The rise of “immersive” art
In many ways, the entrepreneurial bent of the art stack model dovetails with longstanding trends in the art world. It comes at a time when museums have become more corporate and also face pressure to diversify their collections and expand their audiences. Works of art are considered financial assets, and flashy museum buildings, designed by “star architects”, with airy and open gallery spaces, require works of a certain size and scale. There is also the long-standing popularity of experiential and environmental art. Artists such as Turrell, Robert Irwin and Robert Morris began creating such art in the 1960s and 1970s; by the 1990s it had become an institutional element. Writing earlier this decade, Rosalind Krauss, critic and former associate editor of art forum, argued that this art changed the nature of museums. Once spaces filled with objects, carefully arranged to tell a story, these institutions now sought to “give up the story in the name of a kind of intensity of experience”.
New immersive art also reflects the rise of consumer digital technologies, and the behaviors and expectations they cultivate. In “Contemporary Art and the Digitization of Everyday Life”, published in 2020, Janet Kraynak, art historian and professor at Columbia University, argues that the museum, “rather than being replaced via the Internet, is increasingly reconfigured after that.” Museums now treat visitors as if they were the “users” of a consumer product, and thus cater to their preferences, creating “pleasant, non-confrontational” environments and emphasizing the interactivity.She suggests that instead of striving to be places of pedagogy, museums become “indistinguishable from a number of cultural sites and experiences, as all become vehicles for the dissemination of” content.” Kraynak told me that she thinks the friendliness of museums makes them less stimulating and less interesting. “That friendliness is a bit pernicious,” she said. “They don’t equip the viewer so that he comes out of himself, out of his comfort zone.” In this way, she continues, museums have taken on a therapeutic function.
Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace, seemed to see therapy as part of the appeal of immersive art. “We don’t see sunrises anymore, we don’t see sunsets anymore,” he told me. “We evolved for millions of years in this incredible environment, and then for the last hundred, two hundred years, we locked ourselves in these cities that erase nature.” People are “hungry for transcendence,” Glimcher said; “the churches are emptying” and “these artists are trying to fill this void”. Technology, he continued, has facilitated a movement toward “pop art,” which prioritizes the public over the intelligentsia and seeks to circumvent the entrenched art establishment. (He described NFTs as also representative of this turn.) As a powerful member of the establishment himself, Glimcher seemed ambivalent about how to frame this development. “When you say we bring transcendent experiences to millions, your heart soars,” he said. “When you say it’s a populist turn, your heart sinks. The democratization of art sounds good. ‘Populist spectacle’ – he let out a groan – “doesn’t feel so good.
In 2021, Serpentine released a second ‘Future Art Ecosystems’ report, in which galleries expanded the art stack category to include both Superblue and ‘Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience’. The latter is not a glamorous new media experience, but a large-format art historical projection show, one of many exhibits that claim to represent the work of long-dead artists against a delightful technological backdrop. Similar shows include “Frida: Immersive Dream” (“Immerse yourself in the art and life of Frida!”), “Immersive Klimt Revolution” (“Enter her electrifying world and be swept away!”) and ” Imagine Picasso: The Immersive Exhibition” (“Literally step into the world and works of the master of modern art”). There is “Beyond Monet” (“Be one with his paintings”) and “Monet at the Water’s Edge” (“Wander Freely in a World Shaped by the Art of Claude Monet”), as well as “Gaudí: The Architect of the Imagination”, “Chagall: Dreams of a Summer Night” and “Dali: The Endless Enigma”; the latter is synchronized with consecutive Pink Floyd albums. Most of these exhibitions travel the world and are presented in cities in Europe, Asia and of North America. Many are set up in empty or transient commercial spaces, as a sort of stopgap, until a new tenant arrives. Cities, from nowadays, are full of empty stores, event spaces and theaters.
At least in the United States, the sudden proliferation of such shows has been attributed to “Emily in Paris,” a Netflix series about a goofy young American marketing professional with a creepy wardrobe and a penchant for pageantry. In the first season of the show, which aired at the end of 2020, the protagonist visits “Van Gogh, the starry night”, an immersive experience at L’Atelier des Lumières, a real “digital art center” in Paris. ‘Van Gogh, Starry Night’ wasn’t Vincent van Gogh’s first immersive exhibition – the form dates back to at least 2008 – but suddenly it seemed walls across North America were being bombarded with projections of flattened impasto. Currently, there are at least five separate digital exhibitions featuring van Gogh’s work, spread across cities around the world: “Van Gogh Alive”, “Immersive Van Gogh”, “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” , “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” and “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition.” (The nomenclature refers to an Amazon search result.)
We live, supposedly, in the age of “experiments”; the term conjures up the tired trope that millennials — the most indebted generation in history — value travel and fleeting encounters over material possessions. In a 2018 Time article entitled “The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience'”, cultural critic Amanda Hess visited a series of paid temporary experiences in New York – the Rosé Mansion, Candytopia, the Color Factory, the Museum of Ice Cream’s Pint Shop – and concluded that the real experience offered was social media posting. Twenty years earlier, in an article in harvard business review Titled “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” commerce researchers B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore proposed that commerce services aim to engage people “emotionally, physically, intellectually, or even spiritually.” “. There’s something very literal about coupling this corporate ethos with some of the world’s most famous paintings: visitors are predisposed to awe.
Today, commercial immersive experiences are beginning to move into more traditional institutional settings. This spring, the Grand Palais, in Paris, will partner with the Louvre to launch “La Joconde: Exposition Immersif”, an immersive exhibition based on the Mona Lisa which, according to the organizers, will offer a “unique interactive and sensory experience”. And, in partnership with Grande Experiences, an Australian content creation company, Newfields – formerly Indianapolis Museum of Art – has converted one floor of its building into an exhibition space dedicated to immersive digital art, called THE LUME Indianapolis. Marketing materials describe THE LUME as a “contemporary, next-gen, fully immersive digital art gallery” featuring one hundred and fifty projectors, a musical score, themed dining options, and “suggestive aromas.” (Grande Experiences works with ScentAir, a plug-in fragrance maker specializing in “memorable customer experiences.”) A catalog of presentations can be displayed in rotation; Grande Experiences’ portfolio includes “Street Art Alive”, “Da Vinci Alive”, “Monet & Friends Alive” and “Planet Shark”. The inaugural show at Newfields is, unsurprisingly, “Van Gogh Alive”, which debuted a decade ago at Marina Bay Sands, a casino and resort in Singapore.
“Overall, a lot of museums, institutions are seeing their visits go down,” Rob Kirk, head of tour experiences at Grande Experiences, told me. “They are looking for ways to bring the audience back – to re-energize the audience. I would say that in the next five to ten years there will be more exposure to these types of experiences within these types of institutions. Immersive art experiences are rarely very educational on their own, but, according to Kirk, they could inspire people to turn to institutions that focus on education. “School groups love participating in our experiments,” Kirk said. “They can run, they can be enveloped in color and audio. They don’t necessarily learn anything, but we just present them in a different way, in a certain way. Hopefully they will will draw something that will engage them more.
Last year, Grande opened THE LUME Melbourne, billed as Australia’s first digital art gallery. Yet despite this designation, the space is independent of content: Kirk hopes to offer audio-visual experiences focused on many different sectors and subjects: science, music, history, sports. Grande’s goal is to appeal to the widest possible audience, but Kirk thinks there’s room for experimentation too. “There might be some exhibits that feature NFT-based art created by today’s digital artists,” he told me. (Art Blocks, a digital art platform, recently opened an NFT gallery in Marfa, Texas.) “It could be the digital equivalent, should we say, of Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, something like that, which their own presentation of their art in a large format environment. In the future, he suggested, these generalist digital spaces could become essential in large cities – institutions on the same level as museums, galleries of art, aquariums and zoos.