Reality and Virtual Reality, 2022.

Julian Opie writes about using virtual reality within exhibitions of his works. 


Reality and Virtual Reality. A picture on a wall and a model in your mind. Artists work between these worlds or at least, I do.

The other day I went up to my attic and was immediately surrounded by swooping bats. They can’t see with their eyes in the dark but they use rebounding sound waves to build a model of the attic in their tiny brains. They don't think about this or interpret the returning aural information, like us they just see. In their minds is a clear picture of the surrounding space full of the insects they want to eat. They see reality and fly within it with great precision and speed. Perhaps, unlike us, their model also shows what is behind their heads. Perhaps they see in colour where the colour denotes different textures. Is this what reality really looks like? Or is this a virtual world constructed in their brains from echo information? In a similar way, we think we see the real world while all the time our brains are busy turning a projected light image that falls on our retinas upside down and interpreting it to build a mental model. This requires a lot of cross referencing, filtering, and memory use. People blind from birth who regain their sight take months to learn to interpret the dancing patterns of light and create what we call reality. The rest of us learnt this trick as babies.  

Sometimes I notice particular objects and views, natural and human made, that I feel I could find a way to use. I look for existing visual languages with which to draw and, like the verbal languages we share, these allow me to speak and be understood. I draw what I have seen and these drawings then create an alternative reality, a depicted world that your brain can read using the same systems it has learnt to navigate the real world. This is what artists have been doing since the earliest times of hunter gatherers who drew animals on rock walls. I have orchestrated my paintings and sculptures in museum rooms for decades, trying to share my mental models and create a mirrored world that looks and feels as alive as reality. 

To help me make plans for upcoming shows, I started to use VR goggles, placing digital versions of my art works into models of the museums and galleries where I was scheduled to exhibit. My rather plodding brain slowly realised that I liked being in these spaces and was sometimes making excuses to go back in just for fun. I began to imagine making exhibitions that only existed in these invented spaces and could therefore be built without compromise to the laws of our usual world. When making sculpture I have to find a way to balance the work, to make it not too heavy or delicate. Works that move require electronics and tricks with lights, and I need to obey the laws of gravity. With the goggles, none of these laws applied.

My first attempts were fanciful and ultimately boring and predictable, like magic tricks or fireworks. What worked best was to keep close to the reality we know, to build normal gallery spaces and place sculptures on plinths and paintings on the wall. In this way the viewer feels they are in a familiar world and can take a small but convincing step into the virtual.

3D computer games have been around for a long time now and have influenced me greatly, but this new goggle technology seemed to offer much more. Not just a three-dimensional interactive picture but an actual alternate world that your body, your very self, could enter and experience through various sensory inputs ‑ sound, touch, and balance, as well as vision.

The world of imagination and dreams is a lonely world, seen and experienced alone. For now, my VR shows are experienced that way. This is my first VR exhibition and I feel that I am just opening a door to many other possibilities. The works I am showing are mostly reinterpretations of works I have made in normal museums and galleries, but they begin to suggest other works that could perhaps take me to new places, that could not have been invented in the world that I have always lived in.

August 5, 2022