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How the art world embraced a new horizon of virtual reality

The use of extended reality in the art world was always set to be seismic – during life on lockdown, it proved sagacious too

mona lisa wearing vr headset
Exotica.im 8 / Alamy Stock Photo

When new gallery space VOMA opens in September, there will be no ribbon cutting ceremony or red carpet rollout. There is, after all, no physical space to triumphantly inaugurate. The Virtual Online Museum of Art is a first-of-its-kind digital gallery project, conceived by artist Stuart Semple and neatly concluded just as our appetite for virtual culture has hit an all-time high.

Though constructed pixel-by-pixel rather than brick-by-brick, VOMA is run much like a gallery of the traditional variety: it loans works from the world’s cultural institutions, it has a director and curator, airy white-walled rooms – just no crowds. By resisting the boundless possibilities of designing a virtual space, architect Emily Mann has granted the gallery a grounded, familiar feel, and thus staked out an aspiration that such online spaces might hold their own alongside conventional cultural centres.

virtual online museum of art gallery
The new Virtual Online Museum of Art

The launch of the digital art museum feels like the exclamation mark on a season of technological triumphs. In March, virtual reality production studio AcuteArt launched an app for collecting and trading augmented reality art with artist KAWS, before presenting Olafur Eliasson’s first AR project ‘Wunderkammer’ in May.

The new digital art museum is an exclamation mark on a season of technological triumphs

That same month, as it became clear that Frieze New York was an unfeasible prospect, the team played their trump card: they’d already been working on a virtual version of the art fair to present alongside the booths. Frieze Viewing Room became the event itself, with 200 simulated gallery spaces hung with thousands of works. Much like new platform Murus Art, which displays pieces for sale in real homes, mobile users could even digitally install artworks on their own walls. In early August, the world's first wholly virtual fair, UNTITLED, ART Online, drew 60,000 global visitors.

The rapid reframing of test-bed projects seems to be a familiar story. Lockdown prompted gallerists Hauser & Wirth to reconsider the application of its digital innovation arm ArtLab, which had swiftly developed virtual-reality tool HWVR since launching last year. ‘We quickly realised that this project needed to be fast-tracked and turned outward,’ explains co-founder Iwan Wirth. Originally conceived as a carbon-cutting tool that would help artists visualise the galleries remotely, the technology made possible an inaugural virtual exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s upcoming Menorca arts centre.

hauser  wirth menorca in artlab virtual reality
Hauser & Wirth Menorca via ArtLab
Hauser & Wirth

‘Our modelling tool builds the virtual 3D space from the ground up,’ says Wirth. ‘It transforms the way art can be viewed remotely, in spaces that do not yet exist.’ Those expecting a clinical, dispassionate experience will find this virtual stroll an unexpected tonic, thanks to the restored stone architecture, blue Mediterranean skies and Piet Oudolf-designed gardens.

searching for authenticity vase by grayson perry
A Grayson Perry work at Victoria Miro’s VR exhibition
Grayson Perry

But while the appeal is clear to artists represented by the Hauser & Wirths of the world – ‘all artists want wide audiences to experience their art,’ says Wirth – smaller galleries with limited resources might find the extended reality revolution out of reach.

New tools such as Vortic, a powerful augmented-reality platform that creates customised virtual exhibitions, will be crucial. Mayfair’s Victoria Miro gallery was an early adopter, moving a summer’s worth of programming onto the Vortic Collect app and launching a joint exhibition with David Zwirner. Developed over three years by industry insiders, Vortic seems to have timed its arrival to perfection. And it’s entering into an art world that, once again, has embraced the avant-garde.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration August 2020

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