As the technology becomes more accessible, artists are exploring the new medium’s creative possibilities.

Seeing a yeti up close would usually require a trip to the Himalayas and an overactive imagination, but visitors to London’s Timothy Taylor gallery can now confront the ape-like cryptid in a new virtual reality work by Shezad Dawood. In a series of paintings and sculptures, the London-based artist explores the rich history of the West Bengali town of Kalimpong, and the VR piece is key to the entire installation which, Dawood says, is “about questioning the border between the real and the virtual”.

Falling down the rabbit hole into his eccentric digital domain is a trip worth taking. Once you don a headset, numerous narratives begin to unravel around you in a compelling Le Carré-esque saga that draws on the escapades of 20th-century mavericks such as the French explorer Alexandra David-Néel and the Texan billionaire Tom Slick. The settings range from a Himalayan hotel to the mountain ranges above Kalimpong, where jumping on tables, finding secret passageways and running over peaks turns into an experience of unadulterated joy.

“VR is the perfect way to allow someone to step through these narratives. It is entirely subjective. People can spend as long or as short a time as they want exploring particular terrains,” Dawood says. But working in this new digital universe has also made his head spin.

“How do you keep the viewer as an active participant in the dialogue rather than a passive consumer? How do you score something with an infinite duration?” he muses.

Certain elements look crude but Dawood is not seeking technical perfection. “I’ve embraced two or three things that would be seen as an error in terms of making it seamless, which seems to be the goal of VR. The clouds are unfinished, and the yeti is an RGB [red-green-blue] figure in your peripheral vision. Artists can bring that Brechtian quality and ask about the metaphysics of the technology.”

Some practitioners are already manipulating the medium. In Jon Rafman’s “Junior Suite”, which was shown at Miami’s Deauville Hotel in 2014, participants saw the room and balcony where they were standing fall away beneath them in a digital simulacrum of the actual hotel room.

Ian Cheng was, meanwhile, one of the first artists to show a VR piece at an art fair when he unveiled “Entropy Wrangler Cloud”, a simulation of debris floating in space, at Frieze London in 2013. Early last year, Gretchen Andrew, a London-based artist, turned a show of her works at a Los Angeles gallery into a VR experience in which the viewer dived into a painting and a film popped up showing Andrew sketching the piece.

The Zabludowicz Collection in London has acquired VR works by Rafman and Cheng. Its director, Elizabeth Neilson, pinpoints where we are with VR: “Think of it in the same way as photography; we’re right at the beginning, at the photogram stage. The motion pictures are still to come.”

Virtual reality has existed in various forms for 30 years (for a fascinating and comical insight, see ABC Primetime Live’s 1991 report on YouTube), but the growing availability of affordable consumer headsets means that VR is slowly seeping into living rooms — and artists’ studios. Oculus, which was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for $2bn, HTC and Sony are among the brands vying for market share.

A woman uses an Oculus Gear VR headset. Photo: Getty

The phone in your pocket is also integral to the future of VR. Google Cardboard, a low-cost viewer, and the Samsung Gear headset, which is powered by Oculus, work by slotting in smartphones running VR apps. Michael Naimark, Google’s first resident virtual reality artist, says: “We are at an inflection point now, it’s an embryonic moment for VR. Companies realise that 90 per cent of what’s needed for decent VR is already in their smartphones and it will only get better.”

Artists’ responses in these early stages will help determine its viability as a new artistic medium. Brazil-based artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané created a VR environment at New York’s New Museum last year called “Phantom (kingdom of all the animals and all the beasts is my name)”. On an Oculus Rift headset, viewers walked through an endangered forest outside Rio de Janeiro in black-and-white VR.

“For me, the most impressive and interesting thing to explore was the body immersion in the virtual world, the physicality of presence you can get. You can’t touch things, things can’t touch you. It is like your entire body becomes a phantom member,” he says. The pace of technology could pose problems though, he adds. “My piece was sold to three museums, and we needed to write a conservation protocol, predicting adaptations to new VR devices.”

Timothy Taylor gallery’s solution is to offer Dawood’s Kalimpong VR piece in five editions across three “tiers”: a certified edition of the VR on a hard drive in an editions box is the basic package (the HTC Vive equipment is an add-on, along with installation and training).

Curators in a handful of private and public institutions are exploring the artistic possibilities of the form. Julia Kaganskiy, director of New Inc, an incubator for new ideas and technological innovations at the New Museum, stresses that VR art is still “very nascent” and that at present “most of the content is coming from the gaming and film industries, primarily because they have access to the massive CGI and visual effects resources necessary to produce sophisticated VR”.

Artists lend a different perspective because they are not bound by the established rules of these other media, she adds. “Some of the early explorations I’ve seen coming from artists play with elements like gravity and time in ways that investigate the unique properties of this new medium.”

To October 22, timothytaylor.com

Source :FT

 

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