A Bizarre, Tranquil World Awaits in London’s Latest VR Artstravaganza

I’ve seen some weird and wonderful content in virtual reality (VR), from twisted ethereal landscapes to horrifying monstrosities you’d not want to meet in your nightmares. VR has managed to transcend so many aspects of entertainment I’m always curious as to where creators go next, with some of the more unexpected ideas coming from the artistic community. One of the biggest advocates in the space over the last few years is Vive Arts, returning once again with an exhibition that mixes multiple mediums.

Alienarium 5

Vive Arts has reunited with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster for her solo exhibition Alienarium 5 at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park. It’s an exhibition that encompasses the artists’ 20-years of experimentation with ideas surrounding deep space, science fiction and the myriad possibilities of alien life.   

Stepping into the gallery you’re instantly presented with a bright, eye-catching Alienarium 5 neon sign, the use of neon signage a long-time favourite of Gonzalez-Foerster’s. The vibrant use of colour can be found throughout the exhibit, draped across the walls and floors; even hidden behind a selection of eyelets that fill your vision with cascading hair and a pungent, crisp perfume that I couldn’t quite place.

It was almost too easy to miss the carpet that curved around the foyer, taking inspiration from the planet Uranus with deep hues of blue gradually fading into vivid reds and yellows. In actuality, it’s a very sedate start to what’s to come, with the VR portion completing the whole ensemble.

Alienarium 5

Through the archway and into the Serpentine’s central gallery, if you’ve not been there before it’s an impressive domed ceiling encircled with lights at its centre, giving an even yet dramatic illumination to the artwork below. On the floor, was a selection of what looked like large recreations of books all carefully placed. These actually turned out to be cushions, enabling guests to sit down and take in the huge piece of artwork that encircled the space.

Partly space-themed with a giant image of the Earth dominating as you first enter, the sci-fi design becomes even more abundant with a collage of alien designs interspersed with imagery of people, all harking back to those 1950/60s glory days of space travel. It’s an impressive piece of work that you can keep coming back to spot areas you’d not noticed before. But I’m no art critic, I’m here for the VR and how Vive Arts and Gonzalez-Foerster have deployed the tech. It is worth remembering that many have not tried VR, especially a device like the Vive Pro 2 in use here, so Alienarium 5 could well be their first step into an immersive digital space.

That definitely seems to have been part of the thought process here, as there are five headsets placed on stools and I’m told to stay seated forwards. With no need to turn around and no controllers to worry about the VR portion of Alienarium 5 is a tranquil, almost meditative experience that doesn’t so much feel like you’re floating in space, more the ocean deep.

Alienarium 5

You embody an alien, a different creature for each headset. Coming in at around 9 minutes, each experience is like a visual dance, imagine a murmuration where thousands of starlings twist and churn almost magically in the sky. It’s quite captivating with both audible and visual cues drawing your attention around the space. As it turns out, during the sequence you’ll spot what looks like other unusual alien creatures which are in fact the other exhibition guests.

While I didn’t have time to try them all I did test two out, with significant differences between them. The first portrayed what seemed to be a shoal of fish flitting around my vision. Their movement random, I came away relaxed but not connected to the piece or with a desire to re-experience it. The second headset was entirely the opposite. Almost like static rain in neon blue, what set it apart was the gaze-based control, wherever I turned my head would make a tunnel through the undulating haze, altering the spatial audio to suit. A far more dynamic presentation, the time quickly disappeared as I played in the space, stepping away far more energised and appreciative of the artist’s work.

London always has some amazing art on display but if you’re looking for some a little more tech-savvy then Alienarium 5 is worth popping into. The exhibition runs until 4th September 2022.