It’s mostly dark inside the Stolen Art Gallery, with a night sky overhead broken by two skylights that passively illuminate the space. You can’t see the walls because there are no walls. You can’t see your feet because you don’t have feet. Except for an orientation block in the center of the gallery, only a semicircle of five paintings suspended in black space can be seen. Of course they aren’t there either. They were all stolen decades ago.
Reconnecting with these lost works is the premise of Stolen Art Gallery, an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience developed by Compass UOL and accessible through the MetaQuest 2 headset. Though the company touts itself as the first Metaverse museum, it’s not even the first virtual Stolen Art Gallery – but it’s certainly an evolution of previous iterations of the idea, and perhaps the first to allow users to immerse themselves in meta-space meet while viewing stolen works of art that have long eluded the public.
The gallery presents Caravaggio’s “Birth with St. Francis and St. Laurentius” (1609), stolen from an oratory in Sicily in 1969; Rembrandt’s only seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633); and Chez Tortoni (c. 1875) by Édouard Manet – both stolen from Boston’s Gardner Museum in 1990 in one of the most notorious art thefts in modern history. There is also Cézanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise (1879-80), stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; Finally, there is Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers (1887), stolen from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo in 1977, recovered in Kuwait a decade later, and stolen again in 2010.
“We selected five relevant masterpieces by famous painters that have long been out of reach of the general public,” said Alexis Rockenbach, CEO of Compass UOL, in an email interview. The team hopes to add more works to the gallery, as well as interactive features that can take users to “ever more realistic levels of people’s immersive experience within a metaverse.”
Here’s what you can do in Stolen Art Gallery: customize your avatar; Navigate straight to a painting and poke your face in (or through!); summon and dismiss detailed annotation information without hunching over a tiny wall plaque; Hear superimposed audio streamed straight into your brain via mysterious Oculus technology, transporting you to a ship at sea or a busy coffee shop, depending on what you’re watching. Use a range of handy pens to write messages in the air or temporarily defile paintings. Send out small streams of approval emojis from your tool watch (presumably to target other gallery visitors, who weren’t around in my day) and use a selfie stick to snap photos.
Here are things you can’t do at Stolen Art Gallery: get a feel for the quality of paint on canvas; overhear hilarious exchanges between children being dragged to the museum on a school field trip; take photos other than selfies; make notes that exist outside of the app; and appreciate details of brush strokes. The visuals of VR are stunning, and all experiences in this sphere have an undeniably immersive quality (I’ve also toured a coral reef and danced with a robot in standalone apps) — but it doesn’t feel like a substitute activity for a work of art to see in person or even to view a high-quality reproduction in print. It’s quirky, fun, and interactive, but it’s not the same thing.
“The artistic conception of the gallery was designed to give greater importance to the artworks than to the gallery itself, so the setting and lighting only give focus and meaning to the pieces and no other distractions,” said Rockenbach. “To represent the images of the works, we used photos that were taken in high resolution to make the experience as realistic as possible.”
This is perhaps related to the quality of the internet connection, so it’s possible that my virtual experience was less focused than it should have been, but I wasn’t able to capture the level of detail of an in-person encounter or even a static high – quality picture. In this case, however, it is noted that you will not be able to see the artwork in person. Therefore, creating an immersive VR scenario is a pretty fun way to glimpse long-lost masterpieces. Certainly it’s no more or less a departure than a series of “immersive” exhibitions that are currently popular, making use of light projections and audio accompaniment – although the price for a MetaQuest 2 is more prohibitive (when not provided by). gallery, as it was in my case).
I felt that the Stolen Art Gallery isn’t so much a precursor to the museum of the future as a showcase for opportunities to create dynamic shared experiences in virtual reality. And of course it has the distinct advantage that an art writer can participate without having to wear pants, virtually or otherwise.