September 6, 2022

“Seeing the Invisible” at the Royal Botanical Gardens

view of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Burlington

Cybersickness“is just one of the many impediments slowing the ascent of the Metaverse. Virtual Reality is literally nauseating to many users, bringing on something like motion sickness.

Augmented Reality, on the other hand, is meta-lite. You are not immersed. You can talk to your friends and maintain awareness of what’s going on around you, in the real world.

A very pleasant way to dip into augmented reality (AR) is to wander in the lush, sprawling, verdant oasis of the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Burlington, and check out the exhibition called Seeing the Invisible.

This is a global project; a collaboration among numerous public gardens around the world, initiated by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

You have to download an app and then begin following a path around a swath of the RBG called Hendrie Park. (How did we manage to do anything — in the before times — without smartphones?)

Once you get the app installed there are no bugs or glitches. Everything works well and it’s an uncomplicated experience. The fact that it was a cloudy day was an advantage, eliminating screen glare.

AG + BA by El Anatsui

I really liked seeing the piece by El Anatsui; a gigantic form, covered in silvery trash, floating in the breeze next to a kind of cloak or curtain woven from colorful detritus – candy wrappers! – eerily suspended in an open expanse of the garden.

Detail of art work by El Anatsui

It was a beautiful and mysterious way to begin the exhibition trek. Except for a little gentle wafting, El Anatsui’s piece was one of the least active or interactive works in the show.

Refik Anadol, on the other hand, created a churning, throbbing interpretation of the natural world based on an Artificial Intelligence algorithm. Housed in a giant frame, the pulsing day glow colours resembled a kind of digital primordial stew of becoming.

Machine Hallucinations/Nature Dreams by Refik Anadol

Speaking of nausea, this piece was a little bit too much for me, like some early video art that relied on gooey feedback loops and solarization, but I love the idea.

AI as his collaborator, Anadol re-creates shapes, patterns, and colors of nature, transforming them into a hypnotic cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction of natural imagery, morphed into an AI “stream of consciousness.”

Refik Anadol, from promotional materials for the exhibition

And many of the art works are truly interactive, like the “Biome Gateway,” by Timur Si-Qin which is cave, that the viewer can enter, and observe a parallel environment; a digital, phospherescent biotope and a place of spiritual longing.

A violent explosion and it’s slow motion aftermath is the subject of the augmented reality artwork by Ori Gersht. At first, we are gazing at a perfect, 3 dimensional, massive bouquet in the style of 17th century Dutch still life painting when — kapow! — it blows up and the fragments cascade slowly and poetically into nothingness. The tension between “creation and destruction” and “violence and beauty” is the terrain that Ori Gersht has carved out for himself.

Forget Me Not by Ori Gersht

One of my personal favourites is the piece called Directions (Zero) by Mohammed Kazem. As the viewer approaches — walking up a slight hill –there are signs posted, cautioning the public about the dangers of walking backward while looking at the AR. There is a real possibility that some enchanted viewer might topple down the incline as they endeavour to see the entire piece.

Directions (Zero) by Mohammed Kazem
Detail of Direction (Zero) by Mohammed Kazem

Inscribed on the AR are geographic coordinates in numeric form, representing all countries of the world. The artist is getting at the fact that “the course of history was changed when Persian scholar Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi discovered zero and considered it a number within the field of algebra.”

The viewer is invited to walk through the giant zero. It’s kind of a thrill.

And then there is Ai Weiwei‘s “Gilded Cage.” I pushed open the turnstyle and entered the massive structure. There was a fleeting moment of panic as I seemed to hear the bars clang shut behind me. Can I get out of here?

Gilded Cage by Ai Weiwei
Art work by Ai Weiwei

Maybe Ai Weiwei is speaking directly to his countrymen — trapped in big beautiful cities like Shanghai — where millions are still in lockdown, apparently because of their leader’s obsession with Zero Covid.

AR can carry some weighty ideas and yet there’s something light and playful about it that is appealing to all. In the shimmering portal created by Mel O’Callaghan the viewer is transported to a funhouse world, one dominated by the hypntoic breath of meditation.

“Pneuma” by Mel O’Callaghan

Exhibition viewers glitching out with “Pneuma” by Mel O’Callaghan

It all left me with a kind of “Be Here Now” vibe. Particularly as later that same day I read an article by Alan Lightman called “Life is an Accident of Space and Time.”:

Even if life existed on every planet that could support it, living matter in the universe would amount to only a few grains of sand in the Gobi Desert.

Alan Lightman, in The Atlantic

Reality, maybe slightly augmented, is more than enough for me.