A new VR experience takes you to a museum of stolen masterpieces

The Stolen Art Gallery VR experience features five works of art that have been stolen. (image courtesy of Compass UOL)

It’s mostly dark in the stolen art gallery, with a night sky above perforated by twin skylights that passively illuminate the room. You can’t see the walls, because there are no walls. You can’t see your feet, because you don’t have feet. All you can see, apart from an orientation plaque in the middle of the gallery, is a semicircle of five paintings floating in black space. They’re not there either, of course. They were all stolen decades ago.

Reconnecting with these lost works is the premise of the Stolen Art Gallery, an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience built by Compass UOL and accessible via the MetaQuest 2 headset. Although the company boasts of being the first metaverse museum , it’s not even the first stolen virtual art gallery – but it’s certainly a refinement of previous iterations of the idea, and possibly the first that allows users to meet in metaspace while looking at stolen works of art long lost to public view.

A virtual art writer explores a twice-stolen Van Gogh via VR technology in Compass UOL’s Stolen Art Gallery. (all screenshots Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

The gallery presents the “Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence” by Caravaggio (1609), stolen from an oratory in Sicily in 1969; Rembrandt’s only seascape, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of ​​Galilee” (1633); and Édouard Manet’s “Chez Tortoni” (circa 1875) – both taken from the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 in one of the most notorious art heists in modern history. There is also the “View of Auvers-sur-Oise” by Cézanne (1879-1880), stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; finally there is the “Poppy Flowers” (1887) by Vincent van Gogh, stolen in 1977 from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, found in Kuwait a decade later, then stolen again in 2010.

“We picked five relevant masterpieces of art by famous painters that had long gone out of reach,” Compass UOL CEO Alexis Rockenbach said in an email interview. The team hopes to add more works to the gallery, along with interactive features that can take users to “increasingly realistic levels of immersive experience in a metaverse.”

Here’s what you can do in the Stolen Art Gallery: customize your avatar; navigate to a board and paste your face into it (or through!); call and reject detailed labeling information without leaning on a small wall sign; listen to the overlaid audio directly in your brain via mysterious Oculus technology, which puts you on a boat at sea or in a bustling cafe, depending on what you’re watching; use a range of handy pens to write messages in the air or temporarily smudge paint; send small streams of approval emoji out of your watch-tool and into the air (presumably to attract other gallery visitors, of which there were none during the times I visited), and use a selfie stick to take pictures.

Virtual arts writer discovers Rembrandt’s lost seascape.
Another version of the same artistic writer, on a disguised visit.

Here are some things you can’t do in the stolen art gallery: get an idea of ​​the quality of the painting on canvas; overhear hilarious exchanges between children dragged to the museum during a school outing; take photos other than selfies; take notes that exist outside of the app; and appreciate the details of the brushstroke. The VR optics are stunning, and there’s an undeniably immersive quality to all experiences in this sphere (I’ve also walked around a coral reef and danced with a robot in unrelated apps) – but it doesn’t feel like a substitute activity to seeing a work of art in person, or even looking at a high-quality printed reproduction. It’s something quirky, funny and interactive, but it’s not the same thing.

Most galleries advise against putting your face through the artwork, and you almost always have to wear stockings of some kind.

“The art design of the gallery was designed to give more prominence to the works of art than to the gallery itself, so that the environment and the lighting give attention and importance only to parts, with no other distraction points,” Rockenbach said. “To represent the images of the works, we used photographs taken in high resolution so that the experience is as realistic as possible.”

It may come down to the quality of the internet connection, so it’s possible my virtual experience was less focused than it should have been, but I wasn’t able to glean the level detail offered by an in-person encounter, or even a static high-quality image. However, the point being made in this case is that you can’t see the artwork in person, so creating an immersive VR scenario is a pretty fun way to peek at some long-lost masterpieces. Granted, it’s no more or less of a departure than any number of “immersive” exhibits that are popular right now, and take advantage of light projections and audio accompaniment – although the price of a MetaQuest 2 is more prohibitive (when it is not provided by the gallery, as in my case).

The virtual art writer experiences real existential angst.

I felt that the Stolen Art Gallery is not so much a vanguard for the museum of the future, but a showcase of ways to create dynamic shared experiences in virtual reality. And of course, this has the distinct advantage of allowing an artistic writer to attend without having to wear pants, virtual or otherwise.

About Frances White

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