The advancement of the ‘immersive experience’: experiential exhibits make the cash register ring

Updated: 01-12-2022 – 08:52

Twice Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Christmas time, today ‘Tokyo Art City’ and soon René Magritte and crypto art: ‘immersive experiences’ are on the rise since Van Gogh in 2018. Visitors are immersed through projections and sound effects in the whole experience. Not everyone is a fan. “That Van Gogh exhibit turned my stomach.”

“Dynamic” and “colorful”: these are the first reactions of three female colleagues from the intellectual property company Kirkpatrick from La Hulpe. They are in Brussels for a team building exercise and as part of this an “immersive experience” Fantastic Brussels down on De Brouckèreplein. “Much more fun than a museum, which is much more boring,” says one of them.

In three quarters of an hour, we have just been guided through three rooms at the former hotel Metropole with a corresponding text in the headphones. A boy dressed in a red bellboy uniform shows the way with a flashlight. He must unravel the hotel’s secrets in the sound and light show and regularly performs a dance or melody on the piano en passant.

The immersive exhibition opens on Thursday in the Viage theater on Anspachlaan Tokyo Art City. According to the press release, it gives “an insight into the cultural diversity of the Japanese capital”. Since the end of October, you can go to the Horta Galleriet close to Hovedbanegården The spirit of the Nordics, an “immersive experience in a breathtaking winter landscape”. And at the beginning of November, on the same day as Fantastic Brussels, it also opened Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience in a domain belonging to the Flemish agency Nature and Forest, near the castle of Gaasbeek. It will reopen on December 16 Future Renaissanceaccording to the press release “Belgium’s first immersive NFT exhibition”, at the Dynasty Palace, around the world by crypto art.

To Fantastic Brussels settled at the Hotel Metropole is no coincidence, says Paul Licot, spokesman for Symphony of the Stones, the company from Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe behind the exhibition. “For years we thought there was no spectacle in Brussels that shows the city’s history to tourists,” says Licot. “We were looking for a place and we found it at the Hotel Metropole. Other immersive products travel the world and can take place anywhere. We do special productions, especially in Belgium, with human actors.”

The exhibition about Johnny Hallyday’s life, from 20 December at the Brussels Expo, also likes to unpack with the ‘unique’ immersive experience, while the immersive exhibition around Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in Thurn en Taxis is on its last legs.

Coincidentally, two Fridas

Earlier this year, the artist Frida Kahlo was even honored with two in Brussels immersive experiences at the same time: one in Viage on Anspachlaan and one in Horta Gallery, which is actually owned by NMBS.

MB Presents, the company from Vorst, knew that the competition would come out with Kahlo at exactly the same time Viva Frida Kahlo at Viage, not. “They both tour immersive exhibitions that already existed,” says promoter Peter Monbailleu of MB Presents. “We saw ours in Zurich, they saw theirs elsewhere. It happens all over the world. We had the rights to show her paintings, they showed new interpretations.”

The exhibition ‘Viva Frida Kahlo’ in Viage, with projections of her works

Monbailleu prefers to look ahead Tokyo Art City. According to the press release, this promises to be a “multisensory experience around Tokyo’s busiest light rail”. One thing is certain, the ticket site promises: “Once you’ve lived this experience, you’ll be able to say: Tokyo? I’ve been there!””

Not everyone agrees. “You always have to make a very clear distinction between art and entertainment,” says art historian Hans De Wolf (VUB). “Art must be protected to the highest degree. Entertainment wants to entertain as many people as possible. Art, on the other hand, makes you think about society and continues to fascinate generation after generation.”

Immersive experience De Wolf classifies them entirely under the entertainment banner, and he even calls them “anti-art operations”. “To take the example of Frida Kahlo, she is probably one of the most tormented artists of all time, who spent much of her life in hospital. As a result, she painted very small, subtle canvases. The only experience to try to understand Kahlo is to come face to face with her work. Anything else ignores the essence and is a business model for me.”

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Frida Kahlo at the Horta Gallery: no real painting to see, but ‘new interpretations’

“Creators of such exhibitions will use the art to make money. They are typically something for team building or after work, where people don’t want to think too much. That is why they are also made around the best-known names in art – Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt or Frida Kahlo – because they still attract many people.”

High prices

The prices for the ‘immersions’ are actually generally much higher than a normal museum visit and usually vary between 13 and 17 euros. The most expensive tickets to Harry Potter experience costs even 55 euros. For an additional price of an additional 2 or 3 euros, you can often take an optional virtual reality experience.

When we visited the Frida Kahlo experience at the Horta gallery for ourselves, the clerk stepped out of her cubicle to take an (unsolicited) photo of us with a very Instagrammable portrait of the Mexican. Inside we saw a lot of pictures from Kahlo’s life. With the VR glasses, we flew, in a bed, through Mexican-inspired landscapes. An experience, but very far from Kahlo’s work, because there was no real painting (or even projection) to see.

“Technology has evolved a lot,” says Mario Iacampo, creative director of the Exhibition Hub in the Ambiorix district, which brought the exhibition to the Horta Gallery. “But technological development never happens by itself. People have always had a fascination with larger than lifeexperiences where you are completely absorbed in an experience. It also explains why we still go to the cinema while we have Netflix at home. Our experiences also fulfill that need.”

Exhibition Hub, which he founded just eight years ago, currently has 25 immersive experiences is run in cities all over the world: from South Korea and Belgium to the USA, Argentina and Israel.

Art will always be the most popular immersive experience stay, Iacampo thinks. “But it is true that there is a development in the subjects. We are constantly scanning the market to see what works. We focus on subjects for the general public, therefore Monet, Van Gogh, dinosaurs or the Christmas spirit. They are subjects for people from 5 to 85. A family, a group of friends or a couple, they can all visit them. We also do market research on that.”

Art historian De Wolf went to see for himself immersive experience around Van Gogh, which was shown in Brussels in 2018-19. “My stomach turned. If there’s anything typical about Van Gogh as an artist, it’s his 3D paintings. He deliberately used millimeter-thick blobs of paint. If you project it digitally, it’s no longer visible. That’s how you destroys one of the most essential features of that art.”

“The very idea that you could replace a visit to Tokyo with an ‘immersive experience’ is meaningless. When you visit a new city, the basic principles are curiosity and chance, that you stroll around and have unique experiences in the process. With these ‘experiences’ you reduce a city or an artist to a fleeting consumer product, almost like a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

There is one important nuance for De Wolf: “It has nothing to do with the medium itself. The technology is also used by artists themselves. Laurie Anderson, for example, whose VR installation is currently on display at Bozar, is a monument whose work already questioned the electronization of culture in the 1990s.”

The immersive exhibition

© Sara De Sloover/BRUZZ

| The immersive exhibition ‘Fantastic Brussels’ in the Hotel Metropole aims to immerse the visitor in the recent history of Brussels

Snowballs and bubblegum bubbles

in the meantime The spirit of the Nordics the fourth virtual experience that the Exhibition Hub has set up in the Horta Gallery. “Compared to the other exhibits, it’s more interactive and more fun-centric,” says Iacampo. “Visitors can aim at a target with snowballs, and when they hit it, part of the environment changes.” That interactivity is the latest trend within immersive experiencesit turns out.

Exhibition Hub starts in Milan at the end of December Bubble world: according to Iacampo “an interactive, selfie-driven experience”. “In a three hundred square meter ball pit, visitors will be able to step into a giant’s bath to take pictures.”

And then there’s what he did phygital cream where physical and digital elements are combined. “You get a real pump in your hands, and at the same time the Mona Lisa is shown on a TV screen. As you pump more, Mona Lisa blows an ever-larger bubble of gum until it explodes in her face.”

After The spirit of the Nordics the native Canadian already has another immersive exhibition in the pipeline for the Horta Gallery: around René Magritte, not in collaboration with any of the existing museums in Brussels.

“Museums are curators of original art, there will always be room for them. But we do something completely different. That’s why Exhibition Hub’s slogan is edu entertainment.”

‘Attracts new audiences to the museum’

“For me these are immersive experiences complements a real museum visit,” confirms Jérôme Bruyère, spokesperson for the Brussels Museums Council. “The difference is that they don’t show real works of art, it has the function of pure entertainment.”

“But museums learn from such installations. The immersive videos and virtual exhibitions on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts a few years ago were a success and complement the rest of the exhibition. They are a perfect opportunity for selfies and to attract an audience that would otherwise not come to the museum.”

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Image from ‘Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience’ in the Beursgebouw (2018-2019)

“Museums are open to this, but creating these digital experiences has a cost,” says Bruyère. “And while commercial immersive exhibitions often move from one city to another, this is not possible for a museum with a specific collection. In addition, the museums should also focus on the real works of art in their possession.”

At the same time, immersive exhibitions continue to be added. “People no longer want to ‘just watch’, they want to experience something,” says Peter Monbailleu of MB Presents. “The children love it too, and you can enjoy a moment together as a family. Especially since the pandemic, people have been looking for it.”

The visitor numbers also prove this: 50,000 for the Kahlo fair in Viage, 75,000 for the one in the Horta gallery. The Klimt exhibition in the same gallery previously had 140,000 visitors. These numbers can be compared with top exhibitions at Bozar, but with special, original works by, for example, Michaël Borremans (130,000) or David Hockney (165,000). “I cannot predict how many more new ones immersive experiences some will appear,” says Monbailleu. “But one thing is certain: As long as people get to it, new ones will follow.”

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