Immersive art exhibits are everywhere and they’re awful
Vincent Van Gogh. Salvador Dali. Frida Kahlo. Casual readers of tube advertisements would be forgiven for thinking that London galleries are experiencing some sort of golden age. Alas, the truth is less exciting, more expensive and certainly more depressing. For it is not an ordinary art offered; this art is “immersive”.
“Immersive art” is the latest lazy love of TikTok and enterprising warehouse owners. Get your Oculus helmets, earplugs and gas masks ready or just sit on your ass and read – I’ve been to the immersive art exhibitions in London so you don’t have to.
The first problem with immersive art? It’s actually not very immersive. A common trope of “immersive” retrospectives of famous artists is lazily recreating their original pieces using fancy technology. But simply aiming a low-res projector at a blank canvas doesn’t do much in terms of sensory stimulation, and I challenge anyone confronted with a printed pixelated scan of a Klimt painting to feel that their aesthetic awareness has been expanded in any novel. way. (I actually saw that, it was horrible.)
As with most of these sins, the Brick Lane Van Gogh exhibit takes the biscuit. My favorite element of the “immersive” show was their faithful recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom. An ambitious feat, executed with two square meters of lino flooring, furniture that looks like it was stolen from a unit of juvenile delinquents and, of course, mutilated pastiches of his paintings. I’ve had dental procedures that have felt more immersive and definitely more enjoyable. But I’m not a high art purist, I’m willing to turn to recreations of famous paintings – as long as exhibit designers are more ambitious in their choice of source material. An immersive version of Picasso Guernica (recreated in a Brick Lane warehouse) would be fucking hilarious, and an immersive version of Hieronymous Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights…fucking hilarious.
While floodlights, surround sound, and uncomfortably wacky seating are mainstays for immersive art scammers, their arsenal of scent-system assault weapons is growing rapidly. The Serpentine welcomed Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster Alienarium 5, a pioneer of a room designed to smell “alien flowers (holorium)”. Unfortunately, despite collaborating with a top perfumer to conceptualize this otherworldly scent, the result was unpleasantly clammy and metallic.
And then there are VR headsets – watch out! Many exhibits don’t even include these in the standard ticket, so my dizzying reality check was twice accompanied by an usher wielding a credit card machine. I’m sure in ten years when the NFT-ChatGPT-NPC inherits the earth, I’ll be hooked up to one of these things and stimulated by a satanic group for stress hormones, but I’m not in the mood to hasten this descent from IRL to URL.
And for the tinfoil hat enthusiasts reading this, the “immersive” exhibits are solid proof that you’re not just a “vat brain” because no one who designs a simulation could ever dream of making a such an unexceptional experience.
Sometimes these installations are so banal and without depth that visitors have passed through installations completely oblivious. I myself experienced this on my way out of the Tottenham Court Road tube when I was taken by herds of tourists to a shed full of floodlights. Wading through human traffic as several thousand lumens shot into my retinas was enough to lead me into the murky depths of Soho. I then discovered that this was my first (and last) visit to London’s Outernet space, “an immersive entertainment district in the heart of London where communities come together to enjoy the culture of a breathtaking way”.
A sad consequence of this disappointing “immersive art” is that it will deter art lovers and curators from taking risks with more interesting immersive experiences that require more resources than a few projectors, UE booms and beanbags. Alfredo Jaar’s installation at the last Whitney Biennial was truly immersive. He faked a Black Lives Matter riot with traumatic visceration by fanning high winds into a cell of subwoofers. Even the barbican rain room was undoubtedly immersive, provided you could survive the 12 hour queues and get a little soggy.
Conversely, a lot of immersive art is effective without any of the technical pitfalls touted by the Design Museum. THE STRANGE SENSATION GETS RIGHT or the dreaded Canary Wharf Winter Lights festival. The pioneering installation of Rirkrit Tiravanija pad thai (1990), centered on the artist cooking Thai food for his visitors – it doesn’t get more low-tech than this, but it very likely immersed visitors in new relationships and a wider range of experiences than an LED string at the Tate sponsored by Bank of America (hi, Yayoi Kusama).
Another problem with much of London’s “immersive art” is that it’s not really art. I’ll spare you the lesson in aesthetics I usually reserve for bad Hinge dates, but on most theories about what distinguishes art from the mundane, “immersive art” fails.
At best, it’s unimaginative. Paying a Boiler Room of Animation Students to Rock Van Gogh’s Stars Starry Night is not an act of supreme creative genius, it is entertaining. And when that same effect is indiscriminately applied to the rest of its canon (and some cliched asylum scenes), it becomes pretty hard not to laugh. At times I felt like I was trapped in the idea of a bad trip from a GCSE art student. Leaving the exhibition I had no idea what Van Gogh himself would have thought, but I fear that if he too had shelled out £25 for a ticket he would be inclined to further mutilate his remaining sensory organs.
At worst, the desire to transform a masterpiece risks mutilating what made it special in the first place. Is it conceivable that Picasso marked a canvas in a particular way, for a particular reason? The artist’s “way of seeing” is lost when it is decided to transpose a scan of it onto the wall of a Parisian lantern factory. But despite the fixation that “immersive experiences” have on novelty, the products of their work are remarkably similar: disappointing light shows punctuated by a few TikTok-friendly, gamified, gamified sets. (I have a strong desire to bombard the next person who posts an Instagram story about Kusamaand no, I don’t care if you’re at Paris Fashion Week.)
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the largest audience for these “immersive” shows is online, where none of the supposedly “immersive” features can even be experienced. Given that it’s the public that drives the hype of ticket sales, is it really any wonder that commercial curators sacrifice their aspirations for multi-sensory immersion at the one-dimensional altar of photogenics?
My final gripe with immersive art? It’s fucking expensive. The Van Gogh exhibition costs £27, Dali: Cybernetics costs you £23, and for the princely sum of £65 you can visit the Tate’s Infinity Rooms and dine at a ‘Kusama-Inspired Dinner’. Finally an exhibition for those who literally want to eat art by the spoonful. The exorbitant prices are particularly infuriating since so many artists (whose genius they take advantage of) died hundreds of years ago.
During the Van Gogh Experience, eons of melodramatic projector screen time are devoted to the artist’s death in penury and obscurity, making the high ticket price particularly nausea-inducing. So where is all this money going? Many of these “experiments” are operated by multi-million dollar companies with sinister names like teamLAB, Brain Hunter Co. and Fever Labs. Sure, art has always been big business, but immersive art seems to be especially ripe for raids by faceless corporations. You don’t have to pay the original (long-deceased) artist, you can rely on TikTok automatons to show you no matter what, and you can rinse and repeat the same “unique immersive experience” in any city with electricity.
So if you can stomach the sky-high ticket prices, you don’t care about multi-sensory immersion and you don’t value artistic originality; chances are you’ll enjoy the “immersive art” being showcased right now. Then again, you’d probably also like a brain tumor. As a rule of thumb, if it sells itself as “immersive”, it’s probably not worth watching. But if you’re determined to hunt down a hologram, I’d head to ABBA Voyage, it’s less pretentious and a whole lot more fun. Or you can stroll through the National Gallery and see the real thing, for free.