NFT collectors are building their own showrooms, KAWS has taken over Fortnite, even Sotheby’s has launched a digital outpost – but which galleries are worth your time?
I’m inside Drake’s mansion. OK, so it’s not actually Drake’s mansion, but the virtual tour of “The Embassy” that the rapper launched late last year. Drake’s vast bedroom needs tidying up a bit, I think, sitting in the glow of the monitor in my office (which is what I call the part of my own bedroom that isn’t taken up with a bed and Ikea clothesrails). That’s before I realise that each object – the candles on the floor, the hoodie strewn across a couch – contains a click-through link, directing the viewer to one of several web stores.
Of course, what drakerelated.com offers isn’t a house tour, but a showroom. Everything is for sale, or a flex, like the rapper’s “Tootsie Slide” video, which features the same mansion dotted with work by buzzy blue-chip artists such as Andy Warhol, KAWS, and Takashi Murakami.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many world-renowned galleries also scrambled to offer Drake-like virtual tours of their hallowed halls, which had been emptied out due to worldwide lockdowns. Other art enthusiasts, however, took it one step further, building venues from the ground up in the metaverse, where gallery-goers could mingle as 3D avatars, and view art through their computer screens (or, for the full vertigo-inducing experience, a VR headset). But what do the galleries of the metaverse look like now, a period we’ll tentatively call post-pandemic?
Well, here’s a brief snapshot: in the browser-based platform Decentraland, I bounce around dozens of popular “galleries”, stopping off to hang out with a herd of cute little avatars from the blockchain-powered Pokémon knock-off Axie Infinity. Over the course of a couple of hours, I don’t meet a soul, and why would I? Most of the galleries are just ad space for collectable NFTs: each time you click on one of the bland, iterative artworks, you’re directed to an online marketplace such as Rarible or OpenSea. It’s Drake’s house all over again, only with a blaring techno soundtrack and garish, glitchy visuals.
That’s not to say that there are no good galleries in the metaverse, though. Below is a rundown of some of the ones that are worth your time, and what it’s like to pay them a visit in 2022.
First stop: Decentraland’s Voltaire Art District, where Sotheby’s launched its first-ever virtual gallery in late 2021. The façade is a blocky replica of the auction house’s London base. I’m greeted by a digital doorman, and instructed to press E to talk. A speech bubble pops up; it’s supposed to contain a welcoming message, but for some reason it’s just blank. Head empty. His face is a photorealistic rendition of Sotheby’s London Commissionaire, Hans Lomulder. The irony of making the doorman to your virtual gallery the same old white guy is obviously lost on Sotheby’s.
Inside, a glass door opens automatically, leading attendees through the Sotheby’s lobby to a room in the back. Another door (more on this in a moment) welcomes me into a small but ornate chapel, with large stained-glass windows on every side and a heavenly glow coming down from the roof. The focal point, this time, is Sandro Botticelli’s “Man of Sorrows” (1500-1510). Sold for more than $45 million in January 2022, the painting is the sole reason for the chapel’s construction, and in this setting it is actually quite beautiful. Is a small, digital reproduction as impressive as a Renaissance oil painting in person? Obviously not. But can most people see a real Botticelli in an atmospheric chapel anytime they like? Also no.
Back to that door, though. On leaving the chapel, newly optimistic about the state of art in the metaverse, the door clips my avatar and sends it flying through a solid wall, into a small white room that I’m definitely not supposed to access. Even worse: the door is stuck open and blocks me from phasing back through the wall, to freedom. I’m only freed from my virtual prison when another attendee comes along ten minutes later, triggering the door from the outside. I thank them. They blank me.
Verdict: The art establishment is clearly desperate to jump into the NFT space, often with cringe-inducing results. Chance on the right exhibition, though, and you might be in luck (just look out for the bugs – it’s still early days, after all).
Like many virtual venues, Musee Dezentral was inspired by the coronavirus pandemic: as Berlin’s art institutions were shuttered by nationwide lockdowns, a team of designers based in the city realised what life must be like for those who aren’t just a few U-Bahn stops away from world-class art at any given time (so goes the story on the museum’s website). Using their experience building “Berlin’s first virtual 3D club”, Rave Space, the team set about creating a home for the internet’s most exclusive artworks – which means more NFTs, obviously.
The space is reasonably impressive, though it probably owes the most, out of all these metaverse galleries, to IRL institutions such as the Louvre. Think: indoor fountains and foliage, marble columns, and a soundtrack of ambient synths and birdsong. The art? Well, it’s NFTs.
The main gallery offers your usual suspects – Bored Apes, CryptoPunks, CoolCats, and World of Women collectibles, alongside spinoff NFTs by physical artists such as Damien Hirst and Danny Cole – while a second space hosts guest curators twice a month, meaning that the quality of the crypto art is typically much higher than the random avatars you find in Decentraland. Each artwork also comes with an informative gallery label, with credit to each individual that lends their artwork (presumably, this doesn’t provide the same tax-dodging incentives as physical art. Yet).
Verdict: All you need to visit Musee Dezentral is a computer and an internet connection, hinting at ways the art world could improve accessibility via the metaverse. We’re going to need more than NFT collectibles to start the revolution, though.
SERPENTINE NORTH GALLERY, FORTNITE
Maybe it’s because Epic Games’ Unreal Engine was always developed with the fluid movement and semi-realistic physics of first-person shooter games in mind, or because the game company simply has more money than most to invest in a well-optimised and largely glitch-free world, but this recreation of Serpentine North Gallery – for the game’s first virtual gallery exhibition, KAWS’ NEW FICTION – feels more natural somehow. The attention to detail is also impressive: at one point, I attempt to jump up on his all-black “Family Figures” sculpture (in lieu of an alarm and an aggrieved gallery attendant, I’m blocked by an invisible wall) and, as my boots touch the ground, their impact on a narrow metal grille echoes off the walls.
Of course, it also helps that KAWS’ hyper-cartoonish sculptures and two-dimensional paintings translate easily into the videogame world. After the incident with KAWS’ family, I pass a few walls of paintings and arrive at “WHAT PARTY” (2020), a scaled-down version of the massive orange sculpture outside. Zooming in over my character’s shoulder, it occurs to me how similar we look, our high-definition bodies glossy under the bright gallery lights. I look up into its Xs-for-eyes, and wish it could come to life somehow.
Verdict: It’s interesting to see a more mainstream take on an art exhibition for the metaverse, and KAWS is arguably the perfect artist to usher in a new age of virtual gallery-going. Fortnite won’t stop sending me notifications now, though. How do I make it stop?
OCCUPY WHITE WALLS
In July 2020, a group of “digital smugglers” nabbed the entire art collection of London’s National Gallery and uploaded it to the virtual gallery game-slash-art-platform Occupy White Walls (OWW). There, the artwork joined a vast collection of 18th century, 19th century, and contemporary art – lifted as hi-res images from the websites of other institutions, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum – which users can install in their own galleries.
Describes as an “NFT free zone”, the game recommends iconic artworks to users via an AI algorithm, and also showcases contemporary, lesser-known artists in its impressive player hub, Piazza Dei Miracoli. The best parts, though, are the player-curated galleries, which offer unexpected pairings that you’re unlikely to come across in the real world.
One recommended gallery is solely dedicated to gardens in art, placing paintings by Hieronymous Bosch, Henri Rousseau, Van Gogh, Old Masters, and Ukiyo-e pioneers side-by-side throughout a series of lush spaces that narrate humans’ relationship with nature. Another recreates Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in partnership with the IRL institution, including works from its collection (while it’s not an exact replica, it makes for a much better experience than the point-and-click tours from other UK galleries).
Verdict: OWW’s user-led approach to art curation results in some exciting new discoveries – also a few softcore porn galleries, but you do you I guess.
THE ONLINE MUSEUM OF MULTIPLAYER ART
oMoMA (AKA the online Museum of Multiplayer Art) is yet another product of COVID, launched by the US-based “neoarcade” LikeLike in April 2020. Taking inspiration from “experimental chats, net.art, conceptual language games, and online roleplaying worlds”, the gallery is presented as a pixellated parody of pretentious contemporary art spaces.
Simple enough. However, oMoMA also showcases the unique opportunities of online galleries, versus real world art experiences. In various rooms, an attendees own words – typed in a text box and presented as floating characters over your avatar’s head – are manipulated in various ways. In the 18+ “Dark Room”, for instance, random words are replaced to create new, NSFW meanings. On the second floor, an bot named Anonymous poses as a human being. “Prove you are human,” he tells me.
Unfortunately, there’s no mistaking Anonymous for a real person now, though, because the gallery is mostly devoid of visitors (which are pretty much integral to the whole project). In fact, this is the biggest problem with most galleries in the metaverse: there’s a lot of potential for interesting cultural experiences, but – barring one-off events or high-profile exhibitions – there’s simply no one to share them with.
Verdict: More than any other online gallery, oMoMA shows off the unique potential of online art institutions. It may not have an active audience now, but could it provide a blueprint for future innovations in the metaverse?