Before she was approached by her old friend and colleague, the Israeli curator Hadas Maor, to contribute to Seeing the Invisible, Sigalit Landau had no idea what augmented reality was. Landau works with sculpture and installations, often on a big scale; her best-known work involves dipping metal objects into the Dead Sea so that they become encrusted with salt.
“I’m not at all a computer type of person,” she says. “I don’t even use a computer to draw. I come from a background in dance. I use my body a good deal and my work is based in lived experience; it is very earthed. It was strange to think of doing something that would not be tangible.”
Augmented reality also involves installation, but not of physical objects. Seeing the Invisible is an exhibition of works by 13 artists that are being shown in botanic gardens in seven countries; its only Australian outing is in Melbourne, at both the Royal Botanic Gardens in the city and in Cranbourne. You see the works by using an app on your phone, following a map to find the sites. Each work can be conjured up in its designated spot in the garden. It works with GPS: there is nothing on the ground, no mechanism or visibly dedicated space, no QR code to read. You just click and boom, there it is.
Whatever it is will appear to be three-dimensional. If it is Australian artist Mel O’Callaghan’s breathing glass sphere Pneuma, which huffs rapidly while the translucent walls seem to palpitate and distort the garden “outside” the sphere, you are encouraged to enter and join in. If it is Israeli/British Ori Gersht’s Forget-Me-Not – a massive bunch of flowers – it will seem to explode in front of you, its petals cascading to the ground along with dislodged insects. A voice then arises to explain the origins of the work in a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Go close to Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Water Serpent to examine the architecture of a dried cactus branch and you will become aware of a snake entwined with it, its eyes seeming to follow you.
As for Landau’s Salt Stalagmite #1, it can be seen from anywhere in the gardens, a thin obelisk soaring above the trees. For 20 years, Landau has nursed an idea for a pair of towers on either side of the Dead Sea – one in Israel, one in Jordan – but has not been able to get the Israeli side funded. “So you could call this a sketch,” she says. “Which is also something artists do.”
Objects within an artwork’s force field remain visible alongside the apparition, which means you can take selfies. For anyone looking at the same space without a phone, however, there is nothing to see apart from a few people behaving rather oddly. Ai Weiwei’s Gilded Cage, a seven-metre structure made of steel fencing that addresses both his imprisonment and the refugee crisis, is translated into an AR version that the visitor can step inside and explore, opening doors leading between cells and looking out at the garden between the virtual bars. A passerby would see only people inexplicably walking in circles. “Exactly! And if you saw that from above,” says Hadas Maor, laughing, “you would see it as a weird performance.”
Seeing the Invisible was born of COVID-19. When Israel first went into lockdown, Tel Aviv’s Botanical Garden was one of the few permitted destinations. Maor was asked to put together a sculpture exhibition, which proved hugely popular and kept a lot of people employed; the question was what to do next. When an augmented reality show was proposed, she teamed up with Tal Michael Haring, an academic at Tel Aviv University and curator of XR-AR at the Haifa Film Festival.
For anyone looking at the same space without a phone, there is nothing to see apart from a few people behaving rather oddly.
“I’d never seen any AR before I started this,” Maor says. “So for me personally, it was a learning process. But I think now that it’s like other media came into art discourse: photography in the 19th century, video art in the ’70s. It’s a different means of creating art and of thinking theoretically, but interesting for us now when people have been relying so much on digital technology to communicate. It’s so relevant to this moment.”
From the start, they wanted to involve artists who had never used the technology, such as Landau or Ai Weiwei, as well as established digital artists such as Refik Anadol from Turkey, who uses artificial intelligence to sift and combine huge quantities of data into simulacra of the real world (Anadol’s Quantum Memories was a highlight of the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2020-21 Triennial, greeting visitors with an ever-changing and mesmerising artwork).
“We thought that if we only approached artists who had previous experience we would come up with a very specific type of exhibition,” says Maor. They wanted to see how other artists might respond to a new tool. “And to have them address the same ideas that they would have addressed through other media.”
A virtual reality production house in Denmark, Khora, was engaged to turn their ideas into digital images. There was also a set theme, albeit a broad one – “issues relating to nature, sustainability, mankind and his surroundings,” says Maor. The curators were also committed to getting people to come and see them on site. “You can’t see the works online, or at home, in contrast to other AR work. There is a request to come to the gardens. So it’s a combination of being physically present in one spot and then establishing the work digitally.”
Paris-based Mel O’Callaghan’s work is all about physicality. She is interested in how to induce altered states of consciousness with the use of stress positions, repetitive movements and, in particular, rapid deep breathing. It is a pleasurable trauma; performers, she says, can be quite addicted to it. Pneuma is related to earlier works including Respire, Respire (2018) and Centre of the Centre (2020) in which a trained performer within a glass dome would work herself into an ecstatic trance over 15 or 20 minutes, watched by an audience.
In Pneuma, visitors are invited to try a less arduous version of the experience themselves. The Danish digital engineers turned her glass dome into a virtual vortex filled with the sounds of instruments and a performer’s rapid breathing. “Just through a sympathetic response, you will start breathing with that breathing,” O’Callaghan says. “You are never going to have as intense as experience as a performer in live performances, but the idea is that you become the performer in some way. If you stick with it, you will have a sense of change, of leaving your everyday and going into an elevated place or reality, which seems to me to work with the idea of augmented reality.”
There is a lingering sense of dissonance between an exhibition structured around nature – both thematically and in its setting – and so much sci-fi trickery. On the contrary, says Refik Anadol, a self-confessed nerd and probably the artist most hooked into new technologies. “As an artist, I am in love with nature,” he says. He has around 200 million images of national parks and plants on file; the great advantage of having AI do the work is that it remembers and consults them all. “Obviously I am trying to understand reality and its boundaries,” he says. “And what is the capacity of a machine that can reconstruct it.”
But that doesn’t make the eventual work inhuman.
“I am saying: what else can we do with this technology?” Anadol says. “How can we be more creative, rather than be afraid of it, stay in the corner and wait for doomsday? Every medium I’m using I think has the potential to touch the mind and soul. For me, data is not a bunch of numbers. For me, it is a form of memory and that is where I apply my imagination. And I heard of I don’t know how many people holding their earphones and watching this AI dreaming in a botanical garden. It’s not sci-fi any more. It’s here.”
Seeing the Invisible is at the Melbourne and Cranbourne Botanic Gardens, via app, until September 30.
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