Why immersive art is trending

Art is transcending traditional boundaries to become a more immersive experience. And in a confronting new exhibition in Hobart, it is being consumed in entirely new ways.

MONA's Eat the Problem is where food and art combine.
  • Kate Hennessy
  • July 2019

When our possum and hare tortellini arrives, my dining companion senses my apprehension. “I have possum gloves,” she says. “Kind of the same thing, right?” I’d been OK with the feral cat consommé I’d just tried, but eating the gamey, succulent possum takes a little more fortitude.

It’s hardly the most unusual food I’ve tried tonight though. The nine-course degustation that artist Kirsha Kaechele is serving as part of her exhibition, Eat The Problem, at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art opens in new window (MONA), also includes cane toad dressing, starfish, crickets, camel milk, brumby and a martini with an ice cube enclosing a wild boar’s eye. Everything served here is an invasive species or an animal culled on Tasmanian farms.

Not easy to tie down by definitions, this participatory art project is themed around a thought-provoking 544-page book, with recipes from Tetsuya, Peter Gilmore, Germaine Greer and art from Pablo Picasso, James Turrell and Hieronymus Bosch. “Publishers were really confused,” Kirsha says. “They were like, ‘is it an art book or a cookbook?’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s both’.”

Each gourmet dish contains an invasive animal species, such as the myna bird parfait.
Each gourmet dish contains an invasive animal species, such as the myna bird parfait.

Featuring avant-garde design and imagery, combined with recipes, interviews and essays, the book, Eat The Problem (MONA Publications), can be viewed as part of the exhibition on until 2 September 2019.

While the limited-edition book is a unique showcase of culinary art, the feasts see its pages come to life and diners become part of the art. Guests must wear a single colour head-to-toe and I’ve been assigned green. Each course is monochromatic, too, and served by wait staff undertaking a mysterious choreography on the world’s largest glockenspiel (similar to a xylophone but made of metal instead of wood), which slants up a staircase in vibrant stripes of colour. This installation, the centrepiece of the artwork, doubles as a surface on which to receive healing treatments such as reflexology – another way to open people up to what Kirsha wants to be a transformative experience.

The food is served in a theatrical way.
The exhibition incorporates music and healing experiences.

Her work is part of a growing trend in immersive, experiential and multisensory art. According to Ben Neutze, national arts and culture editor of Time Out Australia, “We’re curating and controlling how we experience culture more than ever before, so I think we’re craving experiences in which we’re a more active participant.”

While immersive art is becoming a strong selling point for major galleries in the digital age, something else is fuelling the trend, too. Last year, industry website ArtsHub rated the top 10 arts buzzwords and the most-used was “impact”. “We all wanted it and we were all searching for ways to make it,” wrote ArtsHub's visual arts editor Gina Fairley.

Impact was certainly achieved here by cooking up feral cat. Yet Kirsha and MONA chef Vince Trim maintain they’re not suggesting we eat cat en masse. “We’re simply asking the question: ‘If feral cats are on your land, should you, or could you, eat them if they’re being killed anyway?” Vince says.

Cloaked beneath the beauty of Kirsha’s work is a serious eco message. “It forces you to engage in where your food is from,” she says. “Environmental ideas are often puritanical and aesthetically uninspiring, so I had to subvert the environmentalism and make it glamorous.”

The over-arching theme of Eat the Problem is Australia's fragile environment.
This new wave of art is both interactive and impactful.

Overall, Kirsha’s work uses deeply confronting ideas to spark controversy and, from there, attempts to change how we think about food. It left me thinking about the brushtail possum who makes nightly visits to the gumtree outside my office in Sydney. It’s a tree I’ve saved against threats to cut it down. Am I both the possum’s protector and predator now?

Try these other immersive art experiences around Australia

Visit Artvo opens in new window in Melbourne. Kids will love this “trick-art” gallery, where they can photograph themselves and becomes part of the art in 11 themed zones. You can also check out Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, home to three immersive works: James Turrell’s Within without, Yayoi Kusama's The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens and Fujiko Nakaya's Foggy wake in a desert: An ecosphere.