Home Magazine What is immersive art? The story of immersive art and 5 exhibitions you can visit in 2022.

You have probably heard about the Van Gogh immersive art "experience" exhibition. The touring show is a series of large-scale digital projections of the painter's work, complete with sounds and visuals that swirl around the exhibition space. No longer two-dimensional, the paintings move across the wall, surrounding the visitor who flows through the center of the artist's colourful flourishes. 

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The Van Gogh exhibition is one of many immersive art experiences on show at the moment. In fact, an entire industry has cropped up over recent years, driven by technological advances and a growing public desire to not just see art, but to experience it too. 

These exhibitions deliver high-impact, highly Instagram-able experiences. They provide visitors with shareable content, perhaps explaining the accelerating supply of immersive art exhibitions in recent years, showing the likes of Klimt, Cezanne, Kandinsky and Kahlo. 

For some, these experiential exhibitions sit uncomfortably on the art-marketing spectrum. They have become a prism through which we can view—or critically judge—a social appetite not just to see art but to see ourselves within art. But where did this desire to immerse ourselves in art come from?


L'exposition-spectacle Klimt à l'Atelier des Lumières (Paris)


Immersive art in context

These immersive art shows reflect a cultural shift towards the instagramification of art, in which the museum or gallery space becomes a site of entertainment. And the growing popularity for this kind of art experience has a precedent in modern and contemporary art; artists and curators have been playing with this idea for decades. 

Participatory art and experiential art have a rich history, from the Dada to Fluxus to the concept of relational aesthetics. The viewer-visitor-audience becomes a core component of the work. The visitor is no longer a passive spectator but is integral to the activation of the installation, work or space. 

Participatory, experiential art and interactive installations envelop visitors and entice them within artificial, constructed, often multi-sensory environments. The centrality of the viewer is not exclusive to immersive art, and there are many cross-overs between immersive art, interactive art and participatory art. 

Consider the centrality of the viewer-visitor-participant to works by Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present. Visitors had the opportunity to immersive themselves in the work by sitting opposite the artist during her 736-hour and 30-hour performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Visitor participation is key to the installation work of Carsten Holler who explores space, participation and interactivity between the viewer and the work. At the Hayward Gallery in London, ​​the exhibition Carsten Höller: Decision immersed visitors in experimental environments. Interactivity powered the exhibition. At every stage, visitors could decide which route to take. They were invited to consume pills, traverse through unknown spaces, and take the slide (or the stairs) out of the exhibition. The exhibition-as-artwork is a defining characteristic of the immersive art experience. 


Carsten Höller Slide. Part of an exhibiiton at the Hayward Theatre at London's South Bank.


Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has been inviting viewers to enter her works since the 1960s. Experimenting with space since the 1960s, her work Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli's Field 1965 is an early example of her use of recurring objects and mirrors that force the viewer to question their sense of space. The artist opened her immersive art experience Infinity Rooms at Tate Modern in London in 2021. The immersive installation of reflections and lights gives the visitor endless space to explore. And the mirrors that Kusama uses in her work give some insight into immersive art's fast-growing popularity. 

The desire to participate as a viewer in assigning meaning, or contributing to the creation of meaning, is crucial to this kind of immersive work. And there's no doubt that our growing societal obsession with our self-image—our desire to see ourselves at the centre of an experience—has driven the growth in immersive experiences. This desire to enter the artwork, see ourselves occupy space, reflected back like in Kusama's mirrors, is perhaps why immersive art experiences have become so popular.  So what exactly is immersive art today? 


A CGI Sketch of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room.


So, what is immersive art?

Immersive art experiences harness technologies such as VR, holography, and digital projection to enable viewers to enter the work of art and become a protagonist within it. 

With the Van Gogh Experience, you enter the universe created by the artist, or more accurately, the Curator (or perhaps even, the Tech Lead). In these kinds of spaces, you can engage all your senses at once. The museum visitor is no longer a passive observer of Van Gogh's paintings but a small figure within them. 


Van Gogh Immersive Art Exhibit to Come to Salt Lake in the Fall. Courtesy Grande Experiences


An encounter with a digital manifestation of the painter’s work is far from what you wouldd experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The objective of this immersive art experience is not so much education as entertainment—or artainment as it has become known.

These blockbuster immersive art exhibitions are only part of the story, though. Immersive art is far more than the pizzaz of these entertainment experiences. Artists and collectives have been experimenting with new digital technologies for many years, crafting immersive art experiences in the tradition of participatory art. 

Since 2001, the Tokyo-based international art collective teamLab have been creating experiential, immersive artworks that put the viewer-visitor at the centre of the work. The collective combine art, technology and science to produce explorations in ideas of space and time. They are a multidisciplinary group of artists, animators, engineers, architects and programmers and they aim to investigate ideas of perception through their works. 

For teamLab, their artworks are constantly in flux; the meaning and experience of their work is never fixed. And perhaps most fundamentally, every visitor’s experience, every encounter and every interaction with the work is unique.

Immersive art today

The arts and entertainment company Meow Wolf, which is home to immersive art spaces across the US, is the perfect example of the overlap between art and entertainment. They started as a collective of artists in 2008 and have since grown to occupy thousands of square feet in space from Las Vegas to Denver. In Las Vegas, they run out of AREA15, an "experiential entertainment district" that hosts an array of "ever-changing art, retail and entertainment" experiences. 


Meow Wolf uses art installations and nonlinear storytelling to delight audiences. (Lindsey Kennedy)


The curators behind these shows have channelled the experiential buzz around works by participatory artists and interactive art and utilised new digital technologies to deliver an experience that puts viewers at the centre, satisfying the public's desire not for the passive experience of watching but the Oculus-level experience of participating.

Critics argue these immersive art exhibitions represent the commodification and marketisation of art history, feeding an individualistic obsession with the self. Advocates argue the value of these commercially-driven shows lies in attracting an audience who might otherwise feel alienated by the traditional museum experience. And the number of visitors to displays at the L'Atelier des Lumières in Paris—home to the Van Gogh experience—and millions of visitors worldwide suggest these shows are in high demand. 

So are these immersive art shows a cynical profit-driven manifestation of our attention-deficit times? You could argue that the embrace of mass culture, like pop artists before them, celebrates the spectacle of art entertainment as a true reflection of our times. It mirrors a cultural landscape that is both consumer-oriented and constantly in search of authentic, new experiences.

On the flip side, perhaps the motives of the exhibition makers are not solely driven by profit creation. As the foundation behind L'Atelier des Lumières explains, they exist to promote social inclusion through culture, and their mission is to bring art to hard-to-reach communities. But when blockbuster shows of non-experiential art exhibitions continue to attract record-breaking visitor numbers, it seems viewers are still eager to learn via more traditional exhibition setups. 

Top 5 shows you can visit now

If you are eager to get a taste of the immersive art experience, you can visit the following spaces:

teamLab, Tokyo

The Borderless museum is home to teamLab's immersive art experience. You can enter and immerse yourself in the vast 10,000 square metres of three-dimentional space and wander through the work.

Atelier des Lumières, Paris

Home of the Culture Fondation and host of some of immersive art's most well-known exhibitions of late, including the show Cezanne, the Lights of Provence and Kandinsky The Odyssey of Abstraction. 

Kusama Museum, Tokyo

The museum dedicated to the work of Yayoi Kusama's presents major works from the artist’s earlier years up until the present day.

Omega Mart, Las Vegas

An unforgettable immersive ride through the work of international and local artists takes you from secret portals to an interactive supermarket. 

Tate Modern, London

Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms is an immersive installation that acts as a portal into the artist's universe of endless reflections.


Cover image: Art collective teamLab providing an immersive experience in New York. Photo courtesy of teamLab.


Written by Matteo Ronconi 

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