You’re in orbit. Beneath you is the Earth, almost completely in darkness, and in the distance an object momentarily eclipses the sun. It comes closer – it’s a human skull – and it swallows you whole.
You spend the next few minutes skirting its cavernous interior, narrowly missing mountainous bony protrusions while sound thunders around. You lift off your headset and, like the click of a hypnotist’s fingers, you’re back in the room.
You’ve just experienced the disembodied and immersive experience of the latest virtual reality work by Australian contemporary artist Shaun Gladwell. The six-minute computer animated 360-degree work, Orbital Vanitas, is only his third completed VR work. His first, a 360-degree video titled Reverse Readymade, was purchased last year by philanthropist and collector Simon Mordant. It was followed by AR 15 Field Strip, exhibited at the Traces of War exhibition at Kings College London in October last year.
Orbital Vanitas will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on 19 January. It is the only non-North American VR work featured at the festival. Gladwell is already well known overseas for his video installation works, which have featured at shows including the 2009 Venice Biennale. The premiere at Sundance places his work at the centre of this newly emerging field of visual art, at just the right moment.
A still from Orbital Vanitas. Author provided
VR has been around for three decades – some of us may remember the misty-eyed news reports in the 1990s, showing us a glimpse into the future filled with crude geometric shapes, seen through enormous headsets cascading with looms of cable. It’s only in recent years, with the development of smartphones and massive injections of venture capital, that VR has become accessible and looks anything like reality.
VR contemporary art became a convincing proposition with works like Ian Cheng’s Entropy Wrangler Cloud at Frieze London in 2013 and filmmaker Chris Milk’s Evolution of Verse at the 2015 Sundance Festival. As a genre of art, VR remains a vast and unexplored territory.
As a still emerging art form, VR is spawning collectives of artists. In part, these bring together the wide range of skills needed to take a work from concept to (virtual) reality; but they also act as creative networks where ideas can bounce between like minds.
Gladwell is a member of an Australian collective of visual artists and filmmakers called BAD FAITH, which includes Tony Albert, Daniel Crooks, Leo Faber, Samantha Matthews, Natasha Pincus, Luci Schroder, Dr Jordan Nguyen and Amiel Courtin Wilson. Gladwell says, working as part of a network of people appealed “because we’re still exploring the medium”.
BAD FAITH refers to Jean Paul Sartre’s idea of acting inauthentically, like a bad café waiter who behaves a little too “waiteresque”. The idea resonates for Gladwell with the inauthentic “reality” of VR. “But we also liked the fact that it sounds like a 70s rock band”.
So, is the 70s rock band vibe the reason for the floating planetoid skull in Orbital Vanitas? Not quite. The human skull is a recurring motif in Gladwell’s work, and it is borrowed from a long tradition of “vanitas” in Western art history, particularly in painting.
Vanitas paintings inevitably depict the human skull as a symbol of the shortness of human life and the inevitability of death. Perhaps the best known vanitas painting is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, 1533, in Britain’s National Gallery, in which an anamorphic skull is stretched across a portrait of two wealthy gentlemen and their symbols of class and cultural refinement.
In essence, a vanitas reminds us that, whatever social status we may hold, and whatever wealth we possess, we are all food for worms in the end.
Unlike the usual screen-based films at Sundance, Orbital Vanitas will be installed in a gallery space and viewers will take turns to view the work on several individual VR headsets, which fit onto the face like a large set of goggles. One particular headset will show the work in high-definition and the viewer will sit in a kinetic chair that is programmed to move in response to their virtual motion within the work.
The remarkable thing about Gladwell’s Orbital Vanitas is the massive sense of scale that the VR medium creates. Unlike most other visual media that precedes it, VR has no frame.
We no longer look through a window into a depiction of a space, like we do in a painting, photograph, or even a 3D movie – in VR we actually feel like we’ve entered the space, and that representational window is shattered. As we float around the massive skull in Orbital Vanitas, if we look down to where we might expect to see our body, there is no body.
We can get a strange sense of disembodiment, a feeling of being a phantom, completely immersed in a space where we are absent. Then you’re flung through an eye socket, back into space and the skull drifts into the darkness. Now, what could be more 70s-rock-band than floating through space, out of your skull?