At one of the biggest gallery openings in weeks, there was no wine, no conversation, and no one else. Hauser & Wirth's first Virtual Reality (VR) exhibition, Beyond Itself, presented in a simulacrum of the gallery's forthcoming space in Menorca, Spain, went live on Thursday 30 April.
ArtLab, Hauser & Wirth Menorca exterior view created in HWVR. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Developed by ArtLab, the gallery's technology and research division, the exhibition of text-based works by 14 artists can be viewed on any internet-connected device, but it's at its most immersive using a VR headset. I entered by sliding my phone into Google Cardboard and staring down at an azure sky. When I inverted the screen and tried again, I found myself in a courtyard outside the gallery with the midday sun shining brightly above me. The weather is often good in VR.
On the exterior of the gallery, wall-sized text in ultramarine capitals reads 'BESIDE ITSELF', a 1970 work by Lawrence Weiner that also gives the exhibition its name. The title suggests the act of making art—the creation of something other than the thing it purports be—but it's especially fitting in VR, where the artworks that represent an artist's thought, feeling, or observation are themselves represented by digital assets.
ArtLab, in software installation view of Ellen Gallagher's DeLuxe (2004–2005) and Mark Bradford's Chicago (2019) created in HWVR. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. © the artists. Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth.
Beyond Itself inhabits two of the eight galleries that will make up Hauser & Wirth Menorca when it opens in 2021. Most of the works are found in a single, long warehouse whose walls and exposed ceiling are painted white. The space is divided into three sections by two temporary walls, the first of which holds Glenn Ligon's silkscreen on canvas, Come Out #16 (2015) and Ellen Gallagher's, DeLuxe (2004–2005), while the second holds Roni Horn's powdered pigment purple squiggle, Yet 7 (2017– 2018), and Mike Kelley's huge green pickle, Pond Gift (1987).
Navigating the exhibition is achieved by aiming a small white box in the centre of the headset's viewfinder, which acts as a cursor. Looking at white targets distributed on the floor of the exhibition teleports you from one to the next. The positioning of these viewpoints lets you, for instance, see the full 5 by 12 grid of 60 mixed media works in Gallagher's DeLuxe, and then jump closer to see some of the works in more detail. (Other VR galleries allow you to move freely in the space using keyboard controls familiar to anyone who's played a first person shooter. This feels truer to the way I look at art: approaching, strafing, and retreating.)
Charles Gaines, Librettos: Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael, Set 5 (2015); Mark Bradford, New York City (2019) and Chicago (2019) (left to right). Exhibition view: Beside Itself, Hauser & Wirth Menorca, created in HWVR (30 April–ongoing). © the artists. Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth.
Moving from viewpoint to viewpoint gives a good sense of the size of the works, several of which are over three metres wide and two metres tall. They never get you close enough, though, to understand the interactions of their materials, or how they were made—a problem that's exacerbated by the pixilation that can occur in VR. The phone I used yielded a resolution per eye of just 667 x 375 pixels, making the VR exhibition at best a complementary tool to high resolution images. (For reference, an iPhone 11 has a resolution per eye of 896 x 414, whereas the 2019 Oculus Quest, a dedicated VR headset, has a resolution of 1,440 x 1,600 per eye.)
At its most immersive, VR has a way of hijacking your brain, stripping it of all guile, and transporting it to an alternate reality. Because the VR art galleries I've seen to date fall just shy of that, the space itself becomes conspicuously an artwork, competing with the artists' creations for critical attention. Shafts of light fall from skylights, painting brilliant squares on the floors. The artwork looks amazing, but then so does the armchair with the colourful throw—a Max Bill cashmere blanket, available from the gift shop for USD 1,500.
Luchita Hurtado, Face for Arcimboldo (1973). Exhibition view: Beside Itself, Hauser & Wirth Menorca, created in HWVR (30 April–ongoing). © Luchita Hurtado. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
There are a few moments when the verisimilitude of the VR space is wonderfully integral to understanding the works. You get, for instance, some sense of the luminance of Paul McCarthy's Hollywood Sign, inverted (small) (2011–2012) from a reflection on the polished concrete. And discovering Roni Horn's plastic and aluminium sculptures Kafka's Complaints (1992) on the floor is strangely thrilling. Put another way, in VR, the Louise Bourgeois painting Le Coeur Est Là (2008) inside cannot compete with her giant 3D spider sculpture outside, looming at the top of a rise, behind a cobblestone wall and wildflowers.
With so many galleries still closed due to Covid-19, it makes sense that they would use VR to approximate the experience of being there. However, when VR is again optional instead of existential, I suspect there's much more that could be done with the medium, which lends itself to sculptures and installations so much better than 2D works. There's even the potential, for example, to show works that don't yet exist, encouraging collectors to commission entirely new works.—[O]