Vincent van Gogh. Salvador Dalí. Frida Kahlo. Casual perusers of ads on the tube would be forgiven for thinking that London’s galleries are enjoying some sort of golden age. Alas, the truth is less exciting, more expensive and certainly more depressing. For this is no ordinary art on offer; this art is “immersive”.
“Immersive art” is the latest lazy lovechild of TikTok and enterprising warehouse landlords. Ready your Oculus headsets, earplugs and gas-masks or simply sit on your arse and read - I’ve been to London’s immersive art exhibitions, so you don’t have to.
The first problem with immersive art? It's not actually very immersive. A common trope of “immersive” retrospectives of famous artists is to lazily recreate their original pieces using gimmicky tech. But merely aiming a low-res projector at a blank canvas doesn’t do much in the way of sensory stimulation, and I defy anyone facing a pixely printed out scan of a Klimt painting to feel that their aesthetic awareness has been expanded in any novel way. (I’ve genuinely seen this, it was awful.)
As with most of these sins, the Brick Lane Van Gogh expo takes the biscuit. My favourite element of the “immersive” show was their faithful recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom. An ambitious feat, executed with two square metres of lino flooring, some furniture that looks like it’s been purloined from a young offenders unit and, of course, mutilated pastiches of his paintings. I’ve had dental procedures which have felt more immersive and certainly more enjoyable. But I’m no high art purist, I’m willing to come round to recreations of famous paintings - so long as exhibition designers are more ambitious with their choice of source material. An immersive version of Picasso’s Guernica (recreated in a Brick Lane warehouse) would be fucking hilarious, and an immersive version of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights… hilarious fucking.
While projectors, surround sound and uncomfortably wacky seating are mainstays of immersive art swindlers, their arsenal of olfactory-system-assault-weapons is rapidly expanding. The Serpentine hosted Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Alienarium 5, a pioneering a room that was designed to smell of “alienflowers (holorium)”. Unfortunately, despite collaborating with a renowned perfumer to conceptualise this other-worldly odour, the result was unpleasantly sweaty and metallic.
And then there are the VR headsets - beware! Many exhibitions don’t even include these with the standard ticket, so my dizzying return to reality has twice been accompanied by an usher brandishing a credit card machine. I’m sure that in ten years, when the NFT-ChatGPT-NPCs inherit the earth, I’ll be hooked up to one of these things and juiced for stress hormones by a satanic group, but I’m in no mood to hasten this descent from IRL to URL.
And to the tin-foil hat truthers reading this, “immersive” exhibitions are strong evidence you aren’t just a “brain in vat”, because no-one designing a simulation could dream of making an experience so utterly unexceptional.
Sometimes these installations are so banal and depthless, visitors have walked through installations entirely oblivious. I myself have fallen victim to this on my way out of Tottenham Court Road tube when I was kettled by herds of tourists into a projector-filled hangar. Wading through human traffic as several thousand lumens were fired into my retinas was sufficient to drive me out into the murky depths of Soho. I subsequently 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 culture in breathtaking new ways”.
A sad consequence of this disappointing “immersive art” is it will repel art lovers and commissioners from taking risks with more interesting immersive experiences which call for more resources than a few projectors, UE booms and beanbags. Alfredo Jaar’s installation at the latest Whitney Biennial was genuinely immersive. He simulated a Black Lives Matter riot with traumatising viscerality by whipping up gale-force winds in a cell of subwoofers. Even the Barbican’s Rain Room was undoubtedly immersive, provided you could survive the 12-hours queues and getting a bit soggy.
Conversely, lots of immersive art is effective with none of the techy trappings boasted by the Design Museum’s WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD or the dreaded Canary Wharf Winter Lights festival. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s pioneering installation pad thai (1990), centred around the artist cooking Thai food for his visitors - it doesn’t get more low tech than that, but most likely immersed visitors in new relationships and a wider range of experiences than a string of LEDs 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 aesthetics lecture that I usually reserve for bad Hinge dates, but on most theories of what distinguishes art from the banal, “immersive art” fails.
At best it’s unimaginative. Paying a boiler room of animation undergrads to make the stars move in Van Gogh’s Starry Night isn’t an act of supreme creative genius, it’s distracting. And when this same effect is applied indiscriminately to the rest of his canon (and some clichéd asylum scenes), it becomes quite hard not to laugh. At moments, I felt like I was trapped in a GCSE art student’s idea of a bad trip. Leaving the exhibition I wasn’t sure what Van Gogh himself would’ve thought, but I fear that if he too had shelled out £25 for a ticket, he’d be inclined to mutilate more of his remaining sensory organs.
At worst, the drive to transform a masterpiece risks mutilating what originally made it special. Is it conceivable that Picasso made a mark on a canvas in a particular way, for a particular reason? The artist’s “way of seeing” is lost when you decide to transpose a scan of it onto the wall of a Parisian lantern factory. But despite the fixation “immersive experiences” have with novelty, the products of their labours are remarkably similar: disappointing light shows punctuated by a few TikTok friendly, gamified, set pieces. (I have a strong desire to letterbomb the next person who posts an Instagram story about Kusama, and no, I don’t care that you’re at Paris Fashion Week.)
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the largest audience for any of these “immersive” shows is online where none of the supposed “immersive” features can even be experienced. Given this is the audience who drive ticket sale hype, is it really a surprise that commercial curators sacrifice aspirations of multi-sensory immersiveness at the one-dimensional altar of photogenics?
My last gripe with immersive art? It’s fucking expensive. The Van Gogh Expo costs £27, Dalí: Cybernetics sets you back £23, and for the princely sum of £65 you can visit the Tate’s Infinity Rooms and sup on a “Kusama-inspired dinner”. At last, an exhibition for people who literally want art to be spoon-fed to them. The gouging prices are especially galling since so many of the artists (whose genius they profiteer from) died hundreds of years ago.
At the Van Gogh experience, aeons of melodramatic projector screen-time are devoted to the artist's death in penury and obscurity, rendering the hefty ticket price especially nausea inducing. So where is all this money going? Many of these ‘experiences’ are operated by sinisterly named, multi-million dollar businesses like teamLAB, Brain Hunter Co., and Fever Labs. Sure, art has always been big business, but immersive art seems to be uniquely ripe for raiding by faceless corporations. You don’t have to pay the (long deceased) original artist, you can depend on TikTok automatons to turn up 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 egregious ticket prices, you don’t care for multi-sensory immersion and you place no premium on artistic originality; there’s a very real chance you’ll enjoy the “immersive art” on show at the moment. Then again, you’d probably also enjoy a brain tumour. As a rule of thumb, if it sells itself as “immersive”, it’s probably not worth seeing. But if you're hell bent on hunting down a hologram, I’d head down to ABBA Voyage, it’s less pretentious and a lot more fun. Or you could wander into the National Gallery, and see the real thing, for free.