Celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović has created a virtual-reality experience that features melting polar ice caps and an avatar of the artist drowning in a glass tank. It is, in her words, a video game.
The piece, titled Rising, has been created alongside another by the acclaimed artist Anish Kapoor, in which the viewer plummets through a windy glade into gory simulacra of the human body. Both artworks, made in collaboration with Acute Art and HTC Vive, will be presented at Art Basel in Hong Kong later this month.
At a private event at the Royal Academy of Art in London, I was able to try the pieces, as well as listen to the artists discuss their work and thoughts on VR as a medium for visual art.
“I really wanted to make a video game,” said Abramović. “[It’s] very different from Anish’s work. Anish really made a work of art, and I think I made a video game, which is different. Maybe the game is about raising consciousness. Rising, in this, may have two meanings: rising water and rising consciousness [about the issues of global warming].”
In Rising the user is presented with a virtual warehouse and a glass tank filling with water. Inside the tank is an avatar of Abramović. As the artist speaks, you are whisked to the polar ice caps, crumbling in the distance. When you return to the warehouse, you are asked to make a pact with Abramović, to save the environment. Depending on what you choose, the avatar will either be saved or drown.
“The first video game I played in my life, a long time ago, you play a fire worker and you’re standing in front of an orphanage that is burning with children inside,” Abramović recalled, perhaps remembering the 1984 DOS game, Bouncing Babies. “You’re saving the children. I remember an incredible choice, saving 20 babies in my hands, doing something so important; something that makes you feel you can do something when a building is burning.
“There was this feeling when I approached [Rising]: How can I do something which approaches children specifically, because they’re the ones who play video games. How to raise consciousness in children about the planet?”
“Three-dimensional limbo spaces”
Kapoor’s piece, titled Into Yourself, Fall, also deals with virtual bodies, but from a very different perspective. The participant finds themselves in a wood, the wind begins to blow, and the earth opens up as they plummet into a fleshy pit. The artist explained that the inspiration initially came when he tried a VR demo that asked him to walk across a virtual platform, hundreds of feet up in the air. Even though he knew he was standing with feet on the ground, his body was still fooled into feeling terrified of falling.
“Vertigo is a thing that this medium does like no other,” Kapoor said. “It’s visceral and fully present as an actual bodily experience. I’m a sculptor. I make objects, and I’m interested in that body thing; bodily interiority. So, it seems obvious, but with vertigo you fall into yourself, fall inwards.”
(Into Yourself, Fall. Credit: Anish Kapoor/Acute Art)
A number of Kapoor’s previous artworks were mentioned during the discussion, including Descent into Limbo (1922), which is built from a physical hole in the ground. Other works like Descension (2015) similarly call on the sensation of standing next to a void. In working with VR, Kapoor said there is an opportunity to play with a sense of physically that is affective but illusory: “VR is quite good at ethereal, three-dimensional limbo spaces. I’m interested in that limbo condition.”
Legacy and violence
Both pieces are described by their artists as works in progress. There’s a clear admittance from Abramović and Kapoor that they are testing out the potential for virtual reality, not necessarily perfecting its use in art. Having tried both, this is definitely the case. Abramović’s work in particular misfires some of the points it’s trying to make. Seeing a virtual version of the ice caps melting is fun, not shocking, and there’s little sense of cause and effect from drowning the artist’s avatar.
Indeed, during their discussion, Kapoor admitted that when he experienced Abramović’s Rising, he was tempted to make the avatar drown: “I’m naughty. I wanted to turn global warming up. That’s the weird thing about video games, you enter a wilful relationship with the object.”
Given the centrality in Abramović’s work of her own body and persona, replacing the artist with a virtual copy does raise questions about how virtual reality could extend the ‘presence’ of an artist’s body, even after they have died. Compared to 2010’s The Artist is Present, however, where Abramović silently locked eyes with thousands of strangers, a digital avatar in a virtual tank is a pale comparison.
(Rising. Credit: Marina Abramović/Acute Art)
For Kapoor, he is interested in experimenting further with VR, particularly in how violence is manifest in virtual interactions: “Is it possible to not just speak about violence but actually make it in VR? I wonder if there are real active agencies in this medium. Why not?”
Rising and Into Yourself, Fall are notable cases of high-profile artists dabbling with virtual reality, but Abramović acknowledged that the medium has not yet been home to something truly essential. Ultimately, she compared current VR art to the early days of video art, before the work of Korean artist Nam June Paik in the 1970s and 80s:
“How we as artists are trying to use this technology reminds me so much of the early stage of video art. When video art started, no one knew what we were going to do with this medium. It was mostly used in very stupid ways. Nothing really interesting was being made until Nam June Paik came along. He took the medium and really deconstructed it.
“What we both have is too much respect for the medium, and this is our boundary. You have to trash it to create something different.”