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Two current exhibitions in Frankfurt trace experiences of illusion and immersion. From a cultural-historical perspective, the Schirn Kunsthalle approaches the theme of the diorama. The Frankfurter Kunstverein presents experiments with virtual reality and asks about their effect on modes of perception. Both, equally courageous, exhibitions can be read in the context of each other; thus the diorama is not least a historical forerunner of today’s VR technologies.

“Diorama is alive,” Laurent Le Bon called out to those present during his extremely entertaining speech at the opening evening in the Schirn. The diorama is alive – this thesis of the curator is also confirmed by the current exhibition “Perception is Reality” of the Frankfurter Kunstverein, which is not 50 meters away. As different as the houses are, so different are the focal points.

While the focus in the Schirn is on the cultural history of the diorama, in the context of which contemporary works are also shown, the Frankfurter Kunstverein devotes itself to the subject of virtual reality by means of young positions. The program planning took place independently and so it is a nice coincidence that both shows seem to be directly linked to each other.

DIORAMA in the Schirn

With her overview of cultural history, Schirn initially goes back to the roots of the diorama as a medium. Originally, the term refers to an invention by Daguerre, the author of the photographic process named after him. Dioramas were semi-transparent images whose appearance changed when exposed to transmitted or incident light. The Greek word stem refers to this look-through, which was later also to characterise the slide. These dioramas could be used to create animated images through light effects, as is impressively demonstrated in a monumental example in the exhibition.

With a work from 2014, Paul Favand brings a historical canvas to life using modern digital technology. It shows Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples. In the night view the volcano erupts. Fields of application of the diorama were theatre stages, walk-in attractions and last but not least – on a smaller scale – paper theatres. Jean Paul Favand, Naguère Daguerre 1, 2012, 19th century canvas, digital light installation, 270 x 410 cm, Musée des Arts

In the further course of the development those showcases develop which most of us are probably familiar with from natural history or ethnological collections. Their aim is also to create illusions. Three-dimensional objects or preparations are placed in fictitious landscapes. In combination with painting, the result is an authentic scenery. The degree of fiction can vary. Comparatively sober examples, such as the so-called habitat diamonds, place animals in their direct living environment and thus serve to impart knowledge. Last but not least, it is an art of display that can also be understood as a reflection of the exhibition itself. Nevertheless, and the opening speeches in particular made this clear, this story still marks a blind spot in art history.

More opulent dioramas can tell whole stories. My favourite diorama is in the Karl-May-Museum in Radebeul, it shows an Indian small family in front of a scenery of riders. As a child I owned a poster of it. Reproduced by photography and printing, the picture appeared immersed in blueness and possessed a strange suggestive power. It was neither photo nor painting, but was somewhere in between. Only recently did I (again) realize that it depicted the same diorama.

Arno Gisinger’s work, which is installed in the rotunda, deals with these zones of perception, which are particularly relevant in reproduction. Black and white photographs document parts of the Tyrol panorama located in Innsbruck, while colour photographs contrast them with the viewers. The photos were taken out of the forbidden zone between the picture and the audience platform, hence the title “Faux Terrain”. What is special about the Innsbruck case is the mixed form: the painted panorama is complemented here by a dioramatic arrangement of three-dimensional artefacts. The change from 3D to 2D combined with the spatial construction optimizes the illusion experience. In the photo, however, this becomes a challenge. The image poses a challenge, creating a faux terrain, a zone that lies between sharpness and blur, real, unreal.

The exhibition, which was partly taken over by the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, explores these limits of perception. For this reason, film scenes from “Nachts im Museum” are also included. In them, the scenic dioramas come to life and present the protagonists with various challenges. The material self-reflectively deals with the fictional suggestive power of the medium and translates it into its language. The Frankfurt show locates the diorama in the prehistory of cinema and thus continues a thesis of cinema as a leading medium that has become questionable.

Perception is Reality at the Frankfurter Kunstverein

Virtual reality is not a new phenomenon. If one follows Oliver Grau, for example, it can be traced back to antiquity. Grau described an art and cultural historical tendency as a course from illusion to immersion. While modern painting, which opened windows into imagined worlds, the innovation in the 19th century consisted in the fact that viewers were increasingly drawn into the pictorial world. Such an immersion medium is represented not least by the panorama.

Various mechanical apparatuses were used in the world exhibitions to simulate experiences such as steamboat rides. The exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein questions the change in perception through VR. For me, it was the first exhibition to present a broad spectrum of artistic works of this kind. It provokes another form of art perception. While paintings, sculptures and installations can be viewed by different people at the same time, the VR experience is not only a completely autonomous one, but one that even requires help.

In the Frankfurt exhibition, assistants assist the visitors when they move in the simulated reality. VR abducts visitors into other worlds, leverages their perception of space. This becomes impressively clear in “Swing,” by Christin Marczinik and Thi Binh Minh Nguyen. Here one floats on a swing through virtual worlds. In “Plank Experience” by Toast, visitors can balance on a narrow board over a skyscraper landscape. Few sensory stimuli are enough to create the perfect illusion. Here and there it can happen that one unexpectedly tumbles out of the experience again and in an emergency is cushioned by a rubber mat, as in Marnix de Nijs’ interactive installation “Run Motherfucker Run”.

One application area of VR is found in forensic technology, for example, where crime scenes can be inspected and inspected at any time using 3D technology. In the exhibition, the work of the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office is confronted with “Patio”, a work by Thomas Demand. Demand produces his photographs according to elaborately produced models – a different way of reconstructing places or scenes of a crime, as in this case.

The exhibition curated by Franziska Nori is characterized by an intelligent combination of a generation of young media artists with established positions such as Demand, Op de Beeck and Kwade. Alicia Kwade’s conceptual work “If necessary, reality” deals with the problem of three-dimensional reproduction. The 3D print made after a stone is unfinished. The traces of its production are recognizable. They make visible, there is not simply a stone here. On the wall and in a copper capsule, the printed code and thus the data-based level of existence of the object shown is presented.