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How immersive exhibits reveal what art was supposed to be all along

The future of visual art celebrates the mundanity of our day-to-day lives
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Old school art museums do not cater to the enjoyment of the average viewer. COURTESY OF MICK HAUPT/UNSPLASH
Old school art museums do not cater to the enjoyment of the average viewer. COURTESY OF MICK HAUPT/UNSPLASH

I like going to art galleries. A day at the gallery sounds marvellous — wandering through labyrinthine corridors of marble, Monets, and Mondrians, feeling the judgment of strangers. 

I know what you must think of me. Yes, I am an “art student.” You know the type: knitted sweater, trench coat, limited-edition New Yorker tote, passing very conspicuous judgments as you desperately try to make out the difference between a Vermeer and a Rembrandt.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the popularity of ‘immersive exhibits,’ conceived with the idea of providing a more vivid and personal experience for the viewer. In these exhibits, select pieces — very often a curation of well-known paintings — are light-projected onto walls in a gallery or convention space, where visitors are free to wander and explore.

Part of this success can be attributed to the functionality of these exhibits, as explained by UTSG museum studies professor Matthew Brower, whose research specialties include contemporary art and visual culture. Their larger-than-life projections, specifically designed to be eye-catching and camera-ready, also function as ideal backdrops for social media imagery, especially for those who desire a little more cultural cache from their everyday candids. 

In addition, interactive exhibits appeal to a much wider market beyond the mould of the typical museum-goer by focusing on a small range of easily recognizable works by famous artists. Brower believes that this could be an indication that traditional visual arts may follow the same trajectory as classical music, where works by a “narrow canon of exceptional artists” will eventually form the backbone of the art collected and curated by most museums. Galleries may place greater focus on more well-known works by artists such as Monet and van Gogh, instead of filling galleries with lone masterpieces rescued from fire and anonymity, in the same way that the repertoires of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart — as opposed to their lesser-known contemporaries — have become staple items in most orchestras around the world.

In my opinion, another advantage of immersive exhibits is that, ironically, they ask less of the viewer than a traditional gallery experience would. Established artistic institutions are often intimidating spaces, most commonly inhabited by people who have already had the opportunity and privilege to engage in the classical art world. Since traditional galleries and museums are often built specifically to house and display artwork, and are categorized methodically by time period, location, movement, or medium, there seems to be a demand that visitors already know where to go and what to see, hypnotically snobbish tours notwithstanding. If they do not, they must be willing to learn until they have somehow sufficiently proven themselves. 

Galleries are also infamously governed by strict rules — no videos, no talking, no clean drinking water — and patrolled by universally unhappy security guards, who seem to be equal parts lethargic and irate, regardless of whether they happen to work at the Louvre or the National Gallery of Art. 

All this is to say that fun is secondary. In my experience, old school art museums are not concerned with catering to the enjoyment of the average viewer. For those who are not already well-versed in traditional visual arts, this sense of exclusivity and demandingness that exists within the art community and its physical gathering spaces is likely to dissipate any interest they may have in learning more about the field, and will only serve to further drive them away.

Immersive galleries are exactly the opposite. Visitors are free to talk, walk, and sit on the floor for an hour if they so wish; photographs and videos are not only allowed, but highly encouraged; and most of all, they keep their doors open — literally and metaphorically — for all who wish to enter. 

However, I have personally taken issue with some of the sacrifices made in terms of authenticity and depth when it comes to these exhibitions. In a traditional museum setting, works are displayed with others of the same time period, style, and historical significance. It is more difficult to gain a true appreciation for the skill and artistry of a work when it is isolated from its context and displayed as a single exhibit detached from the artist’s larger body of work. The finer details of each piece are erased; the brushstrokes, the texture, and the cracks and imperfections are gone when all you have are pixels on a screen.   

What these exhibits may lack in depth, however, they make up for in approachability and style. The experiences they curate allow members of the general public — including those with very little knowledge of the pieces they are exploring — to easily take in and appreciate the beauty of the artwork around them without demanding that they understand anything more.

If a member of the public is inspired by the depth of the artwork they see, they’re in luck — non-artists are now offered the chance to become art creators. As reopenings continue and we move closer to establishing a pre-pandemic state of life, several premier institutions around the city are looking to the general public — in particular, younger generations of artists — as collaborative partners in determining the future of art in Toronto. The Royal Ontario Museum recently launched #MyPandemicStory: Youth Create Portraits of a Pandemic, a four-month-long display curated from over 2,300 submissions of visual art, poetry, music, and dance from young people across the province. The crowdsourced exhibition — a first for the museum —  incorporates a wide variety of pieces, ranging from four-year-old kids’ marker drawings to highly complex paintings from high schoolers on the themes of touch, connection, introspection, and reflection. 

Public art is also at the forefront of Toronto’s visual arts scene and may hold the key to how we experience and create art in our future. 

During a year-long program dedicated to public art between the fall of 2021 and 2022, members of the city’s creative community have had the opportunity to receive funding for independent projects in the public realm. Organizations and festivals dedicated to the arts have also become eligible for partnership grants from the City of Toronto, which provided them with funding for their projects, as well as support with production and communications. This initiative — combined with past public efforts in the city — has produced over 1,500 pieces to date that have ranged from murals, photographs, and sculptures to more unusual endeavours, including light installations such as Luminous Veil over the Prince Edward Viaduct and Nyctophilia in Mount Dennis.

I was reminded of the value of accessible art during this past summer on one of my morning runs: I encountered a young artist in a long beige t-shirt and sun-faded cap, armed with a bristle brush and a fresh can of pale blue acrylic paint, climbing a stepladder next to the electrical box on the street corner. Half the box had been painted, and they were working their way to the top. 

“I like the colours,” I told them, with what I hoped would be enough genuine enthusiasm that it could not be misconstrued as irony or contempt. “And the shapes in the background are very interesting.”

“Thank you.” 

“I like your work.”

The artist had already left when I passed by the electrical box again later that evening on my way to hastily procure some kind of olive oil or unspeakable herb at the French market which was due to close in half an hour. They had put up a sign on a thin sheet of yellow paper, stuck to the street-facing side of the box, with a neat, all-caps explanation written in a dark-bluish pen indicating that there was “WET PAINT :)” so as to ward off curious passers-by who might want to investigate the work a bit too closely.

I hadn’t actually worked on the mural — certainly in no productive way that could be seen, at the very least — but in a certain small way, it felt as if I contributed something to it. Unbeknownst to us both, my interaction with its creator could have — even subconsciously — altered their work. Perhaps they intended to use yellow, but I distracted them, so they dipped their brush in pink. Perhaps we spoke until the afternoon sun was covered by clouds, so the colours that they’d mixed appeared darker than intended. 

Art made for the public is also made by the public, taking inspiration from the comings and goings of yet another day in Toronto’s most boring neighbourhoods. This appreciation for the extraordinary mundane is distinctly postmodern — a narrative in which the story of the average person comes to represent the people itself — yet it is anything but new. The masters of the past painted the everyday life around them: Monet’s water lilies in his backyard garden; van Gogh’s faceless characters at his local cafe, immortalized in orange, yellow, and green; Rembrandt’s small-town windmill, facing the sea alone after a storm; and Vermeer’s nameless girl, perhaps a neighbour or a stranger from the market-stalls, still as enchanting as she must have been the day she wore her pearl earring and genial smile.

These works have their similarities: they are traditional masterpieces, their subjects immortalized for those who come after me to enjoy. But, more softly, they insist that we’re all active participants in visual art. Silently, latently, we always have been.