Why are we all so obsessed with ‘immersive’ art?

In its truest form, immersive art is riveting. It’s just a shame that those examples are so few and far between in an oversaturated pool of promise

Anya Ryan
Saturday 18 March 2023 20:27 GMT

Right now, the art world can’t escape the word “immersive”. It is hot property. In London alone, there are buildings dedicated to light projections of Van Gogh’s swirling Starry Night. The theatre company Punchdrunk has settled in a vast 100,000 square foot space in Woolwich that homes their sprawling production of The Burnt City based on the Trojan War. This week saw Nicholas Hytner’s long awaited glitzy interactive Guys and Dolls open at the Bridge Theatre.

Between 2017 and 2022 Google searches for the term “immersive London” increased by 83 per cent. But what is it about this ever growing form that appeals to a mass market? And is it possible for us to return to a time of more traditional – dare I say passive – viewership? I, for one, hope so.

Call me old fashioned, but I like enjoying art from a safe, comfortable distance. I relish the anonymity that a darkened, cushioned, seated theatre gives me. In a gallery, I appreciate being able to travel at my own pace.

Light exhibitions of the great works of Salvador Dalí or Frida Kahlo might springboard us into the hallucinatory heart and essence of their creations. However, the shows are frequently accompanied by hasty and blaring musical soundtracks that make you feel hurried or on edge.

The paintings are blown up to such a great scale, with motifs from them flying across the walls aimlessly, that any intended subtlety carefully drawn into the originals seems to dissipate. The technology is distracting. There is beauty in distance; in absorbing art at its intended size and scale, simply and face on.

Of course, there are exceptions. I’ve had some of my most memorable theatrical experiences at Hytner’s reimagined productions of Shakespeare at the Bridge. Last year, at the multisensory exhibition Dreammachine I felt as though I had a wild psychedelic, out-of-body experience. But all too often these so-called “immersive” shows are bitterly underwhelming, and barely scratch the surface of the meaning of the term.

In the name of so called “immersive” theatre, I’ve been shoved into cramped and overcrowded 1920s decorated streets. I’ve been shovelled by actors from one bar to the next without hearing any trace of a coherent story. I’ve spent long afternoons feeling out of place, tired and on my feet in elaborately recreated science labs or James Bond-themed casinos. Essentially, I’ve attended one too many extortionately-priced fancy dress parties; but the word “immersive” makes money.

The social media generation, so eager for their next photo, will happily hand over their cash in return for potential likes. Just look at Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room – it is an Instagrammer’s paradise. David Hockney’s Bigger & Closer (not smaller and further away) is packed out with phone clutching youngsters, with their videos ready to fill TikTok feeds across the nation. And it is good that new technology – however gimmicky, is opening art up to a different, fresh faced audience.

However, saying that does feel somewhat counterintuitive, because tickets for these kinds of exhibitions also break the bank. Prices for Hockney start at a toe-curling £27.50. To go to one of London’s many “immersive” style gaming events, like Monopoly Lifesized or The Crystal Maze Experience, you could be paying up to nearly £80 per person. But with so little consistency on how involved in the action you’ll actually be, what exactly is it that we’re paying for?

Our desire to be immersed makes sense. Still recovering from our years of Covid lockdown, we’re desperate to feel connected to one another. We are done with containment and crave something tangible, active and freeing. Now that so much art can be viewed on our tiny pocket gadgets, the potential for something expansive is exciting. But the vast majority of “immersive” art is lifeless. So much for multi-sensory involvement – it could exist with or without your presence.

Putting a famed artist’s work on large-scale video is not revolutionary. Nor is entering a meticulously decked out warehouse a replacement for a solid theatrical narrative. It’s style over substance; and art is not interior design. In its truest form, immersive art is riveting. It’s just a shame that those examples are so few and far between in an oversaturated pool of promise.

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