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Why is there so much immersive art in London right now?

We’re drowning in the stuff – so what’s behind the surge in its popularity?

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel

There was a time when all art had to do was be on a wall, maybe sometimes sit on a plinth, and that would be good enough, people would go look at it and leave thinking ‘nice, that was some art’.

But over the past few years, audiences have started asking for more. People want to lose themselves in art, to be immersed in it. It’s not enough to look at Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, now you need to be actually inside it. 

And it’s absolutely everywhere. Recent years have seen an explosion of immersive art exhibitions in London. There have been shows where Gustav Klimt and Vincent Van Gogh paintings have been projected on walls, rooms filled with smoke and bubbles, spaces filled with mirrors and lights by artists like Yayoi Kusama and TeamLab. And it’s growing. Every year, there are more and more of these heady exhibitions. Later this year will see the opening of Frameless, a gallery which claims to be ‘London’s most immersive art experience. Ever.’. One that boasts of having ‘no white walls’. 

But what’s wrong with white walls? Why this eruption in the popularity of immersive art? And what would old Vincent have to say if he knew his paintings were being projected across a warehouse in the Docklands for people to take selfies in? 

Yayoi Kusama ©TateInfinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life by Yayoi Kusama, installed for the Kusama Exhibition at Tate Modern , February - June 2012

Intention matters

A lot of art is intentionally immersive. There are works where the immersion is the point, where losing yourself in the art is by design. That’s what Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ at Tate Modern are, for example, or Random International’s ‘Rain Room’ that was on display in the Barbican Curve in 2012, where visitors could walk through a downpour without getting wet. It’s nothing new, of course. You can trace this kind of immersive art back to the psychedelic experimentations of Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment installations in the 1960s, a version of which was just on display in the Barbican’s excellent ‘Postwar Modern’ exhibition. 

In these scenarios, the artists want you to lose yourself in the work: it’s as much a part of the piece as the paint in a painting. ‘The experience is the art,’ says Sean Bidder, curator of 180 The Strand, an art venue and commissioning body that has staged some of the most popular immersive art shows of the past decade. A lot of the artists it works with are ‘using and adapting technology to innovate in new and unexpected ways that more often than not challenge preconceptions and create new possibilities.’ That leads to often genuinely amazing art, like 180’s staggeringly good ‘The Infinite Mix’ exhibition back in 2016.

Another example is Superblue, a new-ish space in the back of the Royal Academy of Arts. Superblue focuses exclusively on new immersive art. Its current show is by A&A Murakami, and features lamp posts that burble out smoke-filled bubbles for you to catch and pop. Superblue is run by blue-chip mega-gallery Pace, who created a separate company specifically to commission and show this kind of art. 

Photograph: Christoph Bolten

Immersive art’s surge in popularity might be down to a need for shared moments in an increasingly fractured, digital world. ‘The majority of us spend a lot of time looking at individual screens of algorithmically-tailored feeds of information, be that at work or leisure,’ says Paul Luckraft, senior curator at the Zabludowicz Collection in north London, which has shown some incredible immersive art by artists like Donna Huanca and Rachel Maclean. ‘We all have spent a lot of time apart from others during the pandemic. So there’s a tangible desire to share surprising, communal moments that transport our headspace elsewhere for a bit.’

Sean from 180 The Strand echoes that sentiment. ​‘Being immersed in an art show offers a chance to fully escape the outside world,’ he says. And it’s something you get to do together. ‘Ultimately, it’s that collective experience people really love.’

But it’s not all about the brilliance of communal experiences. It’s also about social media. ‘To be immersed in a great backdrop and to share those pics and videos is also definitely part of the appeal. Ironically, those individual screens are a good way of spreading the word about immersive experiences, and FOMO is a powerful thing,’ says Paul. 

Vanishing Point by United Visual Artists at 180 The Strand
Vanishing Point by United Visual Artists at 180 The Strand

Lost in the past

All of those examples are artworks designed specifically to be physically engaged with by their audiences. And that distinguishes them pretty strongly from the other type of immersive exhibition happening in London, and around the world: giant, projection-based installations based on work by long-dead masters of art history. Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh – the subject of previous and forthcoming ‘experiences’ – never intended for their art to be ‘immersive’, for it to be projected on giant screens and literally walked on and through. They couldn’t have, because the technology didn’t exist when they created it, obviously. But the museums and institutions responsible for those artists’ legacies are happy to let their art be used that way. At one point recently, there were five separate immersive Van Gogh experiences touring the world. As Van Gogh expert Martin Bailey put it recently in The Art Newspaper: ‘What would Vincent have thought about these “experiences”? As someone who failed to sell his paintings, the idea would of course have been totally unbelievable. But in any case Van Gogh was hardly a technical innovator… Vincent was a traditionalist when it came to materials. His achievement was to use ordinary paint and canvas to create the most extraordinary pictures.’

Bernardo Noval is the CEO of Brain Hunter, the company behind ‘Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Immersive Experience’ in Canada Water. The show takes works by Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, two giants of Mexican art, and projects them across the walls of an enormous warehouse space. ‘The main goal of our immersive experiences is to democratise access and bring people closer to art and culture in a new, engaging way,’ Noval says. ‘Creating an immersive experience gives you the opportunity to experiment with art and artists in a different way, where you can combine artworks, pictures and writings to create a new narrative.’

Frida and Diego installation image
Frida and Diego installation image

Democratising art by putting on paid exhibitions in a city of free museums is a bit of stretch, but the trend is undeniably popular. ‘I think immersive art is gaining a lot of popularity nowadays because it gives the opportunity to not just admire art but to experience it with all your senses,’ says Bernardo. 

The ‘Frida and Diego’ experience is a dazzling, eye-melting display that mashes up hundreds of images of their artworks, photographs, personal diaries and quotes to bring their whole world to life. But they take it all way beyond the art: ‘We have also created a unique VR experience where you will accompany Frida and Diego into the afterlife,’ says Bernardo. So you don’t need to imagine them spinning in their graves, you can watch it in real time.

There’s a pretty clear reason why so many institutions, from the Tate to Superblue to Brain Hunter, are so keen to get involved in immersive art: it pays. The popularity of immersive art, and its viral social media potential, means that visitors will happily pay hefty ticket prices to visit exhibitions. In a city where the vast majority of the art on display is free, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. Tickets for Kusama at the Tate cost £10, they sell out almost instantly and the show has repeatedly been extended. Superblue tickets are £12, the current 180 The Strand show costs £18, and the Klimt Experience is £22.90. 

Galleries and museums, therefore, are keen – maybe even desperate – to cash in. It’s a very tangible result of people being led by social media, it’s curation-by-Instagram, commissioning-by-algorithm. Plus, if people take selfies in the exhibition, you’re getting free publicity on social media, and that means you can sell more tickets. 

Lux at 180 the Strand, courtesy the artist and gallery
Lux at 180 the Strand, courtesy the artist and gallery

Asked how he responds to criticisms that these artists would never have meant, or even wanted, for their art to be experienced in this way, Bernardo says ‘What we are trying to accomplish with this project is to praise the artists, to exalt them. Our experience is created in order to show our respect to the artists and their work, and to bring their stories closer to people around the world. We are not intending to replace their original works but to elevate and celebrate them, bringing them to new audiences that might not have engaged otherwise, and we think this is a great privilege.’

Paul Luckraft doesn’t see that as a bad thing at all. ‘It’s entertainment and gives people not so familiar with art a way in to the artists and stories of the past. But it’s obviously not the same as an exhibition of the artworks themselves. It’s a packaged simulation of something, and perhaps that’s naff. As long as museums and galleries, big and small, are also supported, then I don’t see it as a bad thing.’

So while public arts funding is decimated year after year, and people continue to flock to immersive recreations of historic painters’ work, there’s a faint hope that these ‘packaged simulations’ will be the kind of experiences that will nudge non-believers into the art fold. But there’s also a risk that they’re keeping viewers away from actual art, or that they could be setting everyone up for thinking that art’s job is to overwhelm the senses. After all, once you’ve had a taste of being immersed in Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, will a plain old boring painting on a wall ever be enough again? 

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