The Art of VR: Reality Reimagined

VR and Taiwan
VR and Taiwan


When most people think of virtual reality (VR), they tend to be reminded instantly of movies like The Matrix or Ready Player One, or video games and extreme sport. VR as a medium has been around us for a while, and many films and novels have explored it in the past few years. But what is the connection between VR and the pandemic? How is VR evolving around the globe, particularly in Asian cultures such as Taiwan? How does VR help preserve cultural heritage? We spoke to ANU expert Gabriel Remy-Handfield to know more.


The New-Age Canvas

According to Gabriel, the pandemic years marked a significant period for the virtual reality industry. “Virtual reality started to be used even more as an artistic medium during the context of the pandemic. Because there were a lot of travel limitations and restrictions, digital and virtual art developed exponentially during this time and since then.” Gabriel further elaborates that many art institutions globally have progressively warmed up to showcasing art differently and to larger audiences by leveraging technologies such as VR. Another important factor in the growing popularity and use of VR is just how much the technology has improved in recent times, therefore making it more accessible now. Many major film festivals across the world now have dedicated space in their programs for VR. For example, in 2017, the Venice Film Festival added VR as a competition category.


Virtually Asia

For Gabriel, virtual reality is a game-changer. It is a fantastic instrument for exploring traditional cultural history, he says. With particular focus on Asia and especially Taiwan, he says “Huang Hsin-Chien, the artist I am most interested in researching, would likely agree with me. His film Bodyless is an homage to Taiwan's spiritual traditions, particularly the Ghost Festival. I believe that introducing viewers to habits and traditions with which they are unfamiliar contributed to the film's international popularity.” Gabriel does not regard virtual reality and traditional cultural legacy as being at opposite ends of the spectrum; quite the contrary. This traditional heritage is, rather, re-actualized and made more visible and accessible through VR.”

In the Asian context, digitalization has been developing rapidly for many years. “The popularity of video and computer games in Asia is nothing new, and I think it contributed significantly to the development of VR art,” explains Gabriel. In the case of Taiwan, I believe that technological industries play a significant role in the popularity of VR as an artistic mode of expression. The island is a strong leader in the production of semi-conductors. I think it is natural for artists in challenging times to find new and innovative ways to express themselves. With the help of many governmental agencies, Taiwan was always well-represented in these various international films’ festivals and many artists have won prestigious prizes. I believe that all these different elements contribute to the popularity of VR art in the Asian context and especially in Taiwan.”


Taiwan, VR and Research

So how did Taiwan, virtual reality, and Gabriel meet? His first encounter with Taiwan was in 2019, when he first visited Taipei. At the time, he was in the early stages of his doctoral research, and he was interested in post-humanism and speculative fiction.

“I was curious about how these challenges were addressed in Asia, and Japan is, of course, the first location that comes to mind when we consider these issues. However, I became engaged and quite curious about exploring this feature within the Sinophone environment. While doing research, I came upon Chi Ta-wei's novel The Membranes, Taiwan's first queer science fiction text. Despite using literature as his medium, the author challenges many of the mechanisms found in virtual reality art, including the idea of immersion, the blurring of reality and virtuality, and computer-generated environments.”

Gabrielle believes that science fiction in literature and movies explores comparable subjects pertaining to virtual reality. He decided to write his dissertation on new media artist LuYang, who continuously explores virtual worlds and the effects of digital technologies on humans.  Bodyless by Hsin-Chien sparked Gabriel’s interest in studying and exploring VR art, as the experience had a profound impression on him. Then, in early 2023, while he was based in Taipei for six months, the researcher visited the Kaoshiung Museum of Fine Arts to see the retrospective Being X: Hsin-Chien Huang's Metaverse Theatre. This retrospective was incredible, further fuelling his curiosity in the artist’s work and VR art in general.

Gabriel, who is now a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Post-Doctoral Fellow at the ANU School of History, Culture, & Language (CHL) and the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), is on a mission to develop and provide new aesthetic and philosophical information about VR art, particularly in relation to Taiwanese creations. The artists he is interested in have had extensive international exposure, and relatively few studies or analyses have been conducted on their work. One of Gabriel’s goals is to create his own monograph on the subject, which will include extensive analysis and contextualization of major artworks. From another lens, Gabriel intends to introduce more such artists to Australian and international communities and promote VR at educational institutions.

Gabriel’s current study is guided by the following questions: what new aesthetics and future perspectives can current Taiwanese post-cinematic artworks offer? What are the consequences and impacts of these technologies on viewers, and what are the new modalities of perception they enable? What new forms of narrative and artistic experiences are emerging from Taiwan's post-cinematic media art? How is spirituality portrayed and practiced? How do we place the works of these artists within the contemporary global media ecology?

Gabriel recently spoke at the ANU School of Art and Design Seminar Series, discussing and reflecting on his current research on VR and other post-cinematic media arts forms coming from Taiwan. Many artists have developed and explored VR in recent years, thanks to government and institutional funding. Many are imaginatively and experimentally repurposing this technology to create radical immersive experiences while exploring new worlds and alternative visions of the future. The technologies used allow the artists to create a visual language that imagines new ways of perception, sensation, and affect. Their artistic practice includes references from the rich and multiple spiritual traditions and cosmologies found in Buddhism and folk religions.

You can watch the recording of this event here.

We are excited to follow Gabriel on this exciting journey through virtual worlds of exploration and see how he unravels the multiple layers of creativity that the realm of Taiwanese VR have in store for the world!  

Gabriel Remy-Handfield
Gabriel Remy-Handfield