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Frameless Gallery2 Van Gogh (Credit Richard Blake)
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World of fantasy:
a history of immersive art

 

Text by Matteo Pini

Within London’s Central Activities Zone, there are currently over 40 permanent or semi-permanent immersive exhibitions, including three related to prisons, two to the music of ABBA and at least ten related to a dead or dying painter. The desire to create an experience that engages the full sensorium is as old as art itself, yet the current rate of growth of the medium – predominantly building upon extant  intellectual property – is unprecedented. The term “immerse,” etymologically rooted in the act of dipping something into water, means envelopment, entering into a state of sensory limitlessness. No wonder, then, that immersive exhibitions often brand themselves on their transformative or even obliterative potential. “Travel beyond the boundary of reality,” promises the press release for Frameless, Marble Arch’s latest flagship tourist attraction. Travel, whether it be the figurative promise to “bring the outside in”, or literal, has been key to the form’s development. Early examples of immersive experience served as a means of exploring the world before international travel became widely available, and today, exhibitions tour across the world like the roving showmen of years past. In medium and message, immersive exhibitions have historically reflected a techno-optimism, reliant on the innovations of the day to execute convincingly, even if this worldview has fallen to the wayside in favour of nostalgia fetishism and Old Master worship. As immersive exhibitions proliferate, ticket prices rise, and the debate as to whether they evacuate thoughtful contemplation or supply a somehow more authentically totalising aesthetic experience rages on, TANK delves into the form’s evolution.

Pre-20th century

 

Providing a challenge to established notions of temporality and space, the immersive experiences of pre-20th century Europe relied upon optical devices and early projector technologies to create their effect, alongside techniques borrowed from theatre. In this period, divisions between science, art and mass entertainment were less clearly drawn, and early immersive experiences were by necessity also records of the era’s technological progress.

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Christiaan Huygens, the magic lantern (1659)

The magic lantern was the earliest form of projector technology and was first conceptualised by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who created a working model from a convex piece of glass placed against a lamp, magnifying illustrations he had placed closeby. Early models were used by showmen across Europe for phantasmagoria performances, a form of horror show utilising the technology alongside sound effects, suggestive lighting and allegedly, punch spiked with hallucinogens. Walter Benjamin was captivated by his childhood experience of a phantasmagoria, deeming it “the earliest wonder of technology”.

Wikicommons A Page Of Willem 'S Gravesande's 1720 Book Physices Elementa Mathematica With Jan Van Musschenbroek's Magic Lantern

Projection of a minotaur by a magic lantern circa from Physices Elementa Mathematica by Willem Jacob Gravesande (1748), courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Robert Barker, the panorama (1793)

Among the most popular entertainments of the Regency era, the panorama was created by Robert Barker. Barker’s innovation was a technology of his own creation, allowing visitors to inhabit an immersive 360-degree painting, arranged so that “an observer turning quite round” would see a seamless view of a city. Paying the high price of three shillings to enter, the viewer would make their way down a dark corridor to clear their minds, before entering a room where props were arranged and the canvas seamlessly positioned, all to create the effect of “wholeness” – where they could not tell the difference between reality and what they were seeing. In 1793, the first custom-built rotunda opened in London’s Leicester Square, featuring and would go on to feature contemporary events like the Battle of Waterloo. Copycat panoramas began to open up across Europe, with 126 different establishments emerging between 1793 and 1863.

 

Panorama Of London Barker

Robert Barker, Panoramic view of London (1792), courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Eadweard Muybridge, the Zoöpraxiscope (1879)

A synthesis of magic lantern and moving image toy technologies, Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoöpraxiscope was a breakthrough in the projection of fluid movement. Silhouettes of animals were painted onto glass disks, spun and projected, creating the illusion of motion. Despite its significance as a cinematic technology, initial response to the device was muted, and Muybridge attempted to have all Zoöpraxiscopes destroyed.

The Zoopraxiscope Horse Gallopin Wikicommons

Eadweard Muybridge, Horse galloping zoopraxiscope, 1893, courtesy of the Library of Congress

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August Fuhrmann, the Kaiserpanorama (1895)

As panorama technologies advanced, their design became more sophisticated. Invented by August Fuhrmann, the Kaiserpanorama was a large circular box with 25 peepholes for “travelling the world without ever leaving the country”. Rotating stereoscopic glass slides, changed twice weekly, were viewed through prismatic lenses, often depicting cities of the world or feats of engineering. Although the Berlin-based attraction was not a true panorama, storing its images internally and projecting them outwards rather than enveloping the viewer, the device was hugely popular, and still in use well into the cinematic era. Its architecture sees continued use in the peep shows of Amsterdam’s red light district.

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August Fuhrmann, Kaiserpanorama (1895).
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Lumière Brothers, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

It is often claimed that when the Lumière brothers debuted L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896, crowds fled from the theatre, terrified that the train barrelling towards the screen was real. However, the anecdote more likely refers to an incident during a screening four decades later, when Louis Lumière would recreate the film using early 3D technology. In any case, the film has since become shorthand for the immersive power of cinema.

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Lumière Brothers, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895).
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Great Siberian Railway Panorama (1900)

Debuting at the 1900 Paris Exposition, where it won the gold medal, the Great Siberian Railway Panorama looked to give its titular train journey an immersive environment. Compressing the 10,000-mile journey into an hour of panoramic experience, the “rider” would sit in a mock train carriage while two paintings moved along a conveyor belt system at different speeds, creating a parallax effect. Over a kilometre of canvas was required for the finished panorama, hand-painted by Russian artist Pavel Piasetsky.

Trans Siberian Carriage Expo Paris 1900

Great Siberian Railway Panorama, 1900, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

20th century

 

By the mid-20th century, the relationship between artist and observer was undergoing radical reconfiguration. Through movements like Dada, Fluxus and performance art, the observer was an increasingly integral part of the artwork, and immersivity no longer the realm of visual trickery, but baked into the relational philosophy of the work itself. Provoking a visceral response in the viewer, be it haptic, visual or olfactory, echoed the century’s dramatic contortions.

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Gustav Metzger, Liquid Crystal Environment (1965)

Gustav Metzger’s collaboration with scientist Arnold Feinstein featured liquid crystals placed under glass slides that changed colour as they were heated and cooled, a transformation that was projected onto screens in the exhibition space. In line with Metzger’s theory of auto-creative art, Liquid Crystal Environment was engaged with questions of aleatory and corporeality: the work’s precise images were contingent on the room’s temperature, creating organic and psychedelic patterns of movement. Displayed during a performance by the band Cream in 1966, the work became associated with Swinging London and similar visuals can be spied in the “trip” scene in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy.

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Installation view of Gustav Metzger, Liquid Crystal Environment, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2021 © The Estate of Gustav Metzger and The Gustav Metzger Foundation. Courtesy The Estate of Gustav Metzger and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Ken Adlard

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Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (1965)

Yayoi Kusama has produced over 20 Infinity Mirror Rooms across her career. The first, entitled Phalli’s Field, full of cloth phalluses covered in polka dots appeared in the Floor Show exhibition in 1965 at the Castellane Gallery, in New York. Upon its opening, Kusama wrote, “Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama … have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom”. In the years since, her infinity rooms have included pumpkins, coloured lights and silver orbs. The work may be read as a form of proto-selfie: the viewer is endlessly multiplied, an accumulation that verges on self-obliteration.

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Andy Warhol, Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966-7)

A multimedia extravaganza of film, music and art, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable toured America throughout 1966-7, featuring key players of his Factory and his flagship band The Velvet Underground. Five projectors and three speaker systems – often with different films and songs playing from each – were paired with ramshackle live performances and innovative stroboscopic light installations by technician Danny Williams. The future, the work’s title suggested, would be noisy and overstimulating, and the revue’s reputation for chaos attracted notable figures of the American avant-garde like Jonas Mekas and John Waters.

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Andy Warhol, Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966).
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Albert Plécy, La Cathédrale d’Images (1975)

Founded by Albert Plécy in 1976, the Cathédrale d’Images marks the beginning of the immersive exhibition as we know it today. Situated in an abandoned quarry in Provence, the Cathédrale was conceptualised by Plécy as an alternative gallery space, in which he could test his theories of the “Total Image”, a typological response to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Images were projected onto the irregular relief of the quarry walls in time with music and sound effects, allowing visitors to “inhabit” the images as participants rather than spectators. At the time of writing, the space currently hosts one of the many Van Gogh immersive exhibitions.

Carriere Des Lumieres (8)© Culturespaces : Eric Spiller

Carrières des Lumieres © Culturespaces (2022). Photography by Eric Spiller

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James Turrell, Roden Crater (1977-present)

Exploring the material potentials of light, James Turrell’s site-specific works merge immersivity with land art and perceptual psychology. His ambitious work Roden Crater, in development for nearly five decades, will see the crater of an extinct volcano in Northern Arizona transformed into an observational space. As much a viewing platform for geologic and astronomic time cycles as it is a walkable artwork, Roden Crater remains unfinished, with an opening tentatively scheduled for 2024. Plans have been set out for its completion if Turrell, aged 80, dies before then.

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Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (pad thai) (1990)

Taste is the least explored sense within the context of immersive exhibitions, yet in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (pad thai), flavour and aroma were essential to the work’s meaning. A key piece within the nascent relational aesthetics movement, Untitled (pad thai) saw the artist cook and serve pad thai in a private gallery free of charge. The work’s olfactive and participatory aspect saw Tiravanija working within a Duchampian vein; a follow-up work two years later would have the artist cook Thai curry and rice.

1. Rirkrit Tiravanija Untitled 1990 (Pad Thai)

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (pad thai) (1990).
© Rirkrit Tiravanija. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

21st century

 

With the growth of the internet and advances in animation allowing for increasingly lifelike images, the year 2000 marked a crossroads in the popularity and global reach of the immersive experience. In the following two decades, AI mechanics and virtual reality have built upon these trends, allowing for immersivity on both macro and micro scales, as seen in Las Vegas’ recently opened, 18,600-seat venue Sphere and Apple’s Vision Pro VR headset. Whether the move away from the cloistered halls of art has divorced this new crop of immersive environments from its political imperative remains to be seen.

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Mike Nelson, The Deliverance and The Patience (2001)

In response to the regulative ideal set out by other forms of immersive art, choice and its consequences are of prime importance within Mike Nelson’s explorable works, strategic rather than aesthetic or narrative-led immersivity. The Deliverance and The Patience, a 2,600 square foot labyrinth of rooms, dense with rusted tools and corridors that lead to nowhere, is part-horror show, part-explorable ghost town. Leaning into the uncanny potential of immersivity, the visitor is forced to determine which path to take within the musty, maze-like structure, soundtracked by the incessant squeaking and slamming of doors.

Installation View Of Mike Nelson, The Deliverance And The Patience, Interior, 2001. Various Materials. Various Materials. Photo Liam Harrison. Courtesy The Artist And The Hayward Gallery(1)

Installation view of Mike Nelson, The Deliverance and The Patience, interior (2001). Photograph by Liam Harrison. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

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Olafur Eliasson, The weather project (2003)

In the winter of 2003, Olafur Eliasson used 200 low-sodium, mono-frequency lights to create an artificial sun in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. A thick fog made from sugar enveloped the giant space and 43,000 square feet of reflective material was installed on the ceiling, literalising the “smoke and mirrors” of the work’s fakery. With two million attendees across its six months of opening, its success marked a turning point in the scale and popularity of immersive art.

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Olafur Eliasson, The weather project, Tate Modern, London (2003). Photograph by Jens Ziehe. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2003 Olafur Eliasson

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Antony Gormley, Blind Light (2007)

At the centre of Antony Gormley’s exhibition was an illuminated glass room pumped full of mist so dense, one’s visual perception was limited to no more than two feet – immersivity as negation rather than stimulus. Undercutting the typically solidifying relationship architecture has with physical space, Blind Light forced the visitor to exist within their immediate sensory parameters, the steam room as ego death. Positive word of mouth led Blind Light to become the most attended exhibition of a single artist in the Hayward Gallery’s history at the time.

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Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, (2008-present)

Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, dating back to the mid-2000s, is the most is the most prominent and lucrative in a series of immersive art-scapes. At least five private companies – “Van Gogh Alive,” “Immersive Van Gogh,” “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” and “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition” – have made walk-through projections based on his work.

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Refik Anadol, Unsupervised: Machine Hallucinations (2022)

One of the most prominent practitioners of AI-generated art landscapes, Refik Anadol’s history of collaboration with Google and NVIDIA suggests a sensibility more closely aligned with Silicon Valley than the traditional avenues of art promotion. His 2022 work Unsupervised fed all of the MoMA’s 138,000 archived artworks through a machine-learning model, creating amorphous forms and colourful patterns. Intended to represent a “dream” of art history, the work has been both praised as “the transfixing experience of watching an art work creating itself” and derided as a “glorified lava lamp”.

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Refik Anadol, Unsupervised: Machine Hallucinations (2022). courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Markos Kay, Latent Spaces (2023)

In Latent Spaces, the latest exhibition in shopping-centre based gallery Illusionaries, multiple rooms house images of AI-generated figures – fish, insects and fungi – that pulse and breathe in endlessly morphing, psychedelic patterns. Human bodies are stripped to their anatomical systems of veins and arteries or (re)animated in a cybernetic style. “[Allow] yourself to dissolve into the very fabric of the experience,” instructs the exhibition’s website, a fitting plea for erasure in an exhibition concerned with the limitations of the body and the shifting idea of the natural.

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Markos Kay, Latent Spaces (2023). courtesy Illusionaries

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Frameless (2023)

Featuring 479m pixels and 158 speakers across 30,000 square foot of space, Frameless is the slickest out of the recent crop of London’s immersive exhibitions. Masterworks by Munch, Dalí and Bosch are projected in 20-minute intervals, alongside a vibrant soundtrack and sound effects. Made in response to the white cube gallery with its “art historians saying clever things around you”, Frameless positions itself as an experience with “accessibility and inclusion” at its core, an art experience “for your average person”.

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Frameless (2023). Courtesy Frameless

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Horizon of Khufu (2023)

VR experience Horizon of Khufu suggests a new avenue for the immersive experience: pedagogical tool. Drawing on the long history of son et lumière light shows at Egyptian historical sites, and developed alongside Harvard Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian, the participant is taken on an interactive journey into the Pyramids of Giza alongside a clairvoyant cat, who recounts detailed historical and architectual information on the ancient Wonder of the World. ◉

Horizon Of Khufu Tomb © Emissive Excurio

Horizon of Khufu (2023) © Emissive - Excurio