Ready to plunge in? The rise and rise of immersive art

Ready to plunge in? The rise and rise of immersive art thumbnail

Concerning immersion, a shower is as far as I’m usually prepared to go. I don’t recognise the existence of bathtubs and when it comes to immersive art, I prefer to be an engaged and critically alert observer, not a participant. I made an exception for Nicholas Hytner’s Shakespeare productions at the Bridge theatre in London, though I chose to watch the scrum – with the rest of the audience as a harried, feuding mob in Julius Caesar or a gaggle of bewitched revellers in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamfrom the safety of a fixed seat. I love hearing the soprano at the end of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde sing about ecstatically drowning in the torrents of sound that pour out of her, which she calls “the wafting universe of the world-breath”. In the opera house, you can feel this sensorium throbbing around you, but it’s only resonant air, and your head, like the singer’s, remains above the merely symbolic water.

The immersion promised by an array of art exhibitions throughout London is also a harmless metaphor: at worst, you are inundated by light. Even so, there’s something alluringly mystical about these shows, now so popular that they have become a cult. Experienced in this way, paintings no longer exist to be viewed from an analytical distance and appraised in formal terms; their purpose is to supply sensation and alter consciousness. The freestanding work of art disappears as we are fused with it, merged in a detonation of colour or submerged by images that cascade down the walls, gush on to the floor and wash us away.

An image from the 2021 Barcelona opening of the Dalí: Cybernetics exhibition, which is now at a converted boiler house on London’s Brick Lane.

Photograph: Alejandro García/EPA

At Frameless, near Marble Arch, a million lumens bombard you with more than 479m pixels, while 158 speakers saturate you with music; the effect is a soft psychedelia, which weakens the upright demeanour of Georges Seurat’s picnickers beside the Seine and entices you to join the sinners who enjoy kinkier pleasures in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. On one wall, the skull-like face from Edvard Munch’s The Scream makes a briefly menacing appearance. Elsewhere, the pixels form themselves into the wild-eyed, red-bearded visage of Vincent van Gogh, the prophet of sunlight at its most searing. Van Gogh has his own immersive extravaganza in stables off Spitalfields Market in east London, with starry galaxies whirling around the rooms and overgrown sunflowers that unfurl jungly tendrils. In a converted boiler house on nearby Brick Lane, Dalí: Cybernetics sends you through a digital portal into a metaverse, where the surrealist’s warped images leap into three-dimensional life and invade your head. Clocks melt, a tiger pounces at you while disgorging a smaller tiger from its growling mouth, and the eyes Salvador Dalí painted onto drapery for a nightmare scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound fly through the air like squashy grenades.

David Hockney’s immersive autobiographical tour, opening in February at Lightroom in King’s Cross, looks to be more gently aquatic, with hedonistic dips in back yard swimming pools and spring in the Normandy countryside seen through a curtain of pelting rain. Visitors will be passengers on one of the audio-visual “Wagner drives” he used to take through the San Gabriel mountains in southern California, with local vistas of arid gulches and wooded crevasses set to a soundtrack of orchestral journeys from Wagner’s operas, timed by Hockney to match the sun’s retreat from the mountain peaks. For Wagner, immersion is a spiritual and sensual drama – Senta in The Flying Dutchman plunges into the boiling sea only to rise again, instantly cleansed and redeemed, and in Tristan und Isolde, desire ebbs and flows tidally, like blood – or else it inaugurates a career of conquest, as when Siegfried in Götterdämmerung brandishes his sword and embarks on the Rhine. Superimposed on these murky rituals, Hockney’s car trip will skim along highways to end at the beach as the sun makes its last plunge into the ocean.

Starry, starry night … Van Gogh at Frameless in London. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Hockney’s title is Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away), which sums up the spatial appeal of exhibitions such as his. In the Louvre, the Mona Lisa looks small and very far away behind guard rails and a protective shield of glass; with luck, you glimpse her for a moment over someone else’s shoulder, before being shoved aside. Your consolation is to take a selfie, reducing the once sacrosanct image to a backdrop for your own triumphant face. Immersive shows recognise this state of things and dispense altogether with the self-contained work of art as you’re projected through the frame to go for a swim inside a painting that stretches to accommodate you. The picture now seems obsolete because it is boringly static; what matters is a cinematic liberation of the eye. At a time when movies can be squeezed onto the screens of our electronic gadgets, here is a new way of losing ourselves again in the amplitude of what Terry Gilliam has called an “imaginarium” – the playground of someone else’s fantasy.

My own first experience of immersion at least happened in a watery setting, not an empty hangar or a disused factory. In Lisbon, an aqueduct designed in the 18th century to bring water to the thirsting city strides across valleys and terminates on a hilltop in a massive indoor reservoir known as the Mãe d’Água, or Mother of the Waters: a uterine cavern, with tanks whose slurping contents echo under a vaulted roof held up by spindly pillars. Here, on a bobbing jetty that jutted out into one of the pools, I watched the work of Claude Monet and Gustav Klimt liquefy on the walls and drip into the dark tanks. The experience had little to do with the images that rained down on me and trickled away beneath my feet; dissolved into fuzzy impressions, the paintings became drugs designed to provoke moods – first of mournful calm, then of something more like nervous dread.

Monet at Frameless in London. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Monet had his own lily ponds at Giverny, so his images felt at home here, with watery blooms climbing out of the tanks and twining around the columns. The musical accompaniment began, oddly, with a summons from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but soon sank underwater to quote the diluted sonorities of a piano prelude by Debussy that evokes the Breton legend of a drowned cathedral, with muffled bells and priests chanting far below the surface. A gold and purple montage from Monet’s views of water-borne Venice also materialised from the shadows, then foundered, as the city itself will eventually do. The experience was buoyant, pleasantly floaty, like drifting through the world half-awake on a promenade led by the dapper figure of Monet himself.

With Klimt, seen impishly smirking in a monk’s robe, the reverie turned morbid. Recumbent women from his portraits, fast asleep in the night sky, looked like malevolent zeppelins as they slithered between the arches; one of them left behind a pair of bodiless feet that twitched in a corner as if agitated by a nightmare. A grotto above one of the tanks suddenly flushed red, ready to function as the altar in a devil’s sabbath. It all ended with a shower of sparks from the midpoint of the ceiling, where flecks of orange and burnt ochre that peeled off Klimt’s decor sharply converged and collided: the sky seemed to fall in and was instantly swallowed by the black water in the tanks. The silent gloom when the images faded was that of a bunker, defenceless against incineration in the upper air and a floodtide rising from below.

As the boards of the jetty rocked beneath me, I remembered a commandment from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, where someone explains the hero’s suicidal folly by saying that all of us must “in the destructive element immerse”. Jim jumps overboard when his ship founders and is haunted by the memory of his cowardice; his apologist says that he had no choice, because “a man that is born falls into a dream” as if into the sea, and will drown if he tries to haul himself out – our only hope is to trust the destructive element and rely on the waves to support us. Is this what we’re testing when we dive into those oceanic images? Immersive shows are out-of-body experiences; they entice us to shed our skins, relinquish our separate identity and become empty vessels for the flux of pixels.

Their polychrome deluge may also be inviting us to preview the way the world might end. Outside the aqueduct, I noticed a sign announcing a catastrophically immersive experience elsewhere in the city: a multisensory re-enactment of the 1755 earthquake that toppled the buildings on Lisbon’s seven sanctified hills, left the rubble to be engulfed by a tsunami and put an abrupt stop to the optimism of the Enlightenment. “Are you ready to take part?” asked the poster. Not today, I thought, but perhaps soon. It’s surely not too early to rehearse the forthcoming apocalypse, which is bound to be a spectacular show.