You can bring an invisible exhibition of Digital Art to life using just your smartphone in the capital’s first augmented reality show, Unreal City. Since December 8, the south bank of the Thames has played host to an augmented reality art show. While strangers stroll and jog by, none the wiser, you can play and interact with 36 digital sculptures from prominent contemporary artists, including Olafur Eliasson, KAWS, Cao Fei, Nina Chanel Abney and Alicja Kwade.

Sarah Roberts  |  Ed Cristina Brooks  | 3 January 2021

With no need for a VR headset, the show is accessible by downloading the Unreal City app, produced by Acute Art in collaboration with Dazed Digital. Until January 5, a mile-long stretch between the Millennium Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, together with the app, will allow viewers to conjure up New Media works through their phone screens. For those not located in the capital, Daniel Birnbaum’s curator’s tour and a series of artists talks provide insights and previews of the exhibition.

Nina Chanel Abney, Imaginary Friend (2020), Augmented reality. © Courtesy of the Artist and Acute Art.

The show explores the potential of augmented reality in enhancing public spaces, adding a new layer of cultural engagement and visual stimulation without any physical installation taking place. 

With the world in chaos over Covid-19 infection rates, countries oscillate between freedom and quarantine, leaving the fate of many exhibitions and venues uncertain. These virtual exhibitions allow artists the world over to participate without needing to step on a plane. Digital works could provide a vital connection for cultural hotspots like the South Bank, at a time when the future of London’s art world feels hazy.

In the show, digital artist Cao Fei has continued her exploration of New Media techniques, a project that began over ten years ago on the video-game platform Second Life. Reflecting urban life in contemporary china, Fei constructed an entire fictional locale, RMB city (2007), where users could interact, build and exchange currency for goods. For Unreal City, Fei continues to invite viewers into immersive realities, producing an altered iteration of her project The Eternal Wave, all from the safe distance of her studio in Beijing. The virtual reality installation was exhibited at the artists sold-out show Blueprints, hosted by the Serpentine Gallery earlier in 2020. In her newest rendition of Eternal Wave, Fei recreates the mundane domesticity of her kitchen, connecting her lived environment to the virtual realm. Through the exhibition app, viewers participate in and alter the space by tapping the digitally drawn furniture.

Cao Fei, The Eternal Wave (2020), Virtual Reality, Serpentine Galleries. © Courtesy of the Artist.

In a discussion with Another Magazine’s Sophie Bew, Fei revealed her wish to create an emotional connection through digital textures. Most Digital Art still takes on a characteristic sheen that reminds us of its inorganic origins in spite of the better animation techniques available. However, Fei attempts to mediate authentic emotions through the polished digital surface. Revisiting characters from her 2019 video installation Nova, Fei animates a trapped digital avatar modelled on her own son, expressing her anxiety that as he engages with 21st-century technology he loses connection to the physical world. Somewhat ironically, the very technology that threatens to swallow her son, provides the portal for viewers to set him free. With smartphones tucked in their bags and pockets, she hopes viewers can emancipate him and take him home.

The dissolving boundary between our real and virtual lives has likewise inspired Alicja Kwade’s AR-BEIT, a 2020 digital project produced for Unreal City. Expanding her physical sculptural practise into New Media, Kwade has produced four AR pieces that play with the human psyche and hint at parallel universes. The spinning tops of Kreisel (Inception) are a deliberate call-back to Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster of the same name. For those unfamiliar with the mind-bending epic, the spinning top acts as a vital anchor for Nolan’s characters, indicating whether they are still in a dream world.

Alicja Kwade, Kreisel (Inception) (AR) (2020), Augmented Reality. © Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art.

The animated tops in Kreisel revolve in perpetual motion, hinting that like Nolan’s characters, we too may be perceiving dream-worlds that behave differently from our own. She produces strange, surreal objects, such as the aptly titled MarsMelone, a digitally sculpted watermelon that mimics the surface of our neighbouring planet. Viewers can interact with another dimension, through motion and play.

While we can delight in the virtual dimensions of augmented reality, the works of Unreal City also use the physical surroundings to amplify their effect. Virtual sculptures are suspended above the waters of the Thames in surprising and impossible ways, unbounded by the limitations of physics. Curator Daniel Birnbaum emphasises that the physical landscape of the South Bank forms more than just a blank backdrop. World-renowned cultural landmarks such as the Tate Modern form significant waypoints on the mile-long journey. Olafur Eliasson presents his augmented reality objects in front of the gallery’s sealed doors, where his retrospective In Real Life was held in July 2019, a blockbuster celebration of his photography and new media work.

Olafur Eliasson, Solar Friend (2020), Augmented reality. © Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art.

Wunderkammer is a 2020 series of AR objects created by Eliasson that includes a cartoonish virtual puffin and a digital lamp that can be charged with energy from a sublime, glowing AR sun. The playful sculptures take inspiration from natural elements including light, air and water: a recurring theme in Eliasson’s work. Engaging with these sculptures allows viewers to reflect upon their relationship with their surroundings, using both the natural and the artificial in tandem. Eliasson draws users into the virtual dimension, while still referencing environmental concerns and reminding us  of the ecological responsibility humans hold, even as new technology (like AR) brings us closer to the possibility of an ever-more virtual existence.

Unreal City is available until Tuesday January 5, 2021. For more information and to download the exhibition app visit Acute Art. 

Read our review of Cao Fei’s Blueprints at the Serpentine.

Please note: London and its surrounding boroughs are currently subject to Tier 4 covid-19 restrictions. Please stay safe and always follow up-to-date government guidance when planning activities.

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