An installation view of Jon Rafman’s “Tokyo Red Eye (Massage Chair)” (2015) at the Zabludowicz Collection in London, in 2015. CreditThierry Bal
When the world outside looks frightful, you might be tempted to put on the blinders.
The accelerating development of virtual reality technology — which lets you escape into another world through a blackout headset — is finally rumbling the art world, always more skeptical than cinema and television about new technologies. A new generation of artists is beginning to produce virtual-reality artworks — some for display in galleries, others freely accessible online — that plunge viewers into fully articulated spaces. Forget contemplative distance; say goodbye to Brechtian alienation. In these works, immersion is all.
Last year, there was surging interest in virtual reality thanks in part to two hardware innovations, one closer to “Total Recall” and the other more “MacGyver.” The first is the Oculus Rift, an immersive headset, which retails for $600, and whose 110-degree field of view and inbuilt speakers drown users in artificial environments. The other is Google Cardboard: a nifty kit that sells for $15 and that holds a smartphone in place in front of biconvex lenses. Both use gyroscopes and sensors to sync your head’s movement to the views onscreen. Where the Oculus Rift is newfangled, Google Cardboard operates on much the same principle as the 19th-century stereoscope: The lenses intertwine two images at skew angles to create an illusion of depth.
These developments have inspired some museums to imagine new presentations beyond their walls. Google has partnered with numerous museums to produce walk-throughs, and you can now stream 3-D imagery of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, BOZAR in Brussels, the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro and the Robben Island Museum in Cape Town. Other museums have produced virtual reality apps: The Renwick Gallery, an institution of the Smithsonian in Washington, recently released a virtual reality re-creation of its exhibition “Wonder,” a selfie-magnet of a sculpture show from 2015 to ’16. But smartphone resolution remains too low, and lenses too finicky, to truly recreate a museum visit. And the stationary positions of the virtual reality tours — you can move your virtual eyes, but not your virtual legs — make them feel like just the latest in a long chain of panoramic gallery views.
More interesting is the use of virtual reality inside museum exhibitions, whether as educational tools or as stand-alone artworks. The current retrospective of the French designer Pierre Chareau, at the Jewish Museum in New York, includes an impressive virtual reality component — masterminded by the architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro. It transports visitors to Mr. Chareau’s translucent Maison de Verre in Paris: Pop on the goggles, and the furniture before you in the gallery reappears in situ.
A still from Jacolby Satterwhite’s “Domestika.”CreditNew Museum
Artists themselves have embraced virtual reality as a medium in its own right. Ian Cheng, who will have an exhibition at MoMA PS1 this April, presented one of his dynamic simulations on an Oculus Rift in 2013. The technology found a larger audience at the 2015 New Museum Triennial, where Daniel Steegman Mangrané used the Oculus Rift to transport viewers to a Brazilian rain forest, whose leaves rustled and grass waved as you acted like a fool in the white cube.
The coming Whitney Biennial, beginning on March 17, will feature a virtual reality project by Jordan Wolfson, and last month the artist and designer KAWS debuted a trippy project at the New York Public Library.
Now virtual reality art is pouring out of the museum and onto your phone. Last month, the New Museum, in partnership with its new media arm, Rhizome, opened an exhibition of six newly commissioned digital artworks, to be viewed wherever you like, on an Android or iOS device, at no cost. The works in this exhibition, “First Look: Artists’ VR,” all make use of animation — far cheaper than filmed virtual reality, which requires 360-degree camera rigs — and all employ a more or less surreal vocabulary: Objects float in space, spaces collapse into one another. Unlike video games, these artworks are not responsive to users; many of them are tentative explorations of the medium’s potential rather than full-fledged achievements. Some are frankly slight, though they’re still memory hogs; you’ll have to delete lots of photos to make space on your phone’s hard drive.
The most intriguing work in “First Look” comes from Rachel Rossin, an artist who oscillates between painting and virtual reality projects. Her work “Man Mask” plops you in a hazily defined, whited-out world, derived from scenes from the video game “Call of Duty” — and she has distorted the game’s soldiers and mercenaries into translucent shades while a woman’s voice recites an EST-style mantra of “happiness, peace and cheerfulness.”
Ms. Rossin’s obscure figures and cynical voice-overs find an echo in “Transdimensional Serpent,” by the virtual reality veteran Jon Rafman, which places you amid white humanoids, satyrs and snakes in an empty space, a forest, and a ruined interior.
A still from Rachel Rossin’s “Man Mask.” CreditNew Museum
Other works are less manifold. Jayson Musson has produced a maudlin elegy for victims of state violence; you gaze at a night sky and constellations appear, labeled with names of the dead, while elevator music plays in the background. Jeremy Couillard’s project is a jokey portal to the afterlife, in which you rise from a cartoon cadaver and ascend through colorful, heavenly tubes.
rebirth_redirect Video by Jeremy Couillard
Mr. Couillard has also devised video games in the past, and many artists using virtual reality seem closer to game designers or cinematic animators than to painters or sculptors. What’s unexpected, therefore, is that so few of the virtual reality artworks I’ve seen really require its immersive capabilities. All of the projects in “First Look” can be streamed both in stereoscopic form, to be seen through the goggles, or as flat images, to be watched on your phone’s screen, and the difference is often negligible.
Some works, such as Jacolby Satterwhite’s “Domestika” — another in his many astral mock-ups featuring men in titillating positions — actually function better without goggles on, and exhibit little difference from two-dimensional video works. Though the virtual reality imagery has been rendered in a sphere, rather than a flat plane, the effect is the same, and if that’s so, must we really put a silly cardboard mask on our faces?
New technologies have promised to uproot artistic conventions many times, but rarely do the promised revolutions ever arrive. The development of the web in the early 1990s led to a boom in “net art,” which busted along with the dot-com bubble. At MoMA PS1 last summer, the excellent retrospective of the Chinese artist Cao Fei featured an offline computer running an archived copy of Second Life: a defunct alternate-universe game from the early 2000s, in which Ms. Cao constructed a surreal environment inhabited by her alter ego, China Tracy. There might be more applicability for augmented reality, which layers digital material atop the real world. Last summer, the Seattle Art Museum commissioned Tamiko Thiel to develop an augmented reality artwork viewable in the Olympic Sculpture Park, which overlaid the natural greenery with strange, ecologically worrying additions. But the crashed-and-burned Google Glass — remember when those were going to “revolutionize the art museum”? — should serve as a caution that even the less immersive augmented reality can seem too disruptive for many.
What works for video game designers may be less applicable for fine artists, for whom the creation of images is supposed to be a means to something larger, and not an end in itself. That was the great lesson of modernism: Art is more than mere illusion, and it gains further meaning by pushing media to the limits of their capabilities. Virtual reality, by contrast, is a medium without limits — a medium that tries to parallel life itself. The wonder I felt when I first put on an Oculus Rift, and lost myself in Mr. Steegman Mangrané’s rain forest or Ms. Rossin’s floating world, is undeniable. Now the challenge is to put virtual reality in the service of something more complex, for it would be a pity if wonder was all we got.