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Immersive art exhibitions: Art or entertainment?

It’s my first visit to Phoenix West, a former steelworks site in the western German city of Dortmund. The disused blast furnace has been renovated and transformed into a venue for immersive digital art exhibitions. I’m here to visit the Phoenix des Lumieres exhibition that opened earlier this year and will run until December 31, 2023.  

The exhibition showcases the works of two popular yet very different Viennese artists: Gustav Klimt and Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Klimt was a leading figure in the Vienna Secession movement and was known for his golden Art Nouveau works and sensual female figures. Hundertwasser was a visual artist, architect, and environmental activist known for his colorful paintings.

Large images of a person surrounded by fire and figures on the walls of a large space.
Digital art installations are becoming increasingly popularImage: Sabine Oelze/DW

A whirlwind of colors

I start with the Hundertwasser exhibition. The artist’s famous houses are displayed on the walls one after another, accompanied by atmospheric music. The buildings have colorful facades, the windows have irregular shapes, and plants adorn the rooftops. No sooner have I recognized a Hundertwasser house before a new motif appears. I’m immersed in art; engulfed in it.

An immersive exhibition is incomparable with a traditional museum visit. Instead of carefully observing a painting, my eyes wander around the room, trying to keep up with the motion. The works whiz by me and the explosion of color in all directions is magical.

The location is an integral part of the experience. The large former industrial site is spread over 3,000 square meters (32,291 square feet); the high ceilings and abundant sized rooms create a feeling of never-ending space.

Faces of women from Klimt paintings on high walls.
Gustav Klimt is one of the artists whose work is on display in the Phoenix des Lumieres exhibition in Dortmund Image: Sabine Oelze/DW

In Klimt’s world

Next, I visit the 35-minute Gustav Klimt light show. Turn-of-the-century Vienna is projected on the walls with its churches, streets, people — and Klimt’s portraits of women. From floor to ceiling, the space shimmers, glitters and sparkles.

The background music alternates between dramatic and spiritual. We follow in Klimt’s footsteps to the Austrian region of Salzkammergut near Salzburg, where he created many of his landscape paintings. Finally, Klimt’s most famous painting, “The Kiss” (1907-1908), is displayed.

This dazzling immersive art experience was designed by Culturespaces, a French company specializing in digital art installations.

Culturespaces launched the Atelier des Lumieres in Paris in 2018, and they have expanded to other cities such as Dubai, New York, Amsterdam and Seoul. In Germany, the company will open a new space in Hamburg’s port area this fall.

The company aims to feature crowd-pleasers such as Paul Cezanne’s work “The Lights of Provence,” Wassily Kandinsky’s “The Odyssey of Abstraction,” and Salvador Dali’s work “The Endless Enigma.”

I meet the Phoenix des Lumieres director Renaud Derbin, from France. He explains how it all started. “In the mid-2000s, we noticed that the number of visitors was diminishing in the castles and museums we were managing in France, because young people were losing interest in museums. So, we started coming up with digital concepts.”

Archival images of a man and woman walking together and looking at one another, framed by green artwork.
Scenes from the life of Gustav Klimt are interwoven with his artwork in the exhibition in DortmundImage: Sabine Oelze/DW

Art or entertainment

According to Derbin, Culturespaces has succeeded in attracting both traditional museum-goers, as well as new audiences. Weekends in their exhibitions are often fully booked, and according to their website, their combined exhibitions draw 4.6 million visitors per year. 

At the exhibition I attended, I noticed a mix of school groups, young people, and the elderly.

Notably, the exhibition provides little background information about the two artists. Monitors at the entrance display brief artist biographies and list their most important works. I’m not the first to ask Derbin whether Phoenix des Lumieres can be considered an art exhibition or simply just high-quality entertainment.

“This criticism has come up before,” Derbin admits. He says the company is thinking about how to provide more informational content without changing the original concept of presenting a feel-good immersive art installation.

Rainbow colored projections on high walls of a factory building in Amsterdam.
Colorful images of buildings by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi are projected on the walls in the group’s Amsterdam exhibitionImage: Sabine Oelze/DW

Dali and Gaudi in Amsterdam

Next, I travel to The Netherlands, to another Culturspaces exhibition in a 19th-century gas factory in the heart of Amsterdam. This time, the focus is on Surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

Pink Floyd music, images of disintegrating, bicycle-riding skeletons and long-legged animals flicker all over the walls. 

Here too, the large space is part of the experience. This extraordinary spectacle would never work in the confines of a museum.

The artists and background music are different in each exhibition, but the concept remains the same.

The rise of immersive art is more than just a passing trend.  Nowadays, even influential artists such as 85-year-old David Hockney are venturing into the digital art world. In Hockney’s recent exhibition “Bigger and Closer” in London, he uses digital media to celebrate 60 years of his work.

Immersive art experiences are worthwhile, and they can hopefully raise people’s curiosity and encourage them to visit the original works at the museum. But even the most spectacular immersive art cannot compete with the originals — at least not for now.

This article was translated from German.

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