Considering Immersive Art Rooms and Why We Love to Escape

Trained by Raphael in Rome, Giulio Romano (1499–1546) was invited to work in Mantua, a strategically important city-state at the time, as an architect and painter. His most memorable project was Palazzo Te, a leisure palace commissioned by Federico Gonzaga II, the local ruler, and designed and built over 10 years, from 1524 to 1534. Located just outside the city’s walls, the building is regarded as one of the most precious examples of Mannerist architecture and is still a joy to visit since it retains most of the original wall decorations. The crowning jewel of the lot is the “Fall of the Giants” room where, thanks to astounding illusionistic frescos, viewers have the feeling that the surroundings are closing in on them. The ceiling scene, featuring an animated circular composition with Roman deities looking down, is rendered in a way that makes one experience it as a continuation of the scenes on the walls which depict the massive bodies of giants one on top of the other, desperately trying to save themselves from Jupiter’s wrath. The room was designed with the purpose of offering entertainment to a high-brow public that could recognize obscure mythological themes. The tension between the desire to offer insightful experiences to a cultural elite and the desire to make environments that would jostle their senses in a playful, memorable way, has been a recurrent dynamic in the history of immersive art rooms.

Giulio Romano, “The Fall of the Giants” (nd) (detail), fresco, Palazzo Te, Mantua (image via Wikimedia Commons)

But first, what is an immersive art room? Artificial immersion has a long history and is connected to both art and architecture. The early cave paintings can be understood as the earliest immersive environments, and medieval churches are equally aimed at enclosing the public’s senses through a combination of architecture, light, and even odors. In the last 50 years, immersive art environments have been often designed so that they are scalable: For example, Ólafur Elíasson’s “Room for one colour” (1997), comprised of special lamps emitting yellow light that reduces the viewers’ spectral range to yellow and black, can be installed in any white room. The “Infinity Mirror Room” by Yayoi Kusama has been presented in many different indoor environments since its first display in New York in 1965, needing no more than mirrors and the special objects designed by the artist to be installed. The colorful, digital interactive spaces designed by teamLab, an art collective founded in 2001 in Tokyo whose team includes several hundred specialists, albeit complex from a technical perspective, can be installed in any space big enough to host them.

“To immerse yourself” means to actively limit your senses so that you can experience a different dimension, such as a virtual world or a novel. Technological devices, whether a virtual reality helmet or a book, have always been used to make humans perceive different realities. What makes immersive art rooms so unique is that their history is not only intertwined with art history but also with the changing roles that technology has played over the centuries. The popularization of the linear perspective in the early 15th century normalized images created following strict mathematical rules. It is safe to assume a knowledgeable 16th-century public knew what to expect from recently painted images in terms of virtual spatiality. Giulio Romano bent the commonly accepted perspective conventions to create surprise, wonder, and dismay. Since then, numerous other artists and architects have designed immersive rooms that take advantage of the latest discoveries in technology and human body science to provide the most compelling experience possible.

What unites all the immersive art rooms, from Elíasson’s alienating spaces to Kusama’s obsessive, mirrored environments, from teamLab’s visually pleasing installations to Giulio Romano’s rooms, is the communal sensory experience viewers share together. The immersion is most effective when there is someone else next to us seeing what we see, hearing what we hear and validating the ingenuity of the sensory tricks that make us question, perhaps for only brief moments, how reality works. The disorientation one feels after leaving these rooms is often part of the work itself. For example, in the case of Elíasson’s “Room for one colour” it is explicitly stated in its description that, “In reaction to the yellow environment, viewers momentarily perceive a bluish afterimage after leaving the space.”

The wish to immerse ourselves in temporary out-of-this-world experiences hasn’t been fulfilled only by known artists and architects over the centuries but also by magic shows, amusement parks, and other forms of entertainment that while not being usually mentioned in traditional art history accounts, nonetheless play an influential role in shaping the expectations of those hungry for sensory satisfaction and surprise. Panorama theatres, 360-degrees paintings depicting historical scenes, geographically proportional views were conceived in the late 18th century and paved the way to the modern cinema and contemporary VR headsets. And these technological innovations are direct descendants of the so-called raree show, an older optical entertainment device with which it was possible to see scenes printed on paper and colored by hand, backlit by a candle. Its popularity was mainly due to street vendors who went to village festivals and asked the public to pay a few pennies to view the images.

Peep box at a fair (top left: toy peep box) lithograph by Wilhelm Friedrich Schlotterbeck, from: Karl Thienemann’s ”Der Jahrmarkt. Sights and scenes in a colorful row ,” Esslingen (1843) (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that these devices could be easily moved from a place to another, sometimes even across oceans, developed within the public a certain way to understand visually immersive shows. Not only these were often available at relatively cheap prices, but also, they were enjoyed with the rest of the community as a shared special experience. Contemporary itinerant installations such as the Van Gogh Exhibition: The Immersive Experience and Klimt: The Immersive Experience can be transported, sold, and rented theoretically anywhere. When you access one of these, you know your senses will be fed with the same tricks and sensory stimuli that were cast over and over many other visitors around the world. To know you have been tricked in the same way is part of the joy these amusements provide.

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