Contemporary Art

Surrounded by Art: Gropius Bau Embraces 50 Years of Immersive Work

By Laurie Rojas

Carsten Höller’s Light Wall, 2000/2017, features an array of light bulbs that turn on and off to a carefully calculated rhythm, creating a hallucinatory effect. Courtesy the artist and Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hovikudden. Photo: Attilio Maranzano, © Carsten Höller

It’s time to lose yourself in five decades of immersive art. An ongoing series at Berlin’s Gropius Bau reaches a new high with the exhibition Welt ohne Außen: Immersive Spaces since the 1960s, curated by artist Tino Sehgal and Thomas Oberender, the director of Berliner Festspiele. Coinciding with French artist Philippe Parreno’s monographic exhibition that opened in May, Immersive Spaces provides a means of “rethink[ing] and reshap[ing] what a museum can be and what kind of experiential space an exhibition can be,” say the curators.

Exterior view of the Gropius Bau, Photo: Christian Riis Ruggaber

Featuring more than 45 artists and groups, the show follows the Immersion series format started in 2016 – a cross between exhibition and performance – and brings together tangible works, art focused on social process, and non-art (work that lies outside of or rejects the conventional boundaries of art), showing the historical development of immersive practices over the past half century. Visitors can buy a “season ticket”, allowing them to attend more than once and experience several different events as if it were a festival.

Wolfgang Georgsdorf’s Quarter Autocomplete (Osmodrama via Smeller 2.0), 2018, is an example of the artist’s “scent compositions” that use smells to tell stories. © Wolfgang Georgsdorf

A central aim of the exhibition is to re-engage the audience with the art object. “In a museum, we usually stand facing the work as a distant observer, making a judgment and placing ourselves in relation to it as subjects,” Oberender says. “Immersion, on the other hand, means the process of direct and immediate experience.”

Dr. Thomas Oberender, director of Berliner Festspiele. © Magdalena Lepka

The exhibition explores three major themes, Oberender says, each of which have their own temporality. A more “traditional” display gathers a wide range of time-based installations, virtual-reality and 3D films. These include works from the late 1960s by Larry Bell and Doug Wheeler, two forerunners of immersive installations who were part of the loose California Light and Space movement; pieces by VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña; and Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife, 2015, a mesmerising 3D film set to the sound of Alton Ellis’ 1971 song, Black Man’s Pride.

Doug Wheeler’s Untitled, 1969/2014, is one of the artist’s “encasements”, comprising large panels made out of vacuum-formed acrylic that absorb viewers’ senses by emitting an intense white light. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York, Photo: Tim Nighswander, © 2014 Doug Wheeler

Meanwhile, the three-room Schliemann-Saal Hall will present live works that explore tensions between the staged and the situational, by artists such as Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Peter Frost and the Group Le Frau, Maria Francesca Scaroni, Xavier Le Roy and two-women-machine-show.
The third part of the exhibition looks at more recent tendencies in immersive art practice, which include direct audience participation via the artist’s workshop. Included here is an interpretation of the tea house by the artist Isabel Lewis, who will run a workshop prioritising “‘feeling’ as a bodily occurrence” rather than “‘thought’ as a distancing intellectual process”, according to the organisers. They say this section encourages audience participation in ways that “aren’t necessarily artistic”, and that “focus on locating practitioners in the wider world”.

Welt ohne Außen: Immersive Spaces since the 1960s, Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany, 8 June – 5 August

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's