Doug Aitken’s New VR Exhibition Is a Promising Leap Forward

Within an ambitious VR showcase that recently debuted at four international galleries, the California artist places both conceptual and realized works within dream-like exhibition spaces free from architectural confines.

“Open” by Doug Aitken. Image courtesy Doug Aitken; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Doug Aitken has long embraced the moving image as a way to expand notions of storytelling within fine art and ruminate on our entanglements with nature. His works, which span underwater pavilions, rage rooms, and mirrored ranch houses, remain unmatched in the uncanny spectacle they engender, primarily because they illuminate our complex relationship with technology as a force of connection and alienation. “Were living in a tremendously new landscape, and the possibility of what can be created is immense,” Aitken has said. “These tools of the moving image have a relatively short history in art, and what we can do with them is still largely unknown. We’re still innovating and finding ways to tell stories.”

His latest creation allows viewers to step inside a dematerialized world of his own design. The California artist is helping launch Vortic’s art-centric VR platform with a digital exhibition that debuted earlier this week simultaneously at 303 Gallery in New York, Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zürich, Regen Projects in L.A., Victoria Miro in London, and on Vortic’s mobile app. To experience the show, called “Open,” viewers strap on an Oculus headset and enter dream-like architectural environments set within a hyperreal world that blends the familiar and fantastical. The project, Aitken writes on Instagram, “looks to create an alternate exhibition space where the artist creates the space as opposed to working in existing architecture.” 

In one room, a circular courtyard circumscribed by concrete walls focuses on Metallic Sheep, a rotating column of intersecting polished steel discs set atop a granite boulder that reflects everything in their surroundings except the user’s body. To the side, viewers can peer through a circular window in the wall and gaze upon a vast ethereal skyscape, where a silver hot air balloon similar to his New Horizon—a semi-reflective sky-faring gondola that flew over rural Massachusetts for two weeks in 2019—floats through the air. Natural lighting conditions shift subtly with time thanks to VR algorithms, moving from deep blue afternoons to “golden hour,” a phenomenon Aitken often references in his work. 

A computer rendering of “New Horizon.” Image courtesy Doug Aitken

Other rooms feature light boxes and word sculptures, which he calls “electric haikus,” and wall-based fabric tapestries that reference lunar phases and the coded pattern of the parachute that landed the spacecraft Perseverance onto the surface of Mars. Aitken started creating the textile-based works cut from his own clothes during the pandemic lockdown, and draped them over dancers who were filmed in deserted parts of Los Angeles. He then mounted posters across the city that featured QR codes, linking viewers to film excerpts that “open[ed] the body of work and share[d] it with a wider audience,” he told the Los Angeles Times before the project launched in early 2021. “The idea was that someone could be sitting at a bus stop, log on to the QR code, and suddenly their phone or tablet would activate into this experimental film.” 

It’s hard to say whether VR exhibitions will ever become more than a novelty, but hopefully Aitken’s move away from the medium’s typical saturated video game aesthetic opens up new possibilities for experimentation within the space. “The more we explored it, the more interesting it became.” Aitken tells ARTnews. “I saw this is as an opportunity to reinvent the exhibition space, where you could do things that don’t exist in the physical world.” As far as he’s concerned, however, the physical still reigns supreme: “The digital exhibit does not replace the physical, of course,” Aitken continues, noting his initial hesitation to create using VR. “It’s almost like another tributary. We want the real, we want to see physical art, but as we’re seeing there are so many situations in which that’s not always possible.”

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