Give Me the Full Immersive!

Submitting to the maximalist spectacles that are encroaching on real museums’ turf.

Photo: Dolly Faibyshev
Photo: Dolly Faibyshev

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Is this the end of the movie or the beginning?” I heard someone say. We were in the Hall des Lumières, which is the name these days of the landmarked former bank building on Chambers Street, and I too was attempting to orient myself in its trippy gloom. On a continuous loop, strange cucumber-shaped whales were beamed onto the ceiling of the great vaulted room, and images of sunflowers and forests flecked with gold shone on the walls. Viennese waltzes played from speakers. This was “Gustav Klimt: Gold in Motion,” one of the latest cultural exhibitions (and surely not the last) to advertise itself with the ubiquitous words immersive experience. 

The space was half-filled with the characters you tend to see in galleries and museums on rainy weekday afternoons: distracted parents, pods of teenagers, tourists wearing dazed expressions and matching flannel shirts. Unlike at most traditional art venues, however, many of them were sprawled on the hall’s cold marble floor in various attitudes of contemplation and wonder, and a few of them, like me, may have even briefly been asleep. There was also an entire room downstairs dedicated to Klimt selfies.

Wandering the dimly lit chambers, I met a salty older gentleman with a Hemingway-style beard who frowned silently when I asked him what he thought of the show. But a younger patron from Miami named Isha, whose phone was alight with TikToks of her Klimting, told me she liked “the feeling of being inside the artist’s mind.” This was her first immersive, she said with a gleam, but she and her friends were already planning to visit many more.

That wouldn’t be difficult. These kinds of shows have been around for years, but lately they’ve reached a saturation point — in high art, tourist schlock, and the blurry regions in between. New York has recently hosted “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience,” “Monet’s Garden: The Immersive Experience,” and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” which is not to be confused with “Immersive van Gogh.” Also “Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon” (“An immersive biography”), “Magentaverse NYC” (“Explore the boundless sights, sounds, feelings and inspirations of the Pantone Color of the Year 2023”), and “INTER_” (“Ancient wisdom meets tech-enabled art” that’s “now open for beta in Soho”). Tourist guides promote immersive activities at the museums of Broadway, Ice Cream, Illusions, and Sex, and the haughtier bastions of culture are scrambling to install their own experiential exhibits. MoMA has Refik Anadol’s “Unsupervised,” and David Zwirner will unveil a Yayoi Kusama “infinity mirrored room” in May.

If you spend enough time at these increasingly elaborate and inescapable spectacles, you’ll notice two things. The first, obviously, is the exorbitant cost of your ticket: “Gold in Motion” cost $34, which is $4 more than the Met and $9 more than the Neue Galerie, both of which have actual Klimts on their walls. And the second thing, I can report with some surprise, after immersing myself in quite a few, is the easy, dreamy, slightly addictive quality of the shows. As you move from one pleasantly distracting set piece to another, pondering when to ingest the lemon-flavored edible in your pocket, it feels like playing hooky — a reprieve from the hushed, ponderous solemnity of the Establishment museums and galleries.

These shows are connecting with people, and we have many stories to tell,” says Mark Lach. We’re meeting one morning at the echoing pier space by the East River where “Beyond King Tut” has recently ended its holiday run. Lach, who is 65, is the King Tut show’s creative producer and the president of a company called Immersive, which designed the project with National Geographic. Like many people in this mushrooming industry, he began his career in theatrical management, staging big-hair rock shows in Florida, and has many multisensory exhibits to his credit on topics ranging from Saturday Night Live to Cleopatra to the Titanic. Disarmingly ebullient and wearing a baseball cap, he reminded me of Steven Spielberg or maybe the Wizard of Oz.

The immersive craze began with a series of van Gogh shows that originated in the south of France in the mid-aughts, which proved that consumers would pay more to see re-creations of art in event halls than they would to view oil-on-canvas originals at proper museums. But only in the past few years have these exhibits truly proliferated, thanks to the confluence of several specific trends. Social media stoked a bottomless appetite for filming ourselves in maximalist settings; digital video and sound technology got better and cheaper; and COVID created a glut of empty, inexpensive urban real estate.

Most conventional exhibits unfold linearly along a path planned painstakingly by curators. The classic immersive experience is a nonlinear environment that people can move in and out of like schools of fish without having to worry about a beginning, middle, or end. Usually, there is no original artwork hanging on the walls, and all of the stimulus is generated digitally through projectors and speakers.

“People say, ‘Why not just go see the van Gogh hanging on the wall? Why do we need to see it 20 feet tall?’” Lach says. “But I don’t see this as an either/or proposition.” Whether it’s a projection of Irises or King Tut’s impressive collection of walking sticks, the idea of a multisensory experience is to enhance, rather than duplicate, what Lach calls “the magical experience of coming face-to-face with the original artifact.” He’s a populist. If people have never been to Egypt, his immersive room can give them a taste of the sand and pyramids, and if it’s all a little schmaltzy, so be it.

Until recently, immersive shows, especially those in the U.S., tended to be like concerts or circuses: They would pop up in one city, play until demand slackened, then move on. But this model is changing. The Hall des Lumières, which opened in September, is part of a joint venture by the American entertainment company IMG and France’s Culturespaces, the industry’s most notable pioneer. They’re creating a network of permanent museum-style locations in cities from New York to Paris to Seoul that feature a stream of what the company describes as “bespoke digital art experiences.”

The shows are complex. “Beyond King Tut,” for example, requires several dozen speakers and projectors, along with hundreds of lighting instruments. But the exhibits can operate with minuscule staff and development costs can amortize to nothing the longer a tour goes on. As one veteran told me, “It’s much easier to send a single hard drive across the Atlantic than a whole series of precious, expensively insured paintings.”

In London, a company called Lightroom has leased a new building in King’s Cross. For an opening act, Mark Grimmer, one of the directors of 59 Productions, a London-based interdisciplinary design company, spent the past three years collaborating with the Instagram-friendly David Hockney to produce one of the first immersive blockbusters by a living artist. “David Hockney: Bigger & Closer (not smaller and further away)” opened in late February. Reviews by members of London’s art cognoscenti have ranged from respectfully polite to predictably scathing (the Guardian called it “an overwhelming blast of passionless kitsch”), but the spectacle has been mobbed by patrons willing to pay upwards of £25 per ticket.

“People are more digitally savvy now, of course, especially younger people, but post-pandemic, I think we’re seeking out these kinds of communal experiences,” Grimmer says. According to him, one of the most-talked-about digital experience in London these days is the $175 million “ABBA Voyage.” It’s priced like a live concert, with many tickets above £100, but stars digitized avatars of the original band. After the Hockney show ends, Lightroom plans to present all sorts of collaborations beyond the visual arts. It’s not hard to imagine a near future in which eerily sophisticated and immortal AI approximations of cultural icons (from Jeff Koons to Ai Weiwei to Led Zeppelin) loop endlessly in immersion venues around the globe, further erasing the distinction between art and performance. It would make the economics of the old museum game seem small.

The Met, though, doesn’t have anything quite so loud and disheveled as “Beyond King Tut.” When I visited, the galleries, which described the discovery of Tutenkhaman’s perfectly preserved tomb and the ritual steps of his ceremonial journey into the afterlife, were divided in some places by a flimsy network of flapping black curtains. The most boring section was Lach’s supposedly immersive hall with generic shots of camels and shimmering desert suns rising over the pyramids. The most interesting area by far was the last, where for an extra $15 you could rent a pair of virtual-reality goggles, recline in what looks like a chair heisted from the business-class section of Egyptian Airlines, and peer like a time traveler inside his tomb, seeing a tiled floor below your feet, the ceiling above, and all of the boy king’s favorite things (a chariot, his canes, jars of honey and smoked ox tongue) neatly stacked along the walls in wooden shelves and boxes.

Later that afternoon, I walked across the Manhattan Bridge to Dumbo to saturate myself in “Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon.” A dazzled, slightly more artsy-looking crowd took selfies in a series of smallish subterranean rooms filled with the piped-in sounds of tropical birds, and images of peacocks and fields of flowers bloomed and swirled across the walls. The strangely meditative show featured a series of multimedia exhibits devoted to various stages of Kahlo’s life, including a debilitating bus crash and her long convalescence, represented by a large hospital bed. I stood and watched in a kind of stupor for minutes, or possibly hours, as it sprouted leaves and changed colors.

There were VR goggles here too, although you had to be much higher than I was to appreciate the squadrons of watermelons and skull-headed mariachi bands flying through the air. Unlike most of the immersion halls I toured, however, the artful moving images that filled this one managed to tell a coherent story of Kahlo’s life and work with Diego Rivera. At one point, I found myself in a kind of Mexican courtyard, decorated with flower boxes and hung with colorful paper cutouts. Groups of young Brooklyn professionals were sitting at a long wooden table, earnestly coloring in famous Kahlo images with crayons, the way I’d seen schoolchildren do in more traditional museums. “I think it’s a work team-building thing,” one of the gallery assistants said. And so I sat at one of the tables and started coloring, too.

The established museums have grudgingly acknowledged that they need to get into this game. Michael Connor, a curator with long experience in digital art — he’s the co-executive director of Rhizome, which works with the New Museum — has a diplomatic take. “The immersive van Gogh exhibit, it looks like maybe a pleasant place to visit, but it doesn’t feel like it’s altering the cultural palate,” Connor says. “But it’s also establishing a kind of benchmark. It’s popular. People are paying money to see it, so artists have to work harder to do something weird and interesting and experimental to be part of it. Refik is an example of this, and I’m excited to see how other artists go beyond, or mess with, or subvert this moment.”

Connor is referring to Anadol, the tech-driven immersive star who recently unveiled “Unsupervised” — a luminous big-screen installation supposedly influenced by AI “to interpret and transform more than 200 years of art” at MoMA. Reviews have been almost as bad as Hockney’s; New York’s Jerry Saltz compared it to being in the presence of a giant lava lamp. But when I dropped in, there were many more people sitting goggle-eyed in front of Anadol’s exhibit than there were wandering the lavishly curated Ellsworth Kelly celebration just up the stairs.

“People want to do more than just look at art passively on the wall these days,” says Tati Pastukhova, whose Washington, D.C.–based venture, Artechouse, has helped develop a variety of digitally inspired multimedia projects. “There’s a bit of a boom on to curate experiences that are a little more theatrical and that pique people’s curiosity and touch them in different ways,” she says.

In 2019, Artechouse leased a former boiler room on the corner of Chelsea Market and opened an enterprise showing immersive pieces by a series of digital artists. Recent spectacles have included “Magentaverse” (created with Pantone) and “Life of a Neuron” (affiliated with the Society for Neuroscience), as well as a popular digitized pageant called “Spectacular Factory: Holiday Multiverse,” featuring digital packages and wreaths spinning through the air.

Like most of the immersion entrepreneurs I talked to, Pastukhova was cagey about the profit side of the operation. She would clearly rather have Artechouse seen as an artistic endeavor and not a commercial one, but there’s no reason you can’t have both. When I took in the holiday show, the tickets cost $17 to $30 and there were 30 or so customers, many of them sprawled in various states of consciousness on the floor. There was a bar upstairs selling cocktails and a small merch area with Artechouse hoodies priced at $60. As colors climbed up the walls a little metronomically, a steady stream of curious new customers trickled in from the masses of tourists and fressers who flock Chelsea Market most hours of the day and night.

Grimmer says the immersion model depends on an endless flow of crowds and on telling stories in what he calls a “democratic” way. He points out that thanks to “Bigger & Closer,” more people may get a taste of David Hockney than will see the more canonical megaretrospective that opened in 2017 and is still slowly making its way around the museums of the world. “David sees this as a way of reaching more people. That’s what’s exciting him about the medium,” Grimmer says.

Pierre Battu, who spent years in the immersive business before becoming the general manager of Hall des Lumières, agrees. “We are opening people’s eyes to the wonders of the fine arts,” he says. “You have the music, you have the movement. You don’t necessarily need a background in the artist to appreciate it. You feel things right away. And afterward, we’ve found, people are much more likely to go to traditional museums to continue the journey.”

My own immersive journey ended with a visit one afternoon to “Monet’s Garden” on Wall Street. Since it opened in the fall it had been “extended” several times — a common tactic in this gold-rush stage of the immersion game, Battu says, to manufacture a sense of urgency. My ticket cost $35. The person who took it said that roughly 200 people had already come through the gates that afternoon and that on peak weekend days the show saw an average of 1,000 visitors.

“I could explain to you why Monet was the greatest artist who ever lived, but this might not be the place to do it,” Jerry Saltz said as we ascended the escalator toward the gardens, which were planted with lengths of artificial grass and plasticated flora, including tulips, ivy, and, obviously, water lilies. This was Jerry’s first immersive, and I wanted to get his professional critic’s opinion. He was on record saying the immersive art world would probably one day have its version of Francis Bacon, but we were now in the sector of entertainment rather than high art, and today he seemed happy to be entertained.

“Monet’s Garden” had a selfie station where a family from New Jersey was gesticulating wildly in front of their phones, and other visitors were standing and recording yet more images of themselves on a replica of the famous Japanese footbridge that the Impressionist painted obsessively in his gardens at Giverny. There was a coloring room and a place where your own water-lily designs could be captured and projected alongside the artist’s. Jerry sat for a spell under a wall of fake ivy with a slightly perplexed look on his face, attempting to process the meaning or non-meaning of the digital art phenomenon.

“So far, nothing has happened on your interior, but I guess we’re okay with that,” Jerry said as we made our way to the main immersion hall. People were perched on uncomfortable boxlike seats and sprawled here and there on the floor. Employees were handing out vinyl “Monet’s Garden” seat cushions, like at an amusement-park ride. On the ground, disjointed images of crows and purple haystacks and snowy days swirled around, and Jerry said a little loudly and to no one in particular: “That’s a Monet floor, kids! It’s good that it moves, kids!”

Afterward, we stood blinking in the gift shop, pricing water-lily wine totes ($19) and Monet silk shawls ($45). We met a couple named the Comos from Wilton, Connecticut, devout culture connoisseurs, who said they enjoyed immersive shows and visited them regularly. They’d been to the Hall des Lumières (“We were underwhelmed”) and the original van Gogh spectacle (“It blew this one away”).

Did they think this was the end of traditional museumgoing and high culture as we know it? Of course not. It was a distraction and an entertainment and a way to experience the work of “artists we know and love.”

Jerry and I walked out into the rain. “Let’s do one more of these today,” he said. “Let’s do a doubleheader.”

Give Me the Full Immersive!