Peek through the gallery window and you’ll see a holographic alien dancing in space. Venture inside, and an eerie, indeterminate soundtrack plays while the smell of woodsmoke floats through the air. Five VR headsets greet incoming, each offering a different simulation of extraterrestrial life. Put the pair of goggles on and you may find yourself, as I did, surrounded by a shoal of electric-blue pixels that move in concert like a jellyfish. That part left me feeling slightly unsteady, as if my neurons had been massaged.
This experience is part of Alienarium 5, a new exhibition by the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at the Serpentine Gallery. Installation art that uses technology such as augmented and virtual reality to “immerse” viewers, merging the physical world with digital experience, has become popular in recent years. There have already been immersive exhibitions of David Bowie and Abba, while an immersive Avicii experience has just opened in Sweden with a Prince one due to follow in Chicago later this year. There are so many immersive Van Gogh experiences that the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page. These projects vary hugely 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 respite from the experience of navigating claustrophobic public spaces in a humid face mask. “The show is mixed reality – it’s both virtual and physical. It involves touch, smell, all kinds of things you couldn’t have in front of a screen,” the Serpentine’s artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, says. After two years of intermittent social isolation, events that invite sensual immersion in the company of others have a renewed 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 make kinetic sculptures and soundscapes. Artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliason have made ecstatic, light-filled rooms an institutional fixture. More than one curator I spoke with said Random International’s Rain Room, the feverishly successful installation that was first exhibited at the Barbican in 2012 and allowed people to walk through a downpour without getting wet, helped catapult this form within art institutions. “It was a talking point that became very popular, with long queues, lots of people waiting, and lots of other institutions saying things like ‘we need a rain room’, because they needed to drive audiences”, says Justin McGuirk, a curator at the Design Museum.
The Serpentine’s exhibitions are free to the public, but most immersive exhibitions are commercial ventures that charge steep prices. I recently attended a Van Gogh experience staged in a warehouse space in Shoreditch, which promised to “reinvent the concept of museums”. Photographs of the artist’s self-portraits were blown up on to canvases and a crowd of visitors watched brushstrokes of sunflowers being projected on a static vase. The space felt temporary, like a traveling show that would roll out of town by night. Labels relating the artist’s biography seemed to have been run through a translation app, producing weird, 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 final room, visitors sat on the floor and watched as twirling closeups of Van Gogh’s starry night were projected on a tarpaulin. Glissando music played over the speakers. The show seemed to be trying very hard to cultivate a sense of momentousness, but the overall impression was haphazard, as if its creators didn’t want people to look too closely at the details. One board informed us that “Van Gogh is a rock star”, listing the five highest prices his paintings had fetched at auction.
FeverUp, the entertainment platform that organized 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 artworks or artefacts they would like to be immersed in next (a Dalí experience is in the works; so is Titanic: The Exhibition. The company stressed that it wants to “democratise” culture and make art Yet a Saturday ticket to the Van Gogh experience costs £25 (a 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 an art collective’s intellectual property and show it anywhere in the world, a model that has more in common with a tech platform than a museum or gallery. “During the pandemic, the games industry was booming. The art world became very aware of that, and of the role of platforms like Netflix – digital platforms sharing forms of culture and doing so extraordinarily successfully”, says Kay Watson, director of the Serpentine’s Arts Technologies programme. In January 2020, the program published a report that identified how ticketed experiences bring art closer to the financial model of circuses and theme parks. “For some actors in the art world”, the report’s authors wrote, “this may 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 drive behind immersive art is unquestionably financial: its surging popularity coincides with the pressure that many art institutions face to secure funding and diversify audiences, whose expectations have in turn been shaped by the internet. “There’s probably an in-house joke at every museum about the ‘Instagrammable moment’,” one curator tells me. “Sometimes curators plan that moment – as they know visitors are going to be looking for it anyway.” Art galleries and museums have realized that built-in opportunities for “user-generated content” (UGC) 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 the creation of more content – the posting of selfies, photos and videos”. Inevitably, the artworks that follow this format are maximalist spectacles with excellent lighting. Among the installations that best exemplify this shift are the Rain Room, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room, Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest and “anything at all by James Turrell”, Yago wrote.
Some in the art world are optimistic that immersive installations could free their producers from relying on the sale of works to generate an income; instead, artists could charge visitors entry to ticketed experiences, circumventing the traditional art establishment 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 partnership with Japanese property developer Mori in 2018 (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 museum for digital art 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 locations in Miami and London and recently opened an installation at the Rockefeller center in New York. At its cavernous Miami base, housed in a converted warehouse, visitors travel through a mirrored labyrinth by the English set designer Es Devlin, a reactive floral light installation by teamLab, and a purple Ganzfeld by Turrel. “When you’re hosting a show 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 dollars, and that money doesn’t go to the artist. The question is: can there be a commercial, experiential art world, like there’s a commercial painting and sculpture world?”
At Superblue’s recent exhibition in London, Silent Fall, an ethereal forest by the Tokyo artist duo AA Murakami was staged in an outpost of the Royal Academy. On a cloudy Wednesday morning, a queue of people were already lining up outside. The show’s curator, Margot Mottaz, walked me through the darkened space, describing the thinking behind the robotic trees, which produced “chemically complex” bubbles that swelled voluptuously before drifting to the floor and evaporating into smoke. The air was scented with patchouli and fir needles; the light drifted from an amber glow to silvery white. Walking around 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 I’d touched one of the bubbles and taken a few photos, it struck me that true immersion is the rarest of things; more than spectacle or technology, it requires actively concentrating on what’s in front of you.