Mat Collishaw restages 1839 photography show in virtual reality

Mat Collishaw restages 1839 photography show in virtual reality

Art galleries have long specialised in transporting visitors to another world, allowing them to dive into Hockney’s swimming pool, hear the clamour of war in Picasso’s Guernica or feel the spray of the sea from a Turner scene – all within the confines of four white walls.

But a new dimension is making its way into museums and galleries across the UK, one that extends the physical space into an experimental virtual world.

From next month, Somerset House in London will open its first exhibition rendered entirely in a virtual reality space. Renowned British artist Mat Collishaw will digitally recreate the first photography exhibition, held in 1839 by William Henry Fox Talbot. Once viewers put on their VR goggles, they will be able to walk into this virtual space and view the works on the walls, as well as the glass vitrines and equipment as they would have been displayed almost 180 years ago.
William Henry Fox Talbot's first photographic negative of a window at his home in Lacock Abbey
Collishaw’s Thresholds at Somerset House will include Talbot’s first photographic negative, of a window at his home in Lacock Abbey. Photograph: Somerset House

Collishaw said he was interested in creating a virtual reality artwork “as a way to engage with this technology I believe is going to change the way we look at the world”.

“VR still feels like an unknown and that makes it really compelling,” he said. “I think it’s going to have a similar impact on art as photography did, which is why I’ve chosen this specific moment to explore through VR. That show changed how we viewed images for ever and I think VR will bring about the same kind of shift.”

As well as the CGI world inside the goggles, the exhibition will have a physical element. Visitors will be able to touch real objects and feel real sensations that correspond with what they see in the virtual world – whether it’s the warmth of a fire or the mouldings on the walls.

To prevent people from colliding into each other while wearing the goggles, other visitors will appear as “shadowy digital avatars” in the virtual space.

Collishaw’s exhibition is the second show by Somerset House based on VR. In September, it displayed Björk’s VR music videos, with headset-wearing audiences immersed in the dramatic ravines of Iceland and conceptual imagined landscapes that visually represented each song on her album Vulnicura.

Somerset House is far from alone. The British Museum first experimented with the technology in 2015, enabling viewers to step back 4,000 years into a bronze age site, while a recent exhibition at the Baltic gallery in Gateshead exploring the plight of refugees included a VR installation that took viewers on to a boat in the Mediterranean.

In February, the Home art centre in Manchester staged a VR exhibition inspired by Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy of novels, taking audiences into the world of reclusive crime writer Daniel Quinn.


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