institution altogether. A Tokyo-based collective of more than 500 artists, designers and technologists, teamLab, is already doing this. Known for its saturated, reactive light installations, teamLab launched a “digital art museum” in 2018 in collaboration with Japanese property developer Mori (tickets cost $ 30). The group has since opened another museum in Shanghai, an immersive art space in a luxury hotel in Macau, and exhibitions in Paris, Prague, Barcelona and New York. In 2024, teamLab will launch “the largest digital art museum in Europe” in Hamburg.
Another organization pioneering the immersive model is Superblue, founded in 2019 by Marc Glimcher and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst of London’s Pace Gallery. Superblue has offices in Miami and London and recently opened an installation in the Rockefeller center in New York. At the cavernous Miami base, housed in a converted warehouse, visitors travel through a mirrored labyrinth by English set designer Es Devlin, a reactive floral light installation by teamLab, and a purple Ganzfeld by Turrel. “If you’re organizing an exhibition of paintings, there’s one business model: let’s sell the paintings,” Glimcher tells me. “In the music world 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 art world like there is a commercial painting and sculpture world?”
Superblue’s recent London exhibition, Silent Fall, featured an ethereal forest by Tokyo artist duo AA Murakami in an outpost of the Royal Academy. On a cloudy Wednesday morning, people were already queuing outside. The show’s curator, Margot Mottaz, led me through the darkened space and described the thinking behind the robotic trees, which produced “chemically complex” bubbles that swelled voluptuously before floating to the floor and vaporizing in smoke. The air was perfumed with patchouli and pine needles; the light drifted from an amber glow to silvery white. As I walked across the room I saw young children playing with bubbles on the floor. A couple took pictures of each other. People seemed to be having fun. But after touching one of the bubbles and taking a few pictures, it struck me that true immersion is the rarest; more than spectacle or technology, it requires actively focusing on what lies ahead.