On a torrid afternoon in June, Emma Enderby, chief curator of the Shed, and Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art, walked side by side between their respective bailiwicks on the West Side of Manhattan, plotting the configuration of their first collaborative exhibition.
They were exultant.
“No night install,” Alemani said. “No cranes. That’s the best.”
Nothing would be decided until right before the opening. “We didn’t have to think about engineering or weight loads,” Enderby said. “You can just spend a leisurely day placing them.”
The exhibition, “The Looking Glass,” which runs from Saturday through Aug. 29, is a show in which all of “them” — the sculptures on view — are virtual, existing only in augmented reality, or A.R.
Using an app developed by Acute Art, a London-based digital-art organization, a spectator can point a phone at a QR code displayed at one of the sites — the giveaway of where a virtual artwork is “hidden.” The code activates a specific sculpture to appear on the viewer’s camera screen, superimposed on the surroundings. (Unlike virtual reality, or V.R., in which a viewer wears a device, such as goggles, A.R. does not require total immersion.) Most of the virtual art will be placed on the plaza surrounding the Shed, on West 30th Street at 11th Avenue, supplemented by three locations on the nearby High Line.
Acute Art is supervised by the third curator of the exhibition, Daniel Birnbaum, who, because of the pandemic, could only be present remotely. “The Looking Glass” is an updated and expanded reprise of another Acute Art show, “Unreal City,” which opened on the South Bank of London last year and then, in the face of new lockdown precautions, resurfaced in a monthlong at-home version. A teaser, with three of “The Looking Glass” artists, was presented last month at Frieze New York at the Shed.
“There is something charming about it being secret or not completely visible,” Birnbaum said in a phone interview. “It is a totally invisible show until you start talking about it.”
If “The Looking Glass” duplicates the sensation of Pokémon Go in 2016-2017, the search will be as exciting as the find. Whereas the title of the London iteration alluded to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” in New York, the show gets its name from Lewis Carroll. “In today’s ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the phone is the new rabbit hole,” Enderby said.
Birnbaum, a respected curator who was the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for eight years before leaving to run Acute Art, enlisted the participation of 11 artists, including household names — Olafur Eliasson and KAWS — and such art-world favorites as Precious Okoyomon, winner of the 2021 Frieze Artist Award, Cao Fei, Nina Chanel Abney, Koo Jeong A and Julie Curtiss. Some of their works unfold over time and incorporate sound, while others are as unchanging as traditional sculptures.
Released from plinths, they can acquire new meaning from their unconventional contexts. Abney’s piece, “Imaginary Friend,” is a hovering, bearded Black man in high-top sneakers and banded crew socks, reading a book, with a halo around his head. “It’s a Black Jesus, I guess,” Birnbaum said. He observed that it would have a different impact if it appeared in a Washington political demonstration rather than on the High Line.
Eliasson, whose “Rainbow” in 2017 was a pioneering virtual-reality artwork, contributed a cluster of five pieces, from a series collectively titled “Wunderkammer”: a buzzing ladybug, a floating rock, a cloud, a sun and a clump of flowers that push up through the pavement.
“Very often, these digitized platforms are presented to us as if they are the opposite of reality, but I saw it as an extension of reality,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m a very analog artist, interested in the mixture of the mind and the body, and my first thought is, ‘This is taking away your body.’ It seems like escapism and open to hedonism.” On reflection, though, he concluded that since people are tethered to their phones, he would aim to reach them through the device in ways that are “sensitizing” rather than “numbifying.”
“Maybe we can get a message into the phones that the world is amazing,” he said. “In terms of what I hope to achieve, in what is left of public space — and the High Line is such a good example — there is the potential of the imaginary, the unexpected encounter, meeting someone you don’t expect to know and becoming friends. I think it’s about adding plurality and other stories onto the public space.”
Tomás Saraceno, the Argentine artist based in Berlin who worked in Eliasson’s studio early in his career, is even more determined to blend augmented reality with real life. Obsessed with ecological concerns, Saraceno is particularly enamored of spiders, and he has founded a research organization, Arachnophilia, to study them and the architecture of their webs.
For “The Looking Glass,” he created two virtual spiders. One, which will be on the plaza of the Shed, is a recreation of the spectacular Maratus speciosus, known as the Australian coastal peacock spider. The other will be at a secret location in Manhattan. If you send a photo of a real spider to the Acute Art app, the team will respond with the location of the other virtual spider, which will also be transportable to your home. “It is at the center of the whole thing,” Birnbaum said. “He likes the look of the A.R. spider, but he cares more that you pay attention to real spiders.”
For other artists, the possibilities of augmented reality permit different approaches to their longstanding artistic investigations. Curtiss, a French artist living in Brooklyn, paints and sculpts nude women. “My work is all about the gaze, and what I’m choosing to reveal and what I’m choosing to hide,” she said in a phone interview. Introduced to Birnbaum by Brian Donnelly, who is known as KAWS, Curtiss became excited by the chance to pursue this theme in a manner previously unavailable to her.
In mid-June, she was still working with the computer coders at Acute Art to develop her piece: a naked woman with long dark hair — one of the characters that she has presented in paintings — who will be placed in the environment. The model is faced away. “When you try to go around her, she will keep dodging, so you can never see her front,” Curtiss said. “And when you get too close, you go through her. That naked woman is exposed and vulnerable, but also, like a wall, she is protected. It’s playing off these opposites.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, Birnbaum suggested, the popularity of virtual representations may accelerate. “Can they ever do fashion shows again?” he said. “Will people travel? I see this as possibly another model for exhibitions. I could imagine that the A.R. and V.R. and mixed-reality thing will be part of a global and local future art world. I will be surprised if the art world doesn’t change a little after the lockdown. We may be a little bit early.”
Although Acute Art is not at this point profit-making, its financial backers, the wealthy Swedish businessman Gerard De Geer and his son Jacob, are aware of the commercial possibilities. Acute Art has already created virtual pieces for Chanel and BMW, and is exploring ways to issue works in editions. “We haven’t really monetized things,” Birnbaum said. But he allowed that the unexpected NFT craze and blockchain purchasing have generated talk among some artists about financial opportunities.
One thing seems certain: Virtual and augmented reality are still in their artistic infancy. Acute Art acts as a technological guru, providing computer coders and engineers to bring the virtual creations of artists into being. “There is a little storyboard thing written, then we do a trial version, and they will come back and say, ‘The texture is too small,’ and, ‘It should be more red,’” Birnbaum said. “They get a test app, and they can play around with it and place it.”
“My interest is to see what we can do with this technology,” he continued. “Once there was photography and everyone thought it would kill painting. Then cinema and the video camera and the internet came along. In our own time, A.R. and V.R. are the new media. There is a period before it is commercialized when one can do experimental things. We are there now.”