Thoughts on hosting a virtual exhibition during pandemic lockdown

From August to October 2020 I hosted an online, virtual exhibition of paintings created between 2019 and early 2020. The exhibition was originally scheduled to be held in a real gallery in Melbourne, but it was cancelled along with nearly everything else in the city because of the pandemic. Although I have been allocated the space again for a new exhibition in September 2021, I decided it was much better to present new material at that time rather than sit on 2020’s paintings for a whole year. This will be much better both for the viewers’ experience and for my own creative journey. So with an exhibition ready to go and nowhere to display it, I put it all online.

I hosted the one-room show on my website. Over 1000 people visited thanks to word of mouth and some digital advertising. So was it worthwhile and would I do a virtual exhibition again? 

To judge if it was worthwhile, firstly I need to ask, what was the purpose of having the exhibition in the first place? The primary goal of this particular exhibition was to share the positive energy and enthusiasm I have for Australian nature in a physical space – to have people immersed in it, in a similar way I become immersed in nature when am in a forest. I hoped people would share the emotions and positivity that I’d had, and bring their own memories and experiences of being in nature, which would have them leaving the space more energetic and happy than when they entered. 

I thankfully received a lot of feedback that people enjoyed the exhibition and connected with the work, and it resulted in the intended enjoyment. But it obviously didn’t have the same effect or impact as if it was held in a physical space. It was certainly worthwhile given the options available to me and I would do it again in the same circumstances, which I desperately hope won’t ever happen in my lifetime. So why didn’t it work as well as a physical exhibition?

As much effort as I put into photographing the paintings, they still come through flatter than what they are in reality. Although painted on a flat surface, the paintings are 3D objects with textures and brushstrokes that look different depending on lighting and the viewpoint one looks at them in a physical space. I haven’t worked out how to recreate this online. While technically possible, it would require 3D mapping, realistic lighting and possibly high end hardware on the user end. Large galleries haven’t even worked out how to do this so it’s not something I’m technically capable of doing or interested in understanding.  

The other drawback is there is a huge difference between entering the room on a screen with a very limited field of view and being fully immersed in art in real life. Perhaps VR headsets would help address this to a certain extent, but not many people have these and I think that’s because most people much prefer the real world to stepping into a virtual one via large headsets.

This exhibition was created for a physical space and moved online on short notice. To take advantage of the full possibilities of a virtual space, the artworks and exhibition would need to be designed with a virtual space in mind. If I was going to create an exhibition for digital, it wouldn’t be oil paintings on walls. It would involve movement, audio, interactions and things that aren’t possible in the real world. I don’t do this sort of art and it’s for other artists to explore. 

Much like techno, electro and trip-hop never took over from people playing real instruments on stage, virtual exhibitions won’t permanently take over from the real thing. However, they can offer things that aren’t present in reality and have their own place and importance in the art world.

I believe history will show for a brief period in Melbourne in 2020, the virtual world actually did take over from the real world. It was more accessible, enjoyable and safer than reality, so I am proud to have done the best I could during that time and held this exhibition. It will be one of my fondest memories of 2020.

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