When King George III founded London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, he probably couldn’t imagine that one day students of his school would be drawing in an entirely virtual world, connected to reality via a bizarre helmet and some odd black ropes.
But fast forward to 2017, and he would have found just that. Inside one of the school’s staid galleries, a green-screen booth obscures the view of The Leaping Horse, a masterpiece by the famed landscape painter John Constable. A work by the 19th century Scottish painter David Wilkie is punctuated by a 3D-printed sinuous sculpture.
It’s an apt juxtaposition, according to Mark Hampson, the head of fine art processes at the Royal Academy. “It’s slightly irreverent,” he says. “In many ways that fits our description of the school–the contemporary informed by the historic.”
Hampson is the curator of a new exhibition called Virtually Real, for which HTC Vive commissioned three immersive worlds and three physical sculptures from Royal Academy students and recent graduates–providing them with full virtual reality headsets and all the tools they needed to create art in VR.
Three artists, Jessy Jetpacks, Adham Faramawy, and Elliot Dodd, each spent 10 months experimenting with HTC’s hardware and VR software like Kodon and Tilt Brush. At the resulting exhibition, which opened on January 12, visitors can view the artists’ final pieces in the gallery spaces, as well as explore and even make additions to their VR worlds using a headset.
The opportunity to work with VR is a historic first for the school, and Hampson believes a first for any art school in the U.K. Still–true to his background as a physical artist–Hampson is more excited about the physical sculptures than the immersive elements of the installation, because they’re truly manifestations of their makers’ virtual worlds, 3D printed and then hand-finished from there. “Something physical, actual, has come out of the technology in a way that’s never been done before,” he says.
For instance, Faramawy’s piece looks like a mutant Henry Moore sculpture, a boulder conjured from cyberspace, printed out, and sanded down by hand, with a flatscreen TV jutting out of it. Dodd’s is a physical reconstruction of the main protagonist in the artist’s digital world; it looks like a grotesque cartoon with big frog-like eyes. Echoing the fossils of prehistoric insects, Jetpacks modeled two futuristic trilobites, which look like creatures that are either truly ancient, or have yet to walk the Earth. All three sculptures play with the surreal edge between physical and virtual reality, between history and future.
Including both physical and virtual art objects within the same gallery space is disjointed compared to conventional exhibitions, but Hampson believes that within the next 5 to 10 years we’ll be seeing much more streamlined virtual exhibitions where the virtual coexists with the real in the physical world, no headset needed. Even in the 10 months since the artists began using HTC’s equipment, the technology has changed considerably–on the request of the artists, the company made specific improvements to tech’s capabilities, enabling them to do things they’re used to doing while sculpting in the physical world, like joining two objects together or collaging images.
If–or when–Hampson’s vision for VR’s future in the art world comes to pass, he believes art museums and galleries will jump on the trend, especially because it’ll be less expensive than a more traditional physical show; once you have the equipment, you no longer need to pay as much for costly shipping and installation expenses. It’s easy to imagine VR, like so many other new technologies, will be hotly debated among artists: Some will be naysayers who claim art must be rooted somehow in the physical, while others will eagerly experiment. Ultimately, VR will become just another tool in the artist’s kit, a technology that will help them alter our perspective on the world on a fundamental level.
“In a way it’s almost making surrealism real, the idea that in walking through a landscape, you could visualize Dali’s melting watches or some other surreal intervention,” Hampson says. “I’m tempted to think it will alter perception.”