The digital shows taking art’s superstars to the masses
Exhibitions headlined by global art superstars have drawn huge crowds across the country – but in many cases none of their actual work is on display.
Digital shows featuring Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Frida Kahlo have been held in recent years.
Visitors walk through rooms illuminated by projections of each artist’s lives and works: Van Gogh’s dazzling Starry Night, Monet’s windswept Woman with a Parasol or Kahlo’s floral iconography.
The exhibitions each attracted crowds in their hundreds of thousands.
Yet the lack of any actual paintings has led art enthusiasts to question whether the shows are just imitations of works unavailable in Australia.
Jordi Sellas, the designer behind Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon, says he never intended to sharpen or imitate Kahlo’s work.
“There is nothing that can replace you before a real painting or a real work of art,” said Sellas.
“Our goal was to create a new piece of art for the 21st century, not to reproduce something that was done 100 years ago.”
As visitors explore the dark halls of the exhibition rooms, they tour the foundational events of Kahlo’s life.
In one room, guests don a virtual reality headset to see the world as a bedridden surrealist. Next, intricate dresses are embroidered with Tehuana symbols along the perimeter, and finally, viewers are invited to sit and color pictures of Kahlo.
Sydney mum Ali Walsh visited Life of an Icon so she could spend time with her toddler Malia.
“If we take her to a gallery, it can be very difficult to keep her engaged,” she told AAP.
“But here the art is changing, there is light and shadow and color, and to be able to sit with music in the background and draw together – it’s just something we don’t get to do very much.”
Malia loved the floral projections that rippled and bloomed as she wandered over the work.
“I enjoy bringing her to things even though she’s young and stimulating her mind,” Ms Walsh said.
University of Sydney midwife Olga Boichak says much can be gained when art is remade or reinterpreted.
“Especially for a lot of younger people, these projects reinforce public interest in art, they make it Instagrammable, which is interesting,” Dr Boichak said.
Over the past decade, state capitals have displayed authentic works by all three artists.
In 2016, the Art Gallery of NSW hosted an exhibition featuring Kahlo and her revered partner Diego Rivera.
A year later, the National Gallery of Victoria staged Van Gogh and the Seasons with works from Amsterdam and Otterlo.
And in 2019, the National Gallery in Canberra held Monet: Impression Sunrise.
But associate professor of art history Donna Brett says the immersive digital exhibits are appealing in another way.
“It’s not necessarily about access to the actual jobs – it’s not uncommon for them to come to Australia – but more about whether or not people feel they have access to the institutions that host them,” she said.
“It’s about whether people feel welcome or not.”
While immersive experiences can make art more accessible to the general public, Dr. Boichak says they end up spotlighting those who are already popular, rather than emerging artists.
“There are so many Australian artists who are interested in turning their art into these interactive exhibits. But it’s a matter of popularity, and in the digital age, popularity is very unevenly distributed.”
It is unfortunate for artists from different countries whose works are not part of the classical canon, or who are emerging artists.”
But Sellas believes his exhibition can serve as a gateway to the rest of the art world.
“We’re a walk-in. Maybe you’re not interested in going to a museum to see paintings, but after seeing them, you might be.”