VR art: return to Disneyland or breaking the fourth wall?

Still from VR artwork, The Styx, courtesy of Gazelli Art House and the artists, Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx

Enter Through the Headset

Gazelli Art House, Dover Street  until 25 June

On my first visit to Disneyland LA in 1978, the animatronics and holography were eye-scorchingly advanced. The Phantom Manor and Pirates of the Caribbean “experiences” cut through my 22 year old cynicism and I revelled like a kid in the  visual playground. But I also felt a certain smugness at the expensive technology Disney had marshalled just for our pleasure. Now that access to high tech computer technology is no longer the preserve of the media corporations, artists have begun to explore its potential. Judging by the inventiveness of the three VR works in this exhibition this genre of MI art is managing to avoiding the lure of Disneyfication and map out a revolutionary new direction in the use of technology.

Veil – Iain Nicholls and Tom Szirtes

The fourth wall* seems to disappear when we don a VR headset. But this work modestly reminds us that Velasquez got there first. We enter a virtual gallery and are faced with grandmaster signature works, including Las Meninas, often cited as the world’s best ever painting. Among other things, it is a self-portrait of Velasquez standing at a canvas too huge to set on an easel. With his palette and brush ready, his penetrating gaze transfixes the viewer. We are  the subject of his painting. Seeing it at the Prado in Madrid I felt absorbed into the paintings space. It was like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole where your perceptions seem strangely skewed, a feat achieved four centuries ago without the aid of VR.  With your headset on you have entered a high tech, virtual world looking at a real painting that creates its own virtual world using old school techniques.

There is a second phase of this work where we experience a replay of the notorious scene of the train advancing headlong on the audience of the early Lumiere Brother’s film but this time the train does actually smash through the screen and hurtles past you. This sophisticated yet elegantly simple work is a terrific arty in-joke and a telling commentary on the history of the fourth wall that only VR could achieve. The homage to these two seminal artworks was a masterstroke.

The Styx – SkullMapping  (Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx).

I can hear the call of the fairground roister man.

“Roll up, roll up. Experience the final journey from your death to the afterlife. Meet the ferryman, Charon, with his bottomless eyes who will take your coin that guarantees you the ride. Recoil in horror at the lost souls languishing in the water as your boat carries you across the River Styx.  Feel the chill of the cavern deep below the earth and the icy water dripping on you from its roof. Feel the heat of the breath of the three headed monster, Cerberus, as your ferryman defeats him to carry you to your repose in Hades. Roll up, roll up”.

Who could resist? Terrific experience. Hard work for the assistant who provided the real-time tactile effects, though. This VR experience should be given as therapy to all those suffering from a phobia of death. The ferryman is a quite a comforting figure, much less judgemental than St Peter with his tally of good and bad deeds. You just need that coin.

 Nature Abstraction –Matteo Zamagni

The abstract coral like formations and wave like swirls were sensibly leavened with some figurative emblems, human and animal figures briefly glimpsed and disembodied eyes enmeshed in a gloriously coloured tapestry. This type of VR art could be the way to kick start the abstract art movement which sometimes feels a bit moribund at the current time

This was my first visit to this gallery which originated in Baku, Azeberjan and their focus on encouraging young artists to exploit new technology is very heartening to see.

*Thanks to David Blandy who has raised this important question in his latest short film- A Tutorial on Ideas  http://davidblandy.co.uk/films/