In 2022, immersive experiences dominated the British art scene. Following two years of exclusively digital and online exhibitions—spurred by the isolating COVID-19 pandemic—art has now officially been dismantled from the gallery walls, stepping outside of the frame to become a fully-fledged immersive and Instagram-friendly experience.
For some years now, subterranean exhibition space 180 The Strand has offered multiple digitally innovative art installations such as LUX and Future Shock—although these often felt more like demonstrations of technology’s updated potential rather than engaging and forward-thinking art exhibitions.
Contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms exhibition at Tate Modern immediately sells out whenever tickets become available online, usually months in advance. All this to say, are immersive experiences the future of modern art, and if so, should we be worried?
The biggest trend pushing forward this shift could well be the dedicated exhibitions of 360° digital art dotted around the UK. These often incorporate impressive projections, large-scale digital screens, and VR. One prominent example would be the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience—organised by Exhibition Hub and Fever—which marked the first major example to open in London, and is also currently available to view in Belfast, Dublin, Leicester, Naples and York, as well as a dozen cities across North America.
There are also upcoming plans to launch similar exhibitions focused on the works of impressionist artist Claude Monet and surrealist René Magritte. However, if you’re itching to get your immersion on, don’t fret—Dalí Cybernetics recently opened in East London and brings the renowned Spanish surrealist’s optical illusions to life.
It’s a simple but effective premise: paintings by famous artists are chopped and collaged to fill the floor and four walls of dedicated venues while gentle animations bring still lives to life and landscapes are endlessly remixed. Some exhibitions offer holograms while others are aided by artificial intelligence (AI) that responds to the audience.
A number of installations offer these VR experiences to allow visitors to explore the real-life settings of an artist’s life and present a brief contextual study of their work, largely by relying on reproductions and replicas. Often, production will claim these innovations reinvent the concept of a museum, and perhaps it does, but was it really needed?
Both Klimt: The Immersive Experience and Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Immersive Experience were opened in London in 2022. The latter, I take umbrage with. Rivera and Kahlo were members of the Mexican Communist Party, and close friends of former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky. Their work is therefore intrinsically political and avowedly anti-capitalist, despite works by both artists having been sold for millions of dollars in recent years. Such an aesthetic spectacle strips away at this fundamental context, to the detriment of both the artists and their work.
That being said, it should be noted that, to credit the curators, they didn’t gloss over Kahlo’s disability—she was badly injured in a bus accident aged 18—and included replicas of both her surgical corset and wheelchair.
In terms of cost, immersive exhibitions tend to be on the pricier side. Adult tickets predominantly range between £20 and £30 (approximately $36) while children’s tickets hover around the £20 mark. This is as much as, if not more than, a major gallery exhibition at Tate or the National Gallery—but the main displays at these iconic institutions, which include works by the likes of Van Gogh and Monet, are often free to visit.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to encourage greater engagement with art and its history—but it needs to be done in an accessible and affordable manner. And does such spectacular engagement honestly offer more than an hour in a gallery? Some of these shows tour, but most are focussed on London, already home to the majority of iconic cultural institutions.
Frameless, a permanent 30,000-square-foot venue near Marble Arch and Oxford Street, offers the biggest immersive art experience currently in the UK, showcasing 40 “masterpieces” from four different galleries. Its website promises the audience that “inside Frameless, art seeps into every inch of space. It’s in front of you, behind you, above and below you. You won’t simply be looking at a picture, you’ll be in the picture, with every brush stroke, every splash of colour, every moment of inspiration.” A sensitively and creatively curated gallery exhibition can offer precisely the same, often in a less commercial and inauthentic environment.
Many of the works here, such as ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch or ‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dalí,—are reworked to the point where they’re practically unrecognisable from the source material. Can these really be called the same pieces of art? The beauty of Bosch’s altarpiece lies in its intimate intricacies as much as its fantastical imagery.
It’s hard to pinpoint why these establishments don’t support and highlight contemporary artists who produce work specifically intended for such scales and vast spaces. In this way, immersive exhibitions can be the driving force behind creating new digestible art installations, rather than manipulating historic works to fit unsuitable parameters.
There aren’t enough spaces, even in London, to establish and support infrastructure for new media artists. So, supporting up-and-coming creators who work with projections, virtual reality, augmented reality, and more is vital.
One such example is the Lightroom installation in King’s Cross, which opens in 2023. According to the website, audiences will be able to experience “a new home for spectacular artist-led shows.”
And while the space’s first exhibition is dedicated to the work of octogenarian David Hockney, it’s understandable as to why. Hockney has been at the cutting edge of digital art for some years now, producing work art on an iPad for well over a decade. However, when this art is printed off and displayed on paper in gallery spaces, it feels flat and lacking. Therefore, an immersive digital space is perfectly suited to showcase Hockney’s creations. A longer programme of exhibitions is yet to be announced.
Let’s just hope this marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the world of art and exhibitions, rather than another superficial reworking of classic art.