Virtual reality has the potential to upend life as we know it. The art industry shows us how.
“Artists once feared that photography would kill painting,” English art historian, Francis Haskell, once observed. Although painting is still alive, photography did affect it. Consider painters influenced by photography, from Edgar Degas to Gerhard Richter. The apprehension towards technology evoked by photography has been displaced today: the art industry is among the early adopters of virtual reality (VR).
People often talk about the potential of VR, but artists and art institutions are putting words to practice. Take “Alternate Reality,” artist Gretchen Andrew’s aptly titled 2015 exhibition at De Re Gallery in Los Angeles. With only three physical paintings displayed, visitors donned a VR headset to see some twelve additional works, while also learning about Andrew’s artistic process through narration. Whereas Andrew’s exhibition revealed the possibilities of VR, artist Rachel Rossin’s 2015 exhibition, “Lossy,” at Zieher Smith & Horton, consisting of oil paintings and VR headsets, suggested how our physical and virtual worlds are colliding. Both exhibitions not only demonstrate a new means to see and experience art. They also imply the convergence of two industries — both artists have backgrounds in technology.
Art institutions are also catching on. The Courtauld Gallery in London paired with WoofbertVR, a creator of immersive art educational content. According to Techcrunch, visitors can download the WoofbertVR app and use Samsung Gear VR to view the Wolfson room in the museum; users then hear a narration discussing paintings by Renoir, Monet and Manet, among other notable artists. Last year, the British Museum and Samsung, a museum partner, debuted a “Virtual Reality Weekend”: visitors wore VR headsets to explore scans of Bronze Age objects in 3D.
Art museums face challenges in the 21st century; changing demographics and economic shifts are among them. With a need to stay relevant, a call for institutional change could be the impetus for the art industry’s interest in VR. It is a tool that can reach larger audiences, enabling more people to see and experience art like never before. VR also offers practical solutions. Ms. Andrew’s exhibition was primarily virtual, enabling De Re Gallery to have a second, physical exhibition taking place at the same time. Above all, artists and institutions are finding that VR offers novel possibilities for art, as photography did for painting.