To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perceptions.
Robert Irwing

one are the days in which the definition of art was encased within the cocoon of objecthood. Largely thanks to the legacies of minimalism and conceptual art, works of art often exist as environments that capture the audience’s attention by offering immersive experiences. Today, these works have taken centre stage in the art world and have attracted unprecedented amounts of visitors. They often feature animated and soundtracked sequences made by either contemporary artists or by people working in the creative industries refashioning iconic art historical works promoted and exhibited by institutions such as Frameless and 180 Studios in London and L’Atelier Des Lumieres in Paris. With the use of digital technology, contemporary artists like Ryoji Ikeda and Refik Anadol are contributing to this trend by using large-scale often animated projections to transform purpose-built environments.

With the mushrooming of these immersive digital spaces, the border between the creative industries responsible for the work showcased at institutions such as Frameless and that of contemporary artists creating innovative work is beginning to blur. As these works gather increasing attention, there has been a revival of the by now well-rehearsed suspicion of the entertainment value muddying the loftier waters of fine art. Some might ask: who, after all, are the artists behind these works? The ones who created the artworks in the first place or those (for the most part anonymous) individuals who digitalised and subsequently animated them? Given the authorship minefields that come with immersive experiences that use strategies of appropriation, this essay focuses on those works where the artist is easy to locate and there is a clear drive to create new and original art. The rapid acceleration of such work in the contemporary art sphere means that we need both critical and art historical frameworks to assess them with. This becomes even more urgent when we consider the exciting rise and increasing sophistication of new technology such as virtual reality that is changing the landscape of immersive art encounters.

The histories that have informed such practices do not start with moving images or purpose-built environments but a desire on the part of artists to probe the meaning and limits of perception by providing aesthetic experiences that both addressed multiple senses and were not enclosed within the restrictive perimeters of objecthood. The way to this was partly paved by the legacy of minimalism and the writings of philosopher Merleau-Ponty who wrote about the notion of ‘embodied perception’ that debunked the previously firmly established philosophical duality between mind and body. For him, perception was not only a question of addressing the eye but was couched on the whole body.

Robert Irwin, All That Jazz, 2011

These concerns were particularly salient in the works of many artists based in California during the 1960s and 1970s – loosely grouped under the term Light and Space artists – who were intrigued with questions of light, perception as well as the relationship between objects and their architectural contexts. Like today’s immersive experiences, the type of artistic experimentation was forged in a cauldron of intense technological development. Mainly located in post-war Los Angeles, the city was a fertile ground for artistic exploration. Its dominant car culture, the neighbouring expansion of the aerospace industry, rapid development of industrial materials, all provided a nurturing climate for artists that radically helped to alter the landscape of contemporary art.

Not unlike today’s immersive experiences, rather than being pure optical encounters, the works that artists were creating in California involved the
viewer on a corporeal level. They often made ample use of new technological developments. Artists like Robert Irwin were keen for the viewers to notice their architectural surroundings. For his Fractured Light–Partial Scrim–Ceiling– Eye–Level Wire of 1970-71 (Fig.1) at MoMA, he turned a rather bland room in which he replaced the existing fluorescent light with both colder and warmer hue bulbs and hung a scrim parallel to the ceiling that softly diffused the light coming from the skyline. At the time, it garnered relatively little attention, but it is now recognised as one of the works that opened innovative artistic trajectories precisely because it got visitors to notice their environment as a whole. In this way, it was an early instance of an immersive artwork. Later, he would continue
to work with artificial light. In All That Jazz (2011) (Fig.2), for example, he placed various parallel fluorescent light tubes, each packed with as many as 13 gels, that emitted a variegated spectrum of colours designed to alter the surrounding mood and atmosphere. Also working with light, renowned American artist James Turrell began to experiment with light projections in early works such as Projection Pieces (1966-69) (Fig.3) and later his more technologically complex Ganzfelds (Fig.4) that he started in 1976. For these later works, he completely flooded visitors in coloured light radically altering their perception of distance and space. Outside of California, other artists were engaged in creating this immaterial and experiential art. British artist Anthony McCall, for instance, created his iconic Line Describing a Cone (Fig.5) in 1973 in which a moving beam of light coming from a film projector gradually produced a hollow cone in a darkened room.

James Turrell, Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld), 1991

In recent times, artists have continued to advance some of the principles that were explored by these first investigations into perception. As an artist who pioneered some of these concerns, Irwin expanded his practice to include large installations that probed the limits of his visitor’s senses. For Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (2007) (Fig.6) he laid out six large-scale horizontal honeycomb enamelled panels in primary colours that entirely engulfed the visitor’s field of vision whilst at the same time encouraging movement and inviting explorations on colour theory. Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s work is also another notable example. In his works, he wanted his audience to ‘see themselves sensing.’ In 1993 he created Beauty (Fig.7) in which he shone a beam of light onto a darkened room. At the same time, a fine mist could be felt inside the room which Eliasson created by puncturing small holes into a hosepipe that was mounted on the ceiling. From certain angles, a rainbow could be seen. Since then, with the use of technology, Eliasson has exhibited a keen interest in recreating meteorological conditions indoors as seen in his famous The Weather Project (Fig.8) shown at the Turbine Hall in Tate in 2003 that created the illusion of a giant sun rising through mist prompting visitors to go ‘sunbathing’ on the museum’s floor. Occupied with similar preoccupations, Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens (Fig.9) has been doing mist installations since the mid-1990s that envelop the viewers in coloured artificial fog that deliberately confuse visitors’ sense of space and depth.

With the advent of new digital technologies, ground-breaking artistic avenues of expression have opened that have added another layer of depth to questions surrounding embodied perception. Refik Anadol’s complex audio-visual installations are illustrative of this trend. For his Infinity Room (2015) (Fig. 10), for instance, Anadol used complex contemporary algorithms to immerse the viewer in a completely illusory space that blurs the boundaries between the physical self and the virtual one. Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda also uses digital technology to create immersive black-and-white audio-visual immersive installations that probe the limits of perception as well as underline the spectator’s physicality in relationship to the space they inhabit (Fig.11). Discussing his show at 180 Studios in 2021, the artist claimed that ‘[...] I compose the placing and pacing of the exhibition in response to the nature of the physical space. The entire exhibition is based very much on physical experience [...].’

Other artists have used more cutting-edge technology like virtual reality. Although to some virtuality could signal the loss of corporeality, its defining feature is that it supplants our physical reality for a virtual one that, like its physical counterpart, is ruled by sensation and embodied perception. Virtual reality technologies have the capacity to make us feel like our bodies are moving through space just as they would in the physical world. Many well-established artists have produced work using virtual reality. As a case in point, drawing attention to climate change, renowned performance artist Marina Abramović created Rising in 2018 (Fig.12) in which she asked her audience to wear an immersive headset to witness the artist’s avatar in a tank full of water before being transported into a scene that points to the catastrophic effects of the melting polar ice caps. Also in 2018, Anish Kapoor created Into Yourself Fall (Fig.13) in which viewers embark on a journey through the human body as if they were inside one. For The Eternal Wave (2020) (Fig.14), artist Cao Fei takes us on an enthralling journey through her studio. As the trajectory of technological development gains momentum, we are likely to continue to see a flourishing of these kinds of works.

Ryoki Ikeda, Test Pattern N14, 2022

Since the 1960s, instead of focusing on art’s objecthood, many artists have been drawing attention to our perceptual process, mechanisms of attention and the way in which we interact with our physical (and now virtual) environment. In many of these artistic explorations, technology has been an effective and vital ally in bringing to life previously unimaginable works that challenge the limits of our perception and craft compelling spatial situations. As technologies like virtual reality become more widespread, we are going to see a proliferation of innovative works and exhibition spaces that transport us to captivating worlds in both the figurative and abstract domains. Some critics might raise a haughty eyebrow given the popular attention these works seem to attract, many of it coming from outside the sacrosanct auspices of the world of fine art. But rather than clinging to traditional forms of art making and spectatorship, we should instead look at the histories and principles that inform these practices. We would come to realise that the reason that they draw so much recognition is because artists working with these technologies and concerns are providing experiences unlike anything we have seen before.

Paula Brailovsky is a London-based art historian who finished her master’s degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art and then went on to complete her PhD at University College London in 2014. Entitled Geographies of Violence: Site-Oriented Art and Politics at the Mexico-U.S. Border From the 1980s to the Present, her dissertation centred on the intersection between art and politics in relation to nationhood, identity and the conditions of globalisation. As an academic, she has published her work in the journal Object and MIRAJ, has taught modern and contemporary art courses both at graduate and postgraduate level and has lectured nationally and internationally.  In recent years, she has worked as a researcher and writer in an art consultancy where she built an academic programme and helped individuals and institutions navigate the complex waters of contemporary art and its markets. Using her academic background as a springboard, she is interested in the practical possibilities and theoretical potentials that exist at the crossroads of contemporary art, business and technology.