Artist Pages: Immersive Art vs. Immersive Entertainment

Installation view of “Ernesto Neto: SunForceOceanLife” (2020), crocheted textile and plastic balls, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © 2020 Ernesto Neto / photograph by Albert Sanchez)

As two immersive van Gogh exhibits land in Kansas City, there are distinctions to be drawn: It is one thing for commercial enterprises to bring century-and-a-half-old artworks to life in ways the artist could never have envisioned, essentially appropriating a life’s work to create money-making spectacles far removed from the artist’s intention.

It is quite another for contemporary artists to realize their artistic visions using technologies unique to their times, as seen in Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s immersive Rafael Lozano-Hemmer exhibit, which, among other things, speaks to our desire to connect in the present pandemic-weary moment.

Not all contemporary immersive art is as thoughtful. In his recent “New York Times” review of Meow Wolf’s over the top immersive installation in Denver, critic Ray Mark Rinaldi found the piece to be “more like Disney World than MoMA,” in contrast to “earlier pioneers (who) showed that immersive art could be mind-blowing and, at the same time, strive to say something about the human condition — that thing we expect art to aspire to.”

One of the earlier pioneers Rinaldi cited was James Turrell, whose immersive light installation “Cross Cut” was shown at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2000. That same year, the Saint Louis Art Museum presented “Wonderland,” an exhibit of immersive environments created by leading contemporary artists including Olafur Eliasson, Pipilotti Rist, Teresita Fernandes and others. Then Nelson-Atkins director Marc Wilson visited the exhibit, roughly a year before the Nelson-Atkins was preparing to break ground on the Bloch Building, which put special exhibitions on hold for the next six years.

Since the building’s completion in 2007, the Nelson’s special exhibition galleries have largely stuck with the presentation of objects; this fall, the museum has teamed up with Starlight as a co-sponsor of one of two immersive van Gogh exhibits being shown in KC.

There are exciting alternatives. As Fabian Robertson observed in “Honi Soit,” the student newspaper of the University of Sydney, “it is vital that we are able to differentiate between genuine installation art and faceless corporate money-grabs.” To that end, “KC Studio” asked six leading art professionals to recommend immersive works of contemporary art they would be happy to see come to town, pictured in the following pages.

Ernesto Neto
Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s monumental installation, “SunForceOceanLife,” immerses visitors in a multi-sensory experience, appealing to all five senses. While suspended mid-air in a massive, spiraling, hand-woven (crocheted) sculptural work, each participant is visually engaged by patterns composed of yellow, orange and green materials. It is a sensual, all-encompassing, labyrinth-like environment. — Bruce Hartman, founding executive director and chief curator of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, now retired, and focusing on independent curatorial projects, consulting and his personal collection

Installation view of “Ernesto Neto: SunForceOceanLife” (2020), crocheted textile and plastic balls, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © 2020 Ernesto Neto / photograph by Albert Sanchez)

Factory Obscura
Since 2017, the Oklahoma City-based art collective Factory Obscura has quietly rocked a sensorium of thematic fully immersive art installations that generously engage the visitor at any level, offering purely tactile, imaginative or conceptual experiences. Eschewing art world pretense for a hard-core collaborative, handmade, artists-deserve-to-be-paid ethos, Factory Obscura exemplifies an exciting, inclusive way forward for the expanding art as experience economy. — Brian Hearn, curator, arts writer, consultant and collection manager for The Collectors Fund

Installation view of Factory Obscura’s “Mix-Tape,” a 6,000-square-foot, hand-crafted, immersive art experience at Factory Obscura’s permanent space in Oklahoma City (Factory Obscura / photo by Justice Smithers)

Ibrahim Mahama
Ibrahim Mahama creates large-scale and often site-specific installations that exploit appropriate materials — like the jute sacks used to transport cocoa beans from his native Ghana to global markets around the world — to create immersive environments, drawing attention to the underlying themes of globalization, economic exchange, labor and migration that are explored in his work. — Raechell Smith, curator of contemporary art and founding director of the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute

Ibrahim Mahama’s “Labour of Many” installation at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town in 2019 (courtesy Norval Foundation, Cape Town / photo by Dave Southwood)

Yayoi Kusama
92-year-old Yayoi Kusama is best known for her mirrored “infinity rooms,” which have attracted thousands of people around the world since she began experimenting with them in 1963. Incorporating lights, mirrors and music in various kinds of interior spaces, Kusama’s rooms are truly immersive, hypnogogic, vertiginous, and yes — a bit like experiencing infinity. — Elisabeth Kirsch, art historian, curator and writer

Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into the Universe” (2018), 119 5/8 x 245 1/8 x 245 1/8 in. courtesy ota fine arts, (Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. © Yayoi Kusama)

Nick Cave
The artist Nick Cave has turned immersive installation experiences of light, motion, sound and object into a contemporary genre, perhaps extending a legacy that goes back at least to psychedelic rock-concert light shows. His “Until” sprawled through 24,000 square feet in 2020 at the Momentary in Bentonville, Ark. — Steve Paul, writer, editor and author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and “Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell”

Nick Cave’s “Kinetic Spinner Forest” (2016), composed of custom and off-the-shelf wind spinners, cable and motors,
was part of the exhibit “Nick Cave: Until” at the Momentary in Bentonville, Ark., Sept. 12, 2020-Jan. 3, 2021. (The Momentary / photo by Ironside Photography)

Olafur Eliasson
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s “Life,” a recent site-specific installation for Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, called for bare interior walls and the removal of the Renzo Piano building’s floor-to-ceiling glass facade, leaving an open, hollow shell. A small pond outside the entrance was colored with uranine, a non-toxic florescent green dye, and diverted into the museum to flood the galleries, which visitors could traverse by means of a specially built walkway offering views of water ferns and shell flowers floating on the surface. — James Brinsfield, artist and former lecturer in the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute

View of Olafur Eliasson’s “Life” (2021) at Fondation Beyeler, Basil, Switzerland, April-July 2021. The work incorporates water, uranine, UV lights, wood, plastic sheet, cameras, kaleidoscopes and multiple species of water plants. (courtesy of the artist; Neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2021 Olafur Eliasson)

teamLab Borderless uses technology to reimagine what it means to engage with art in a museum setting. In a continually shifting and truly immersive experience, the body moving through space becomes a catalyst for the changes in the borderless environment. — C.J. Charbonneau, writer, curator, artist, advocate and co-director of plug

“Balance Stepping Stones through the Invisible World,” an interactive digital installation by teamLab on view in the museum teamLab Borderless: MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM, which opened in 2018 in Tokyo (© Teamlab, courtesy Pace Gallery)
Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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