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Painted sculptures and postmodern galleries: The world of Virtual Reality Art

The youngest of artistic mediums, virtual reality has come along in leaps and bounds over the past year. Here's a definitive round-up of artists using this ambitious new art form

Lemmerz’s ‘La Apparizione’. Courtesy Christian Lemmerz/Khora Contemporary
Lemmerz’s ‘La Apparizione’. Courtesy Christian Lemmerz/Khora Contemporary

When the English portrait artist Jonathan Yeo was invited by Google to try out its Tilt Brush, a room-scale 3D painting Virtual Reality (VR) app in 2017, he was excited about the possibilities of creating virtual art, but also confounded by its practicability. In a short documentary on YouTube, on Yeo creating a painted sculpture with the app, he says, “Amazing as it was, I couldn’t see how it could fit into my work…the software wasn’t actually designed to replicate something in the real world so it was frustrating. I was left slightly perplexed (about) what to do with this technology."

He solved the problem with more technology. Yeo wanted to make a self-portrait, so he went to Otoy, a special effects company, and got a detailed 3D rendering of his head. Google’s engineers fed this scan into the Tilt Brush software. When Yeo put his HTC Vive headset on, he could refer to the scan for his painting. And when he started painting in three-dimensional space, he realized that he was effectively creating a sculpture. In the technique of using the Tilt Brush, he says, “what really appealed to me was the accuracy you would get with each individual stroke. It’s not a vague approximation; it’s exactly the gesture I was making in the air with my hand to direct expression of me and a perfect tool for self-portrait."

Once the portrait was created, Yeo was faced with a different problem. How could he translate the art into something tangible that exists in the physical world? Three- dimensional printing, as it turns out. He says in the video, “By working closely with Google engineers, to 3D-print directly from the software, we were able to print it in separate parts and carefully, precisely, join them together." He then got expert forgers to create a mould and cast it in bronze. Essentially, Yeo’s project was an experiment in working with digital tools to create a permanent physical sculpture. It is currently on display at the From Life exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (on till 11 March).

Yeo with his 3D painted sculpture. Photo: Alamy

When Tilt Brush was launched in April 2016 along with the HTC Vive headset, the reaction was mixed. The New York Times referenced it in a list of interesting VR games for the year, marking it out as something that “virtual reality babies" might prefer. Imagine writing your name in the air and then walking through it. In terms of fun, that was about it. Others took it more seriously. In a review, technology portal Ars Technica said, “The Vive doesn’t tease…this is a significant, 3D step up from the mouse of old, so we’d best get to painting with it."

Google has been aggressively seeking out artists to develop the possibilities of art and VR (see “Art In A Digital World"). As in the case of Yeo, this also gives the company a means to further develop the tool. In its Artist in Residence programme, Google has worked with people like Peter Chan, an illustrator, animator and visual development artist; Dave Crosland, an American illustrator working in comics, cartoons and video games; Yoriko Ito, the Japanese visual development artist and designer of 3D films like Madagascar and others, to create original art.

In February 2017, the Tilt Brush app also became available for the Oculus Rift’s VR headset, which many consider to be superior to the HTC Vive. Oculus, of course, has its own similar apps, Medium and Quill. The latter was designed by Story Studio for Oculus and allows the user to paint and sketch on an infinite scale. The settings include watercolour, pencil, oil painting and animation. It was used by writer and director Saschka Unseld and art director Wesley Allsbrook for the animated film Dear Angelica (2017), the first such movie created entirely in VR.

Cao’s BMW Art Car #18. Courtesy BMW Blog


One of the most important artists working in VR right now is probably Cao Fei, 40. The multimedia artist was born in Guangzhou, China, and works with video, performance, and digital media. In 2017, Cao Fei collaborated with BMW to design the BMW Art Car #18 using VR. She combined VR and video art to create a 3D world in which the viewer could become part of the installation via a free app tailor-made for the exhibit. This was accompanied by Unmanned, a 6-minute video directed by Cao. In it, a Buddhist monk travels out of his hermitage and treks across a rural landscape which changes rapidly into a hyper-modernized urban one. He walks into a giant car park, and, strapping on a headset, immerses himself in Cao’s swirling VR painting around the charcoal-black car, reproducing the full-body motion of a virtual paintbrush in dance. Cao says the process is much like dance. In her view, the physical and digital worlds are not exclusive. She says in Unmanned, “The car shouldn’t just be racing in the race-track, it should be racing in the heart." The Art Car made its debut at the Minsheng Art Museum in Beijing on 31 May.

In March, Art Basel and Google also collaborated with Cao and other Chinese digital artists like Yang Yongliang and Sun Xun to put up a VR art exhibit called Virtual Frontiers in Hong Kong. Yang has been acclaimed for his innovative photo- and video-based collage works like Artificial Wonderland, where he merges photographs of China’s urbanscapes with traditional Chinese landscape paintings. His VR work Eternal Landscape, which he showcased in Hong Kong, is an ongoing project. Produced for Monochrome, a VR design studio in Paris, it combines 10th century “Shan Shui" style ink paintings of mountains and water with three-dimensional technology. In an interview with CNN, Yang called it a “pure natural landscape". “If we can create Chinese landscape in a 3D immersive platform, we would be able to walk in the environment for the first time," he said.

A scene from Dawood’s ‘Kalimpong’. Courtesy: Shezad Dawood


Beyond artists stepping into something that is still a very new medium, there’s the 3D and VR art market. And one such market is in a virtual world—Second Life (SL). Since it began in 2003, SL has been, in many ways, at the cutting edge of everything VR. This highly innovative immersive world encourages the avatars of players in SL to interact with the “world" and each other. This includes the realm of art.

SL residents can display their art in world art galleries and museums, and there are 78 art galleries that one can visit. There are VR gallery openings, book launches and exhibits to visit, and even artwork to buy. This can be VR art that stays within SL or art exhibited in SL galleries which can be purchased in real life. Cao Fei actively works within SL as China Tracy, and her VR world, called RMB City, is an ongoing creation that was first exhibited at the 2007 edition of the Venice Biennale. On a more conventional level, players can visit personal galleries like the French photographer Chris Marker’s Ouvroir, where you will be guided by Monsieur Guillame, an orange cat. Or you could visit The Aho Museum, a gallery in SL’s Northwestern Michigan College Campus, which features a rotating cast of artists exhibiting their work.

I have always believed that art is an exercise in consciousness, and as we advance in this area our field of experience will necessarily change.- Shezad Dawood


In the real world, there’s the Copenhagen-based Khora Contemporary, founded in 2016, that seeks to connect VR developers and technologies to artists willing to create original artwork. It launched at the Venice Biennale in 2017 with the show New Media (Virtual Reality Art) exhibiting the VR art of Christian Lemmerz and Paul McCarthy. The German sculptor Lemmerz’s La Apparizione presents viewers with a disturbing, immersive experience of a gigantic and burning crucified Jesus levitating in space, leaking fiery embers. The Los Angeles-based McCarthy produced two variations of his ongoing series Coach Stage Stage Coach, in which the viewer is placed in a vivid living room peopled by a changing array of female figures that taunt, abuse and molest each other and the viewer. Khora has also teamed up with the Faurschou Foundation Beijing for the show Virtual Reality Art. Showcasing Lemmerz and McCarthy, as well as the works of the American painter Erik Parker, American new media artist Tony Oursler and Chinese painter Hu Yong, the show has been a hit. Running since October, it ends today.

An early mover in digital art of all kinds has been Hong Kong’s K11 Art Foundation. Founded in 2010 by businessman Adrian Cheng Chi-Kong, it too made an entry into VR art in 2017, in association with MoMA PS1 and the Chinese artist and hypnotist Wang Xin, to showcase her ongoing virtual installation, The Gallery, in Shanghai. Her interactive, site-specific HTC Vive installation mimics an actual gallery experience which showcases the works of 10,000 “unknown" artists in a pit filled with 10,000 pink balls. In the middle of the pit, viewers can access the virtual experience titled A Virtual Land Where An Artist’s Past, Present, And Future Artworks And Related Information Are Stored, which showcases Wang’s own artworks in different situations. There are a bunch of other such interactive exhibits of her work within The Gallery experience.

K11 also tied up with Hong Kong-based new-media art institute Videotage to present #likeforlike in March—an exhibition of 3D animation, kinetic art and video imaging which includes works by Sun Xun and Feng Mengbo. The latter’s Oculus Rift VR installation, Q3DVR, is a video-game-inspired work where the passive viewer can watch multiple versions of the virtual protagonist, a naked girl with an iPhone and red roses, fighting each other with the roses in a fish tank.

In India, VR is being used to make immersive films—see the Memesys Culture Lab’s VR and AR production arm ElsVR’s short documentaries like Submerged and Caste Is Not A Rumour—and photo installations like Poulomi Basu’s Ritual Of Exile: Blood Speaks. When it comes to VR art, there’s the British-Asian artist Shezad Dawood’s 2016 work Kalimpong. It is a multimedia experience that also includes an immersive VR environment that reconstructs five scenes of historical significance in the Himalayan town’s past, including the storied Himalayan Hotel, Tantric Buddhism, and the yeti. “I have always believed that art is an exercise in consciousness, and as we advance in this area our field of experience will necessarily change," says Dawood on email.

In a way, that field of experience has already changed. Art continues to transcend formats and materials, and, for artists and viewers alike, VR is just the logical next step.

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