The immersive art trend uses New Media to create a total-body experience. Is this a gimmick for the Instagram generation, or a transformative approach to Digital Art?

Sarah Roberts  |  Ed. Peter Traynor | 11 August 2021
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room-Phalli’s Field, (1965). Mixed Media Installation. @Courtesy of the artist and Tate Collective.

Immersion is the act of becoming utterly involved with something, pulled into its universe and losing your sense of self in the process. When it comes to immersive or experiential art, these works envelop their audience in a full-body experience, engaging with sight, touch and sometimes even smell. Using New Media processes, including video projection mapping, sound technologies, VR headsets and light shows, artists can create environments surrounding the viewer, making them an active part of their experience.

While this movement has garnered growing enthusiasm in recent years, the art of immersion is by no means a new concept. Artists have been marking out technology-rich spaces that incorporate the human body for decades. Since the sixties, Yayoi Kusama (the dot lady) has been working with immersion, using LED light installation and mirrored optical illusions to create her seemingly endless Infinity Mirror Rooms. 

An early example, Love Forever, was part of the provocative exhibit Kusama’s Peep Show. Kusama asked viewers to stare through a peephole discovering a repeated image of themselves and another visitor in a mirrored chamber. According to Tate, visual hallucinations inspired Kusama’s venture into immersion. After staring at a pattern of flowers on a tablecloth, she described looking up and seeing her “entire body, the room, and universe” covered in red flowers. Since then, she has exhibited iterations of her Infinity Mirror Rooms worldwide, including a 2021 exhibit at the Tate Modern in London.

Kusama describes this process as “self-obliteration”, hinting at one of the central paradoxes of this medium the importance of embodiment to access the work and the simultaneous ability to lose our sense of selves within it. Immersive art is about becoming a part of something far greater than the body, absorbing yourself totally by standing within and not before the artwork. In a recent interview, Tokyo-based Digital Art collective, teamLab, told Sophie Haigney of ArtNews the term “visitors to viewers”. Immersion can take advantage of technology to go beyond just visual stimulation, they describe their work as oriented “towards a total transformation of the space”, in which for instance a 360-degree expansion of the work allows the viewer to step straight in, eliminating the boundaries around the art object.  

teamLab, teamLab: Continuity, (2021). Video projection installation. Commissioned by Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. @Courtesy of the artists.

It seems no coincidence that there has been a surge of digital artists creating immersive work since the launch of Instagram in 2011. Art in America editor, Brian Droitcour suggests that immersive works are the next step in a cultural shift towards the merging of marketing, entertainment and social media with the art world. For some, immersive arts dilute the gallery experience, leading to a generation of gallery visitors who are far more comfortable snapping pictures for their Instagram feed, than standing deep in thought in front of artworks.

The immersive art project can wrap its viewer in glittering LED lights and surround sound, dissolving our intelligent distance from the work. Sharing stunning images with family and friends, with hashtags and captions, is an ingenious word-of-mouth marketing technique. On the other hand, the use of art spaces as entertaining, interactive and engaging is seen as a way to connect and usher in new audiences, particularly those who feel alienated or turned off by traditional displays. This is not without caveats, as for-profit spaces have taken advantage of this model, with hefty ticketing prices to enjoy the Digital Art that puts money back into the pockets of wealthy investors. 

However, its proponents believe New Media techniques can introduce a new dimension to the work of beloved artists. In 2018, the L’Atelier des Lumières opened to the public in Paris, creating a space where projection mapping produced a “cathedral” of large-scale paintings. Projection mapping enwraps spectators in the 360-degree video image, achieving an overwhelming result that surrounds you with colour. To date their exhibits have attracted millions of visitors to displays organised around Klimt, Van Gogh and Gaudi. In Mexico City, a 35-minute light show projecting the images of Frida Kahlo opened in July. Frida Immersiva has been organised with agreement from surviving relatives. Industry magazine ArtNET News reports that the family hopes to connect audiences with Kahlo’s work, promoting a sense of “familiarity and intimacy”.  

Gianfranco Ianuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccardi, Van Gogh the Starry Night (2019), Video Projection and Sound Installation. Commissioned by Atelier des Lumiere’s. Courtesy of the artists.

Ironically, despite virtual technology’s ability to take us away from reality and move us into fantasy realms, many artists use virtual existence to forge a deeper connection to the natural environment. Take the work of Canadian artist Char Davies, a New Media artist and pioneering figure of experiential art. She has been working with virtual reality technologies since their earliest emergence in the 1990s. Osmose, one of the first fully immersive works of its kind, invites viewers into a virtual forest by donning a VR headset and motion-detector vest. As participants move, the translucent trees and luminous atmosphere subtly transform around them, responding to speed and direction changes, directly illustrating visitors’ impact on this digital environment.

Char Davies, Osmose, (1995), Virtual Reality Installation. @Courtesy of the artist.

The advent of virtual reality technology, including the Oculus Rift headset, which has become widely available since the 2010s, is making it increasingly possible for artists to mobilise Digital Art to connect us to convincing alternate realms. In a 2017 interview with the magazine Berlin Art Link, Davies claimed immersive VR “captures the divine, without depleting our natural world”. Virtual environments could be seen as pure escapism, but this is not Davies’ intention. Davies hopes to mobilise immersive art to promote a deeper awareness of our influence on the natural environment. This feels even more poignant as a digital presence becomes so interwoven with our day-to-day activities. 

Davies is not alone in catalysing digital techniques to connect us to climate change and conservation issues. Digital artist Tamiko Thiel uses augmented reality and projection mapping in her installation, Evolution of Fish. Premiering in 2019 at The World Graffiti Festival, the installation virtually maps an ocean scape on outdoor buildings or interior gallery walls. Visitors are surrounded by aquatic creatures, whose movement they can control via iPads. Yet the more they intervene, the more the fish transform into plastic waste. The work stood as a playful metaphor to engage audiences with the severely detrimental effect of human actions upon the ocean’s ecosystem. Thiel’s website sets out real-world actions for alleviating the impact of ocean-borne plastic waste.

Evolution of Fish - pan around two AR projections, Alys Beach fire pit from Tamiko Thiel on Vimeo.

Tamiko Thiel, Evolution of Fish, (2019), Augmented Reality Installation. @ Courtesy of the artist.

Experimentation with New Media, including VR headsets and AR applications, can require extensive resources, technological know-how and access to large-scale installation spaces. Organisations such as teamLab have evolved with the intention of helping artists to realise ambitious installations through a network of artists, architects, animators, engineers and collectors. Founding member, Molly Dent-Brocklehurst, told Art in America, “we have seen a rapid growth in the number of artists innovating with experience-based works”. The collective is launching several new artist centres to meet this demand, including Superblue which opened in 2021. This Miami-based venue will collaborate with visual artists, museums, and festivals to realise experiential exhibits. 

With even some of the world’s most prominent gallery spaces struggling to make ends meet, the experience economy has had to make some devastating financial calls, including widespread job losses. Superblue has not been without hiccups, already having to postpone its opening from a planned date in 2020. However, the New York Times recently reported that interest and investment in immersive art exhibits are still growing despite the pandemic. While some may dismiss them as gimmicky or overly theatrical immersive attractions have proven immensely popular with audiences, attracting visitor numbers in the millions. Will the people return, masks-off? Time will tell, but for-profit and non-profit organisations in the Digital Art world are planning expansions, continuing to open immersive spaces for audiences worldwide.

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