The Rise of Digital Art Venues and Immersive Installations

This photograph shows one of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Rooms at the Tate Modern 2023, a mirrored environment with thousands of bright coloured lights.Image © Edwin Ortega Arzola / One of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Rooms at the Tate Modern 2023
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The art world is undergoing a transformative period, marked by the rise of digital art venues and immersive installations. These innovative platforms have grown to challenge traditional notions of art and space, inviting audiences into captivating, interactive experiences that blend technology, creativity and storytelling. From virtual reality exhibitions to augmented reality sculptures, digital and immersive art are increasingly popular, becoming the perfect setting for a social media post and promoting the art and artist in novel ways. By examining the evolution, impact and future of these cutting-edge art forms, we can understand how they offer new opportunities for engagement and expression.

This photograph shows the Tate's Turbine Hall, a large room bathed in a yellow glowing light emanating from a large orb in the ceiling. Several people can be seen standing, sitting or lying down beneath it.Image © Tate Modern / The Unilever Series: Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project 2004

The History of Digital Art and Immersive Installations

Immersive art installations are large-scale, experiential works of art designed to engage the senses, enveloping participants in a comprehensive multi-sensory environment. These installations often combine visual, auditory, tactile (and sometimes olfactory) elements to create an all-encompassing experience. The goal is to immerse the viewer in the artwork, blurring the lines between the observer and the art itself, fostering a deep sense of presence and interaction. It is difficult, however, to determine exactly the beginning of the history of immersive art; after all, how do we begin to set those boundaries? Did cave art count as an immersive experience? Or Baroque churches, perhaps?

Immersive art as we recognise it today began in the mid 1960s. In 1965 in London, Gustav Metzger created Liquid Crystal Environment, a work that featured swirling, light-projected patterns created from heat-sensitive liquid crystals, encapsulating the essence of immersive art by physically enveloping viewers in a dynamic environment.

It gained wider recognition the following year, when they were displayed during a performance of the bands Cream, The Move and The Who at the Roundhouse in London. This work set a precedent for immersive art as a tool for enhancing and transforming public events and spaces. The same year of Metzger’s creation, Yayoi Kusama created her very first Infinity Room – Phalli’s Field at Castellane Gallery in New York City. Whereas Metzger’s work took the principle of Auto-Creation – that is, it was only determined by the reactions of the chemicals of the work – Kusama took a different approach. She meticulously crafted an environment to her specifications, using repetition and mirrors to create a sense of infinity.

More recently, the transformative potential of immersive art was further realised in 2003 with Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. By simulating an indoor microclimate complete with a mist-filled atmosphere and a radiant sun, Eliasson's installation transcended traditional art exhibition formats to become a communal space where the public engaged directly with the elements. This installation underscored the power of immersive art to create shared experiences, fostering a sense of unity and personal connection to the artwork.

These milestones in the evolution of immersive art highlight a growing trend towards creating environments that are not just seen but experienced. As technology advances, artists have continued to explore new ways to engage audiences, using digital media, interactive elements, and environmental interventions to create immersive experiences that are more accessible, engaging and impactful.

“The best immersive work, like any good art, draws on historical traditions and contemporary vernaculars, melding different ways of looking and making. The new art is unlike last century’s art. That’s what makes it exciting.”
Brian Droitcour, Art Critic
This photograph shows people within a large bright glass box filled with mist. Other people stand outside the box and observe.Image © Antony Gormley / Blind Light © Antony Gormley 2007

Notable Immersive Installations: A Closer Look

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Rooms

Following her first experimentation with the medium in 1965, Kusama has become one of the most significant artists of our time – in great part due to the viral popularity of her Infinity Rooms. Throughout her career she has created over twenty of these, and many stand as some of the most iconic and revolutionary contributions to the immersive art. These installations are meticulously designed spaces that employ mirrors, lights, and repeated patterns to create the illusion of endless, sprawling vistas. Kusama's work is deeply rooted in her own experiences and psychological explorations, using the concept of infinity to both lose and rediscover the self within the vastness of the universe. The highly-Instagrammable Infinity Rooms invite viewers to step into a world where the boundaries between the self and the surrounding cosmos blur, offering a unique experience that has exploded in popularity since the advent of social media. Each room, while sharing the common theme of infinity, tells a different story through its specific configuration of colors, lights, and objects. For Kusama, these spaces are not just visual spectacles; they are profound meditations on life, death, and the eternal nature of the universe. Kusama's Infinity Rooms have captivated millions worldwide, becoming must-see destinations and often bringing record visitor numbers. They have become associated with the contemporary immersive experience, spurring a greater push for immersive art worldwide.

Antony Gormley: Blind Light at Hayward Gallery, 2007

In his first major UK show, held at Hayward Gallery, Antony Gormley created Blind Light – a series of large-scale, site-specific installations which interacted with their surroundings and visitors. The centrepiece of this was the namesake work, which consisted of a light box filled with mix. This allowed viewers from within the box to interact with those outside of it, both presenting to the other as silhouettes. Within the box, a sense of disorientation was shared between those present. The show was hugely successful, achieving a level of viral fame before the term even existed.

This photograph shows a group of people sitting down in the midst of an immersive art installation. The artwork by David Hockney is projected all around the room, including on the people themselves.Image © Erin-Atlanta Argun / David Hockney Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) at Lightroom

David Hockney: Bigger & Closer

In 2023, David Hockney collaborated with design team 59 Studios to create Bigger & Closer at the innovative Lightroom venue. Unlike other immersive experiences that have emerged in recent years, Bigger & Closer sets itself apart by creating an intimate connection between Hockney's work and the audience. The show's immersive quality did not simply transport viewers into Hockney's art, but also invited them into his studio, offering a front-row seat to the milestones and transformations of his career, in an intimate portrayal more reminiscent of a biopic. The exhibition began with a timelapse of his iPad drawings, showcasing his embrace of digital mediums since 2010, and unfolded into six chapters that immersed visitors in Hockney's creative process and worldview. Viewers were taken on a multisensory experience through Wagner Drives, opera set designs, Swimming Pools, and sketchbooks, with each chapter demonstrating the innovative use of technology to present Hockney's work in its entirety.

This photograph shows Vincent Van Gogh's art projected in large-scale in a room, as people walk around it.Image © Isabella de Souza / Van Gogh Experience at the Atelier des Lumières 2019

The Rise of Digital Art Venues

This movement towards digital art spaces has been further fuelled by advances in technology and changing viewer expectations, leading to the creation of innovative platforms for showcasing art that redefine the parameters of engagement. The popularity of artists such as Kusama has spurred a trend towards the development of new digital art venues, created exclusively to host immersive installations. These often host travelling exhibitions, sometimes centred around an Old Master’s oeuvre. This is the case for some of the most visited – and social media famous – shows, such as the Claude Monet Immersive Experience and the Van Gogh Experience. These can transport visitors to other worlds without leaving a room, making famous and complex artworks accessible to a broader audience. Although they have been subject to criticism since those artists have never meant for their art to be experienced in that particular way, these venues often attract visitors who might not typically engage with traditional art forms, broadening the appeal and understanding of art.

Digital art venues offer unique advantages over traditional galleries and museums, including accessibility, interactivity, and the ability to present works that transcend physical limitations. The UK’s first permanent immersive digital art gallery opened in Coventry in May 2022. Other venues in London include Frameless and Outernet, which recorded 6.25 million visitors in its first year of operation alone, while the Atelier Des Lumières has gained widespread recognition and success in Paris and attracted more than 1.2 million visitors in its first nine months back in 2018. As digital art venues continue to evolve, they offer a glimpse into the future of art experiences, suggesting a shift towards more interactive, personalised, and immersive forms of engagement. This trend has the potential to fundamentally alter how art is conceived, presented, and experienced, highlighting the growing importance of technology and innovation in shaping cultural and aesthetic experiences.

“New media has always caused controversy and divided opinions... it's what art does, and it's meant to question things.”
Charlotte Stewart, Managine Director at MyArtBroker
Instagram @teamlab / teamLab SuperNature Macao

Technological Innovations Shaping the Scene

As the popularity of immersive art and experiences rises, especially amongst younger audiences, an increasingly large number of venues is embracing the medium. Through the use of cutting-edge technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, projection mapping, and sophisticated sound systems, these venues create spaces where the boundary between the viewer and the artwork dissolves, fostering a new way to connect with art.

While not all immersive installations rely on digital technology and some use physical spaces and materials in innovative ways to engage viewers (as is often the case with the Infinity Rooms), AR, VR and projection mapping tend to play a significant role. While AR allows viewers to interact with digital elements superimposed over physical spaces or objects through devices like smartphones, tablets or AR glasses, VR immerses users completely in a digital environment, detaching them from the physical world. Projection mapping uses projectors to cast images onto irregularly shaped surfaces, transforming them into dynamic displays and is especially powerful in immersive installations, as it can alter the perception of scale, depth, and reality, enveloping viewers in a visual spectacle that interacts with the architecture and topology of the space itself.

One of the notable leaders in technological innovation is the artist group called teamLab, hailing from Japan and represented by Pace Gallery since 2014. This is an interdisciplinary collective that blends art, science, technology, and the natural world through the collaborative efforts of artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, and architects. The collective's mission is to explore new perceptions of the relationship between the self and the world, encouraging a view of life as a continuous, borderless existence. teamLab's innovative works, which aim to dissolve the perceived separations in our understanding of the world and emphasise the interconnected continuity of time and existence, have earned them a place in the permanent collections of prestigious institutions worldwide, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, among others.

Youtube © MyArtBroker / Immersive Exhibitions - A Discussion on R4's World at One

Audience Experience and Engagement: Cultural and Societal Implications, Challenges and Criticisms

Immersive art installations are characterised by their ability to transform perception, encouraging participants to become part of the artwork through interaction. This can lead to unique, personalised experiences that provoke thought, evoke emotions, and stimulate the imagination, making the viewer an active participant in the art rather than a passive observer. Their widespread popularity speaks much of this, but has also been a subject of scrutiny from the more traditional art world, leading to profound cultural and societal implications. While digital art venues and immersive installations have democratised access to art, breaking down geographical and socio-economic barriers that traditionally limited audience reach, critics argue that the digital nature of immersive art may dilute the authenticity and intrinsic value of traditional art forms.

The reproducibility and transient nature of digital works can also lead to questions about their longevity, significance, and place within the historical canon of art. However, immersive installations are designed to be shared experiences, which can strengthen community bonds and stimulate social interaction – as evident in The Weather Project. They often address universal themes and issues, sparking dialogue and reflection on societal challenges, thereby acting as catalysts for social cohesion and awareness.

The interactive nature of immersive art changes the way audiences consume and engage with art, promoting active participation over passive observation. This shift encourages a deeper, more personal connection to the artwork, potentially altering public perceptions of art and its role in society. But there is concern that an over-reliance on digital technology could also overshadow fundamental artistic skills and expressions. The emphasis on spectacle over substance may detract from the deeper, contemplative aspects of art engagement, reducing art to mere entertainment.

As the landscape of digital art venues and immersive installations continues to evolve, artists, curators, and institutions must navigate these challenges and criticisms thoughtfully. Balancing technological innovation with artistic integrity, ensuring equitable access, and fostering meaningful engagement will be crucial in shaping the future of art.

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