In 2023 we’re already well-versed in the concept of the immersive exhibition. Massive screens enveloping our senses and enfolding us deep in the worlds of Van Gogh, 19th century French Masters, First Nations artists and more have become so common that some audiences have almost become blasé about them, and there are signs they are losing their impact.
So where does this new exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI fit in? While touted as the first major exhibition from “London-based experiential art collective” Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF), the five artworks included are indeed large, but the exhibition is certainly not as expansive as those aforementioned LUME experiences.
Nor at first glance does it have the initial impact that walking into a cavernous space covered in moving visuals can.
But there is a difference and it’s a profound one. Works of Nature is not an exhibition to drop into for a quick squiz on the way to somewhere else. It is a series of works that asks, nay demands, that you stop, stay still and take the time to drink it all in. Above all it’s asking you to breathe.
The five works on display are: Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest, Evolver, Distortions in Spacetime, The Tides Within Us and We Live in an Ocean of Air.
With an overarching view of presenting the fragility of the planet and our place in it, as just so many more atoms banging up against millions of other atoms, the works are informed by science – biology, botany and cosmology – with the data sets extrapolated from a melange of different scientific sources, including MRI and CT scans fed into various software programs to conjure up the end results.
What we get is swirling, swooping and evolving pixels – millions upon millions of them – taking us up to and inside the trunk of a massive sequoia, or watching galaxies transform as we stand on the brink of a black hole.
At the launch, viewers were informed that the works originated as VR experiences, but had been adapted for our post-COVID times when it’s all about the communal happening. I’m not so sure about that. For this viewer, by far the most mesmerising section of the exhibition is the VR corner, where for 10, 15, 20? minutes (time is elastic here) you can get completely lost in a whooping, whirling and wondrous 3D world that begins with the exhalation of a tree and tracks the flow of oxygen on its journey, with the visuals eventually morphing into a human body, plunging you down through a rib cage and into the lungs themselves.
It includes a brief voiceover from Cate Blanchett, but if you want more from her, the very start of the exhibition features a meditation space – a darkened corner with beanbags, comfy chairs and headsets, where the actor guides you through a session clearly designed to take you away from the outside world, slow you down and prepare you for what’s to come. As you listen to La Blanchett’s dulcet tones, you practically feel your breath begin to deepen and your heartbeat begin to slow. At least, I’m sure that’s the intention. And it certainly worked for this viewer.
Capillaries in bodies, capillaries in plants… in the Earthbound sections of the exhibition, it’s all about oxygen and carbon dioxide and the symbiosis of the planet’s flora and fauna, and particularly us.
In space, it’s about a voyage to harness the energy of the universe, exploring the link between ‘black holes, dying stars and the human body’. Or you could not worry about that and just enjoy the spacey visuals – the kind of imagery you’d suspect would have been extremely popular with Timothy Leary and friends in the 60s or the good citizens of Nimbin still today.
In short, if you ever wanted to know what it would feel like to be in a murmuration, this exhibition is for you.
Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature is open now and runs until 14 April 2024 at ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne. Ticketed.