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This AR App Brings the Northern Lights and Other Natural Phenomena Into Your Living Room

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has released nine virtual experiences for audiences to explore during quarantine

Olafur Eliasson's Wunderkammer collection brings the Northern Lights, a rain cloud, the sun, flowers and other AR objects into your home. (Nora McGreevy)
smithsonianmag.com

A cloud hovers overhead and gently releases rain onto your pillow. Purple flowers sprout out of your bathroom floor. A fiery sun slowly rotates above the kitchen sink. This isn’t another vivid, pandemic-induced stress dream: It’s augmented reality art.

Olafur Eliasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist known for crafting immersive installations that toy with the human senses, has released a collection of augmented reality (AR) experiences that bring a much-needed dose of nature to quarantine, reports Hilarie M. Sheets for the Art Newspaper. Users can explore the objects, titled the Wunderkammer collection, through the Acute Art app, which features an array of virtual, mixed and augmented reality experiences.

By simply peering through their smartphone’s camera, art lovers can place virtual renderings of the Northern Lights, a rainbow and even a rare puffin. Tap on a cloud, and it will start to rain; get too close to the puffin, and it will flap its wings while offering up a slightly alarmed expression. Aside from a virtual ladybug, whose 30-day visit comes at a cost of $2, the art is free for all to appreciate and experimentat with.

Eliasson hopes that the objects provide entertainment—or solace—for those stuck inside amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now, we are spending a lot of time indoors,” says the artist in a video announcement. “So I thought, ‘Let’s make a work of art which takes the outside inside.’”

According to Designboom’s Sofia Lekka Angelopoulou, the full slate of AR objects includes a lucky stone, flowers and a solar-powered lantern run by the app’s virtual sun. Eliasson plans to release additional “ephemeral phenomena and artistic experiments” in the coming months.

“It’s so important to not forget that, once this is all over, we have to look at our environment,” Eliasson adds in the video announcement. “We have to look at what is going on with regards to the things that we care about so much. Think of this as a celebration of what is tomorrow, and where we actually are heading, more than just escapism.”

Wunderkammer isn’t the artist’s first foray into augmented reality: In 2017, he collaborated with Acute Art to produce Rainbow, which simulated a curtain of fine rain falling onto the viewer, according to a statement.

“For people who have never done this before, it will simply be a shockingly realistic rendering of things that aren’t there,” Acute Art Director Daniel Birnbaum tells the Art Newspaper. “Virtual and physical worlds are woven into each other in rather mystifying ways.”

Eliasson’s ambitious, interactive art often explores themes of environmental stewardship. Last month, he celebrated Earth Day with a participatory artwork released via Instagram, according to Daria Harper of the Guardian. And in 2018, he placed 24 chunks of rapidly melting ice outside of London’s Tate Modern as a statement on the urgent need to address climate change, reported Meilan Solly for Smithsonian magazine at the time.

In another work—Your Blind Passenger, displayed at a Tate Modern retrospective in 2019—participants walked through a 45-meter long tunnel of dense fog. Unable to see more than a few steps ahead, visitors had to trust that they wouldn’t trip as they walked through a hazy passageway illuminated by lights that changed from orange to lilac and blue.

Now, this new project brings Eliasson’s immersive artwork into users’ living rooms and kitchens.

“You can put a rainbow over your sofa or bed,” Eliasson tells the Art Newspaper. “There’s a bit of interactivity that you can play around with. … Being in a lockdown can be quite stressing and this could be a way to find the miracles within the apartment where you are.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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