While immersive art may be nothing new (Marina Abramovic, we salute you), large-scale, multisensory exhibitions are new to Australia. Last year, months after museums and galleries began to reopen following lockdown, a very different kind of show brought the country’s art and culture scene roaring back to life.
“Van Gogh Alive”, by Melbourne-based company Grande Experiences, landed in Sydney’s Royal Hall of Industries and we were rapt. The show featured state-of-the-art technology and was spectacular — in all senses of the word. Forty high-definition projectors brought the fine detail of Van Gogh’s best-known works to life in time to a classical music score, accompanied by specifically designed scents filling each space. The show attracted almost 300,000 visitors during its three-month run. For context, in a pre-Covid world, the Art Gallery of New South Wales recorded more than 225,000 visitors for its 2008 to 2009 exhibition “Monet and the Impressionists” – some of its highest-ever audience figures.
Following the success of “Van Gogh Alive”, Grande Experiences then gave us its take on Monet — “Monet & Friends” — which featured the art of 15 French Impressionists, including Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sisley. The popularity of these shows has proven to be so great that in autumn of this year, Grande Experiences will open THE LUME Melbourne, the country’s first digital gallery dedicated to multisensory art shows and experiences. Housed in the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre (MCEC), it has cost $15 million to transform the venue into a 2,000 square metre digital gallery, featuring 150 projectors.
Although it will be the first dedicated space Grande Experiences has opened in Australia, the company, which also owns and operates Rome’s Museo Leonardo da Vinci, is well known throughout the world for touring large-scale, immersive digital art and culture experiences, which it says have attracted more than 17 million visitors in 145-plus cities.
For native Melburnian Bruce Peterson, founder and CEO of Grande Experiences, opening a gallery here has been a long time coming. “Australians are so well travelled; they see our stuff all around the world. We’re constantly asked when we will bring [our shows] here,” he says. “We struggled to find an appropriate venue in Melbourne, but unfortunately, the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre had its entire business slammed with Covid, so it was a pretty quick and easy phone call from me to pitch the idea of us moving in there. It was just a really good fit.”
Despite the enormous popularity of the shows, some detractors believe immersive, multisensory art skirts the boundary between art and “content”, pandering to an Instagram-opportunity-hunting, screen-obsessed and easily distracted 21st-century mind. Dr Vanessa Bartlett, a curator and researcher at the University of Melbourne, acknowledges that while there is increasing pressure on curators and museum professionals to “produce ‘Instagram-worthy’ experiences people can photograph and share with their friends”, she believes multisensory art shows are just an evolution in how we consume art. “I don’t think it’s possible anymore to think about ‘art’ and ‘technology’ as separate things,” she says. “Just as technology has changed the way we talk to each other and the way we find love, it has also changed how artists see the world and what they create.”
For Peterson, the multisensory shows his company are renowned for are all about making art more accessible and, he says, his experience of being a teacher prior to his art career informs how they achieve that. “I keep coming back to my educational background; if you want to educate someone then you have to engage them, and if you want to engage them then you have to entertain them. It’s really a simple philosophy,” he says. “Art and culture are for everyone, not just the rich, wealthy, educated, and those who live in the great cities of Europe.”
So far Grand Experiences has exhibited in Russia, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Alaska, Bolivia, America. Peterson is quick to point out that he doesn’t “differentiate between the person sitting in Santa Cruz and the person sitting in New York. Although Peterson says his work is focused on finding the “common ties” between all people, he also says that what Grande Experiences does and THE LUME Melbourne will provide is far from common. “We’ve taken a sophisticated approach to reach out to a mass audience of very young kids through to grandparents, to those who are steeped in art and culture through to those who are new to it,” he says. “It’s not dumbing it down, it’s actually taking things to a much higher level. You’ve got to engage them differently, which takes a lot of thought, time, effort and understanding of the audience. Do you think Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t be using digital? Salvador Dalí, if he was alive today, would be doing a lot of his creative work in the digital medium and so would a lot of artists.”
THE LUME Melbourne is the latest in a long line of art spaces dedicated to sensory digital experiences, among them teamLab Borderless in Tokyo and L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris. For an art form that feels so new, it seems guaranteed a bright future. So, what is the future of immersive art? And how will it change and grow?
For Peterson, it’s about tapping into new and emerging talent, which he’s done for this new venture in Melbourne. “We’ve got a huge amount of young, creative artists working in this digital medium who at the moment don’t have too many platforms to display their work,” he says.“For the launch show at THE LUME we’ve engaged Australian artists to create contemporary pieces that loosely tie in to the theme in some way.”
For Emma Triggs, CEO of live event specialist The M Agency, who worked with Grande Experiences on “Van Gogh Alive”, the future of culture hangs on curators’ ability to tap into audience emotions. “When you talk about sensory experiences, it’s about something you can actually feel. I think there’s an opportunity for producers to amp it up, to be more innovative,” she says. “[Multisensory art shows] will evolve to make more people attend and feel more. The research we undertook for ‘Van Gogh Alive’ proved that people are desperate to try new things. They want new experiences and they want new ways to enjoy them.”