Virtual Reality Asserts Itself as an Art Form in Its Own Right

BERLIN — As virtual reality breaks into the art world at all levels, a host of questions about curation, conservation and commercial value is still being explored.

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, New York Times

BERLIN — As virtual reality breaks into the art world at all levels, a host of questions about curation, conservation and commercial value is still being explored.

Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson said that we were only in “the Stone Age” or prehistoric period for the medium.

“There is a new space out there where a lot more people will have access to artistic experience,” he said last week in a panel discussion here at the Art Leaders Network hosted by The New York Times. He added that “the quality of the glasses is getting so much intensely better” over the three years he has been experimenting with virtual reality.

The technology is far from ubiquitous, but companies such as Samsung, Google and Microsoft are invested in its future, and some recent studies forecast rapid growth for virtual- and augmented-reality headsets in the years ahead.

For the online platform Acute Art, which went live last fall, Eliasson created the work “Rainbow,” which he described in an interview at the Art Leaders Network as “abstract and immersive” but also “very playful.”

“You can put your hand in the rain and swish the drops around,” he said. “It has been a challenge to give it an ephemeral quality, but I am very excited about the result.”

In April, Acute Art’s VR Museum introduced a subscription program to experience works by Eliasson and the performance artist Marina Abramovic while distributing the output of five other artists free of charge for nonsubscribers.

The website works with three brands of virtual-reality headsets.

Eliasson envisions a future in which people access art “on a platform like Netflix” once the necessary equipment is more widespread and the business model more developed. “Rainbow” was presented in March at the contemporary exhibition space Kunsthal Charlottenborg during the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.

If virtual reality has proved useful as an educational tool through recent initiatives such as a re-creation of Modigliani’s last Parisian studio at the Tate Modern in London, it is still asserting itself as an artistic form in its own right. A panel discussion with Sandra Nedvetskaia, partner of the virtual-reality production company Khora Contemporary, and Edward Klaris, an adviser and lawyer specializing in intellectual property, addressed some of the issues at stake.

While a painting is acquired through a single sale payment, Klaris said, virtual-reality works may demand a monetization plan more along the lines of the film industry. An artist who creates such a work “might be paid every time it is sold or distributed,” he said.

Khora Contemporary was founded, however, with the main objective of helping established and young artists translate their work into the realm of virtual reality. The company was inaugurated at last year’s Venice Biennale with commissioned works by Paul McCarthy and Christian Lemmerz.

Nedvetskaia cited a “triangular” business model involving the artist, production company and gallery. The structure varies on a “case-by-case basis.” Khora Contemporary is also in talks with film festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Down the line, Nedvetskaia envisions creating pay-per-view versions of artwork online.

She pointed to virtual reality as a new frontier for artists at a time when all other forms and genres have been explored. “There is little today which is brand new,” she said.

But the collector base is just developing. “It is too early to talk about at this point,” she said of “a very nascent market” while mentioning sales in Asia and the interest of private museums and collections.

The Salon Berlin of the Museum Frieder Burda — a private collection in Baden-Baden, Germany — is displaying its first virtual-reality component with “The Bridge,” by Ukranian artist Nikita Shalenny.

Presented in partnership with Khora Contemporary and part of the exhibition “Back to Nature?” — which runs through Aug. 18 — the work illustrates a bleak vision of the human race running and swimming through a black-and-white landscape.

The salon’s curator, Patricia Kamp, pointed to the irony that, in an exhibition exploring the alienation from nature in modern society, virtual reality represents a crucial means of harnessing younger visitors.

“When art doesn’t move people emotionally, it has no purpose,” she said. “The next generation only grows up with screens. They have a totally different point of access.”

“The Bridge” is juxtaposed with both modern and contemporary paintings in an effort to create dialogue between the different mediums. Nedvetskaia also mentioned the possibility of exhibiting virtual-reality works alongside the physical material on which they were based, such as Shalenny’s watercolors or video directed by McCarthy.

“It makes it more believable,” she said in an interview. “It gives people the confidence that it can be taken seriously as a real art form.”

As Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said during the Art Leaders Network panel “The Future of Art Museums,” contemporary art had transcended formal labels.

“There use to be these categories,” he said. “High art, fashion, commerce, you name it. Artists have demolished that.”

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