CAfter soaking, a shower is about as far as I’m usually willing to go. I do not acknowledge the existence of bathtubs, and when it comes to immersive art, I prefer to be an engaged and critically observant observer, not a participant. I made an exception for Nicholas Hytner’s Shakespeare productions at the Bridge Theater in London, although I chose to watch the crush – with the rest of the audience a harried, quarrelsome mob Julius Caesar or a bevy of enchanted night owls A Midsummer Night’s Dream – from the safety of a permanent seat. I love hearing the soprano at the end of Wagners Tristan and Isolde sing of ecstatic drowning in the streams of sound emanating from what she calls “the surging universe of the world breath”. In the opera house you can feel this sensorium throbbing around you, but it is only sounding air and your head, like that of the singer, remains above the only symbolic water.
The immersion promised by a number of art exhibitions across London is also an innocuous metaphor: at worst, you’ll be swamped with light. Still, there is something seductively mystical about these shows that has become so popular that it has achieved cult status. Painting experienced in this way is no longer there to be viewed from an analytical distance and evaluated formally; Their purpose is to provide sensations and alter consciousness. The freestanding work of art disappears as we merge with it, melted into a burst of color or awash in images that tumble down the walls, spill onto the floor and wash us away.
at Frameless, near Marble Arch, bombard you a million lumens with more than 479 million pixels while 158 speakers saturate you with music; The effect is a gentle psychedelia that weakens the upright posture of Georges Seurat’s picnickers by the Seine and entices you to join the sinners indulged in kinky pleasures in Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Delights. On one wall, Edvard Munch’s skull-like face The Scream looks menacing for a moment. Elsewhere, the pixels form the wild-eyed, red-bearded visage of Vincent van Gogh, the prophet of sunlight at its most scorching. Van Gogh has his own immersive extravaganza in stables at Spitalfields Market in east London, with galaxies of stars swirling through the rooms and overgrown sunflowers unfolding jungle vines. Set in a converted boiler house on nearby Brick Lane, Dalí: Cybernetics sends you through a digital portal into a metaverse, where the surrealist’s distorted imagery leaps into three-dimensional life and invades your mind. Clocks melt, a tiger pounces on you while spitting a smaller tiger from its snarling maw, and the eyes Salvador Dalí painted on a curtain for a nightmare scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Banned fly through the air like muddy grenades.
David Hockney’s immersive autobiographical tour, which opens at the Lightroom in King’s Cross in February, appears to be more gently aquatic, with hedonistic dives into backyard swimming pools and spring in the Normandy countryside seen through a curtain of pelting rain. Visitors will be timed passengers on one of the audiovisual “Wagner rides” he formerly took through the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, featuring local vistas of arid canyons and forested crevasses, set to a soundtrack of orchestral journeys from Wagner’s operas Hockney to match the retreat of the sun from the mountain tops. 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 into Tristan and Isolde, Desire ebbs and flows like blood – or it opens up a career of conquest, as with Siegfried Dawn of the GodsG swings his sword and sets out on the Rhine. Superimposed on these somber rituals, Hockney’s car ride will glide along highways to end on the beach as the sun makes its final dive into the ocean.
Hockney’s title is Bigger and closer (not smaller and further away), which sums up the spatial effect of exhibitions like his. In the Louvre, the mona lisa appears small and very far away behind crash barriers and a protective glass shield; if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see them over another person’s shoulder for a moment before pushing them aside. Your solace is in taking a selfie, reducing the once-sacrosanct image to a backdrop for your own triumphant face. Immersive shows recognize this state and completely forgo the self-contained artwork as you are projected through the frame to swim in a painting that expands to accommodate you. The image now seems obsolete because it’s boringly static; what counts is a cinematic liberation of the eye. At a time when movies can be squeezed onto the screens of our electronic devices, this is a new way to lose ourselves again in the vastness of what Terry Gilliam has dubbed an “imaginarium”—someone else’s imagination’s playground.
My own first immersion experience at least took place in a watery environment, not an empty hangar or disused factory. In Lisbon, an aqueduct designed in the 18th century to bring water to the thirsty city strides through valleys and ends on a hilltop in a vast indoor reservoir known as the Mae d’Água, or Mother of the Waters: a tanked uterine cavity whose slurping contents reverberate beneath a vaulted roof supported by arid pillars. Here, on a swinging jetty jutting into one of the basins, I watched the work of Claude Monet and Gustav Klimt liquefy on the walls and drip into the dark basins. The experience had little to do with the images that rained down on me and seeped under my feet; Dissolved into blurred impressions, the images became drugs intended to evoke moods – first sad calm, then more nervous fear.
Monet had his own lily ponds at Giverny, so his paintings felt right at home here, with watery blooms climbing out of the tanks and twining around the pillars. The musical accompaniment began oddly with a prompt from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but soon sank underwater to cite the watered-down strains of a Debussy piano prelude, evoking the Breton legend of a sunken cathedral with muted bells and priests singing deep beneath the surface. A gold and purple montage of Monet’s views of waterborne Venice also materialized from the shadows and then set, as the city itself eventually will. The experience was exhilarating, pleasantly floating, like floating half-awake on a promenade through the world led by the elegant figure of Monet himself.
When Klimt grinned mischievously in a monk’s robes, the reverie turned morbid. Reclining women in his portraits, sound asleep in the night sky, looked like malicious blimps as they glided between the arches; one of them left a pair of disembodied feet twitching in a corner as if agitated by a nightmare. A grotto above one of the tanks suddenly blushed red, ready to act as an altar in a Devil’s Sabbath. It all ended with a shower of sparks from the center of the ceiling, where patches of orange and burnt ocher, separating from Klimt’s decor, sharply converged and collided: the sky seemed to collapse and was instantly swallowed up by the black water in the tanks. The still gloom as the images faded was that of a bunker, defenseless against burning in the air above and a tide rising from below.
As the boards of the dock swayed beneath me, I remembered a commandment from Joseph Conrad’s novel mr jim, where someone explains the hero’s suicidal folly by saying that we all need to “dip into the element of destruction.” Jim jumps overboard as his ship sinks and is haunted by the memory of his cowardice; his apologist says he had no choice, for “a born man falls in a dream” as in the sea and will drown if he tries to pull himself out – our only hope is to trust and rely on the destructive element the waves to support us. Is that what we’re testing as we dive into these oceanic images? Immersive shows are out-of-body experiences; they tempt us to molt, to give up our separate identities and become empty vessels for the flow of pixels.
Her polychrome deluge could also invite us to glimpse the possible end of the world. Outside the aqueduct, I noticed a sign announcing a catastrophically immersive experience elsewhere in the city: a multi-sensory recreation of the 1755 earthquake that brought down the buildings on Lisbon’s seven sacred hills, the debris engulfed by a tsunami, and an abrupt eruption caused an end to the optimism of the Enlightenment. “Are you ready to participate?” asked the poster. Not today, I thought, but maybe soon. It’s certainly not too early to rehearse the upcoming apocalypse, which is sure to be a spectacular show.