Art Culture

Virtual Art Galleries: A Second-Rate Substitute or Captivating Spectacle?

The word ‘virtual’ has acquired infamous status as the harbinger of anti-climax. Matriculation? Virtual. Pub Quiz? Virtual. That super exciting internship? Virtual. However, the one event it can prefix without instant disappointment, is that of an art gallery.

Yes, it may sound like a ghastly prospect – sitting in front of your laptop in your room, alone, looking at ‘artworks’ that are often just digital photographs of the real thing. That, opposed to actually going to the exhibition, getting dressed all quirky (cue the donning of glasses with no prescription, or that overly vibrant hoodie which would look stupid anywhere else), and dragging a friend to experience the great works of [insert famous artist] in person. Now, this is risky territory: I can spend the rest of this article talking about the aura of authenticity, how digital reproductions will never live up to the real thing, and then quote art historians like John Berger and Walter Benjamin at length. But let’s not fall into this hole of academia. I wrote an essay in 4thweek too close to that. Each virtual art gallery, given the agenda of its institution, the nature of its collection, and curation of its website, is a unique experience. 

Top pick:

One of the most innovative and interesting galleries out there is Big Rat Studio. Viewers engage with the work through a gamified, first person POV set up. My favourite exhibition on offer was Descent by Ruby Blossom Streek. Enter sexual tension. The synopsis is ‘steamy and gross’, and this could not be more fitting. One enters an art gallery in the basement of some kind of rave tent (already questionable). While moving through, the viewer can hear recorded dialogue between you (your avatar) and the friend you’re with. They talk about hitting on the bar tender and such. Viewers even get the option to ‘flirt or don’t flirt’ on screen, like a choose-your-fate video game. Going into the basement, the first artwork you come across is a video of a girl kissing herself in the mirror, and kissing noises awkwardly pervade the room. Your avatar, who has been clearly out on the prowl since the beginning, says during the video, ‘I am a bit aroused now though…’ Things get even weirder as you go along. This is definitely a strange one, but worth seeing.

Verdict: it is a very creative and fun gallery, with so much potential. One aspect that can be built upon is navigation: you don’t really have much autonomy. Consistent with all Big Rat Studio’s shows, you can click on paintings to stand in front of them, but your movement limited to clicking ‘next’ and letting the pre-set narrative play out. Positively, it creates a sensory experience: it provides sight and sound, and the narrative references temperature, smell, and alludes to an existence beyond the exhibition (giving you the option to shag someone after you leave). Don’t make my mistake of viewing it with your parents, though—that was just awkward, because this one isn’t family friendly. 

For something more conventional:

On the other side of the art world is the Tate Britain. There are a few online exhibitions available here, but I think the one that epitomises their style and agenda is Walk Through British Art. Thirteen rooms split British artworks from 1540 to present day. The first page is a timeline where one can select their desired period, and after clicking into it, artworks are curated in a random salon-hang-like set up. One can scroll downwards along this grid-like arrangement, as if on the Instagram search feed, until one finds a work of interest and clicks on it. This will reveal some basic information and a well written paragraph describing the work’s origins. Simple and informative stuff.

Verdict: this is one for the heavy academics in our midst. The gallery is a cornucopia of information that has been organised in a dynamic and easy to navigate way. If you’re doing research on a given period, pop in! If not, it can get a bit dry on the facts. As Berger said, when works are digitally reproduced, what is left is simply the appearance of it, the ‘information’, and nothing else.

And one for luck:

The Broad is also one to explore. The LA based gallery has launched The Broad from Home, a page which has many sections including artist spotlights, discussion panels, and even performance art. All of this is presented using the attention-sustaining medium of short videos; not much text involved in the whole thing. While you’re at it, check out Dynasty Handbag’s, I Hate This Place. Classic freaky random performance art—sheer weirdness will make you laugh.

Verdict: It’s a very cool, highly informative webpage one can easily spend a few hours on. There is a wealth of information presented excitedly through pleasantly succinct videos. 

Art Galleries, with all its expressive possibilities and weirdness, may just be the one term that the word ‘virtual’ cannot ruin