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Virtual Reality in Art: Taking Immersive Contemporary Art to a New Level

ByThe Artling Team
Virtual Reality in Art: Taking Immersive Contemporary Art to a New Level

DSL Collection Virtual Museum (Image courtesy of DSL Collection, Paris)

Virtual reality in art, the hottest trend combining art and tech, has taken the art world by storm. Recently, artists and institutions are experimenting with this new digital technology to create immersive works of art and exhibitions with which viewers can interact.

What is Virtual Reality?

Using headsets and tools such as Google Tilt Brush, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Facebook 360, the art world explores this fascinating new medium to immerse the user in a three-dimensional simulated environment. The Artling highlights several artists and institutions that are diving headfirst into this new trend.

Marina Abramovic as an avatar. Image courtesy of FT and Art Basel Hong Kong. 

Virtual Reality at Art Fairs

In March 2017, Art Basel teamed up with Google to launch a virtual reality art project in Hong Kong. Using Google's Tilt Brush, artists like Yang Yongliang, Cao Fei and Sun Xun created works of art by painting in three-dimensional virtual space.

This developed further in 2018, where Art Basel Hong Kong staged a public showing of two Virtual Reality artworks by internationally distinguished artists Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramović. Employing the use of HTC Vive, two very different works were showcased. Kapoor’s ‘Into Yourself, Fall’ allowed viewers to experience a journey through a human body, disorientating them into a world that is “both abstract and uncomfortably familiar”. Abramović’s ‘Rising’ asked viewers to consider the effects of climate change through her polemical piece. Viewers interacted with an avatar of the artist who is slowly drowning in a tank. Uniquely, this piece continued after the virtual reality experience with viewers downloading an app that periodically reminded them of the artist’s struggles, and by extension, the planets.

Still from Anish Kapoor’s ‘Into Yourself, Fall’ © Acute Art

Artists experimenting with Virtual Reality art

Cao Fei
In May 2017, Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei (b. 1978, Guangzhou, China) unveiled her BMW Art Car #18 at Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai. Her work is a combination of virtual reality technology and video art, which features the fusion of ancient Chinese traditions and the rapid technological advancements happening in contemporary China.


"BMW Art Car #18" (2017) by Cao Fei, "Unmanned", video, 4min 51sec, film still

Image courtesy of BMW AG and Cao Fei Studio

Yu Hong & The Artling
The Artling reveals a sneak peek of Yu Hong's virtual reality work "She's Already Gone" as the work is still in progress. Viewers will witness four hand-painted scenes, which follow the coming of age of a female character. Chinese artist Yu Hong (b. 1966, Xi'an, China) is known for her paintings. Since 1988, she has been teaching in the oil painting department of Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing.

Android Jones, installation view. Image courtesy of Ron Blunt. 

Virtual Reality Artists

Android Jones
Then there are artists like Android Jones who specifically make Virtual Reality art. Part artist and part tech guru, Jones falls alongside his contemporaries such as Yinka Shonibare to Jeff Koons who stage Virtual Reality installations at institutions like the Royal Academy to Moma PS1, all with the aim of pushing the boundaries of digital storytelling. Using the HP Z8 Workstation, Jones has previously created multi-sensory worlds that have been showcased to crowds at Burning Man to the Smithsonian.

In creating these works, Jones drafts a digital world with his HP Z8 Workstation and invites people to put on virtual reality goggles, hand controls and external sensors, even an EEG of their heartbeats, before entering his creations. They can then use these controls to change their surroundings, even constructing new surroundings within them; everything pulses to the beat of their hearts or the playlist they

Image courtesy of DSL Collection. 

Institutions using Virtual Reality as exhibition space

DSL Collection
DSL Collection, founded by collectors Dominique and Sylvain Levy, embraces technology and uses virtual reality to showcase works of art. The public can access the collection and view artwork in a simulated space. The virtual reality exhibition was presented in 2017 at Photo London in May, Art Busan in June and was presented at Asia Now Paris the following October.

"Q3DVR" (2017) by Feng Mengbo, computer, Oculus Rift VR installation

Image courtesy of the artist and K11

K11 Art Foundation
Meanwhile, K11 Art Foundation, founded by Adrian Cheng in 2010, is also one of the proponents of digital art and has held several exhibitions dedicated to virtual reality in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

At the exhibition co-curated by K11 Art Foundation and MoMA PS1 in March of 2017, visitors could wear a headset and experience the virtual gallery installation created by Wang Xin. Chinese artist Wang Xin (b. 1983, Hubei, China) is the founder of "The Gallery" project, as well as a certificated hypnotist.

In the same month, artist Feng Mengbo (b. 1966, Beijing, China) also showed his virtual reality work at an exhibition co-curated by K11 Art Foundation and Videotage. The work allows viewers to witness a video game scene in virtual reality in which characters fight each other in a fish tank.

"The Gallery" (2014 - ongoing) by Wang Xin, HTC Vive, computer screen, computer, LED poster, LED lettering, iron stand, dimensions variable. 

Image courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe Gallery

Khora Contemporary
Khora Contemporary, founded in Copenhagen in 2016 and launched at the Venice Biennale 2017, is a production company that focuses on creating contemporary art in virtual reality. After the exhibition in Venice in collaboration with Faurschou Foundation, the next show in Beijing featured five artists in consecutive exhibitions respectively.

"C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR Experiment Mary and Eve" (2017) by Paul McCarthy, Virtual Reality artwork 

Image courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Xavier Hufkens and Khora Contemporary

"She’s Already Gone" (2017) by Yu Hong, Virtual Reality artwork 

Image courtesy of the artist and Khora Contemporary

Zabludowicz Collection
Many museums and institutions have also explored the use of virtual reality to make art accessible, such as the Zabludowicz Collection. In 2015, they commissioned a work by virtual reality artist Jon Rafman for Oculus Rift entitled ‘Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze)’. Since then, they have been consistently engaged in virtual reality, even opening London’s first virtual reality space - 360 (link) - earlier this January.

The opening of 360 came after the launch of two companies instigating the use of virtual reality in art. First, the aforementioned Khora Contemporary, and thereafter the launch of Acute Art that names themselves as a platform for both virtual reality and AR.

The Artling has interviewed Google Cultural Institute's Program Manager Ms Suhair Khan about Google Arts & Culture's virtual reality project.

Jordan Wolfson, Real Violence, 2017. Installation view, Jordan Wolfson, Riverboat song, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2017. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Robert Glowacki

Application of Virtual Reality at auction houses

Not only are artists and museums curious about the potential of virtual reality—auction houses are also experimenting with virtual reality. For one of Sotheby's sale in March, the auction house released a virtual reality 360-video in order to let viewers experience what it is like inside the paintings. In June, the two-day event "The Art of VR" gathered creative minds to discuss this latest technology.



But how does Virtual Reality art affect us?

At the 4th Industrial Revolution Challenge held in Ireland earlier this year, debates were held around how the notion of immersive tech has the ability to change both the way we create and experience content, opening up possibilities in creative arts. They brought up how the Tate Modern held an exhibition on Modigliani, facilitating the use of HTC Vive. The main curatorial implication that came from this was that of cost – the Tate exhibit was very expensive to produce.

However, there exists a strong argument against cost in relation to accessibility. Not too long ago, the New Museum and Rhizome commissioned six virtual reality artworks. Viewers could access this via a free app and view it on their phone screens using $15 Google Cardboard frames. The social implications pertaining to that of viewership at the Tate were positive. Virtual reality tricks the brain and allows for a solo experience that one might never experience in an institutional setting until this initiation of virtual reality. It indubitably allows for this personal, experiential mode of immersing into the art and its space rather than merely looking at it.

Porpentine Charity Heartscape and Neotenomie, Probiotic River Therapy, 2016 (detail). Computer graphics poem and game. Commissioned by Rhizome. Courtesy the artists

Where does Virtual Reality in art go from here?

As the contemporary art world is globalized, the use of virtual reality will definitely foster the growth of the art scene in a positive way and democratize the viewing experience of art – it can be strongly argued that it already has. However, we can’t seem to avoid the questions that virtual reality seems to trawl in as it enters the orbit of the art world: How does one exhibit virtual reality? Do virtual reality works depreciate in value? Can you ‘update’ your virtual reality work as technology progresses? Why should we use virtual reality in the first place?

Creating a virtual reality work undoubtedly takes not only a gargantuan amount of time; it’s also composed of effort and expertise. What us as viewers can only do now is to sit back and watch how virtual reality works rise or fall within this art sphere.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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