What the Hell Is Up With Immersive Art

A couple of months ago I started to see a certain kind of ad around Boston. Posters of Banksy, Van Gogh and the like adorning seemingly every bus stop and newspaper stand. “Immersive” art experiences, digital light shows showcasing a particular artist in a cacophony of Instagram-ready wonder. From a distance these seem like kitschy, easily digestible substitutes for the real thing. For such grand names one wonders how they interpret and respect the artist. Who gives permission for all of this anyway? It seems like an all-show-no-substance cash grab for influencers and wine aunts. These ads generated so many similarly insufferable complaints in me that I had to test my assumptions and find out. I paid an excruciating $50 (forgoing, quite frugally, the VIP-seat-cushion package) and selected my time slot for The Life of Frida Kahlo.

The first thing you see when you enter the venue is a bar, a clear sign to proceed forward as well as a confirmation of my wine-mom fears. The second thing you see is a poster for another immersive art exhibit that they presumably swap out with Frida’s like a Nintendo cartridge. The actual exhibit begins past the bar, a small corridor exploring Frida’s story in a more traditional museumish manner. This educational prep is administered the same way as required safety courses before recreational adult sports. Kahlo is a difficult artist to showcase because so much of her significance connects to her personal and historical context, so this step is necessary and appreciated and I ended up craving more of it (my knowledge of Frida is Wikipedia level, I’ve never seen her work in person). After this one info hall you are led into the main exhibition room so the actual fun can begin.

The main exhibit was immersive in the way that an Imax theater is immersive. That is, overpricingly and unconvincingly. The space between the roof and the curtains was visible and fitting because it was essentially a movie projected 360 degrees and occasionally on the floor. It’s meant to be watched from the floor in socially-distant circles projected onto the ground. My eyes want to look for the ‘right’ viewing angle, but there is no real correct part to watch, and everywhere you turn you’re in the direct line of sight of somebody taking a video on their phone.

As for the actual show, some notable moments: a 3D model of Frida’s back brace proudly rotating slowly for several minutes. A famous shot of her head on a deer, wiggling side to side to show that it does indeed exist in the third dimension, wisped away by smoke effects while audio of a spinning coin plays. One question I had going in was how much was original artistic work and how much was a “remix” of it. I’d land on rearranged as a descriptor. The opportunity to reframe or recontextualize her work was missed by me, but I can also imagine any such attempt would no doubt produce choirs of outcry from purists. The 3Dification of Frida’s works were clear “original” inputs, most other animations involved pieces from her art moving or growing or finding color, lots of which I actually found pretty neat. It’s generally pretty hard to convey paintings on digital surfaces, so if her work didn't pop for you before this will do little to change that. Some of the storytelling and symbolism is pretty heavy handed (looking at the 5-minute “sickles and old factory footage” segment) partially due to the shallowness of the content in the beginning. The music represented the best and worst of the exhibition - booming overdramatic Hans Zimmer movie scores took themselves entirely too seriously while traditional-sounding Mexican guitars and vocals felt emotive and appreciative. I stayed until the video started to loop at around 45 minutes

In the work of Virgil Abloh, one of the great designers of our time, a recurring motif is the relationship between tourists and purists. Art and culture are sacred to many and this naturally brings desires to defend its perceived integrity. My compulsive need to read into every choice, every implied intention, my entire presence as a critic and lover of art begets this purist attitude. It’s debatable how well this exhibit benefits the tourist. Lower barrier to entry, informational load and required reading are great and ideally lead to a deeper appreciation of the work (a purist might say this is conditional - great “if” they lead to depth). This implies 2 ends of the framework’s spectrum, the thing itself and the runway it offers. As an isolated experience the exhibit does not demand much of the viewer, it’s fairly stimulating and well crafted enough but not worth the steep price for an hour of content. As far as runway, the experience avoids any major gaffes or misrepresentation but gives no additional insight, no real thoughts to chew on. The attendee is left glazed, satiated, and with enough residual “culture” to feign participation in it. People should be allowed to enjoy experiences purely for their aesthetic value and purely for their intellectual and cultural value. The Frida Kahlo immersive experience doesn’t really shine at either.