London Launches Its Biggest “Invisible” Art Show, Unreal City

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Cao Fei, ​The Eternal Wave AR_ Li Nova​_ KAWS, COM
Cao Fei, ​The Eternal Wave, 2020Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art

Beijing artist Cao Fei discusses her contribution to Unreal City, a new augmented reality exhibition which includes work from Olafur Eliasson, Bjarne Melgaard and more

This month, London will play host to its first-ever group augmented reality exhibition. The event, titled Unreal City, will see 36 virtual sculptures appear in various locations along the Thames. Invisible to the naked eye, they will only be viewable through the lens of your smartphone.

The exhibition has been produced by Acute Art and Dazed Media, and is the first of its kind in the capital. The overall goal, according to organisers, is to unify the worlds of art and technology in a way that is accessible to everyone. If you’re interested in viewing, you simply need to download the Acute Art app, and walk to selected sites dotted along the Southbank.

The show will include work from some of the world’s leading artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Bjarne Melgaard and Nina Chanel Abney, among others. Cao Fei – the acclaimed Beijing-born multimedia artist dissecting daily life in contemporary China – will be also be involved, showcasing her 2019 digital sculpture, Nova.

“I want to use augmented reality to shape emotional connections with humans,” she tells AnOther. “Augmented reality can re-enact what has happened in the past and provide an alternative to the reality that is open-ended.”

Nova, Fei explains, is about a boy “shoved into a computer by his scientist father”. After the experiment goes wrong, the boy becomes trapped inside the machine, and is forced to wander its world indefinitely. His spirit will be revived for Unreal City viewers, who will see him appear at various locations along the route. According to Fei, the boy’s ghost will be “sipping orange soda from an old-fashioned glass bottle and sitting at the 1970s dining table”.

It’s an uncanny experience which blurs the borders of the virtual and the real – and Fei partly used her own son as inspiration. “He has stopped exercising and his life lacks real social interactions,” says the artist. “What he talks about all day are games, and I’m afraid the real world does not seem to be exciting at all in his eyes, compared to the virtual world. It’s as if real-life seems to only provide the basic demands of existence, like eating, drinking, and shelter.”

Fei hopes the project – as well as the wider show – will encourage a broader understanding of reality, space and temporality. After all, the world is changing at a rapid pace. “The boundary between the virtual and the real is becoming obscure,” she says, finally. “Augmented reality is now part of reality.” 

Unreal City will run from December 8 – January 5, 2021. Find out more by downloading the Acute Art app.