Naked Iggy Pop And Virtual Reality Offer A New Take On An Old Genre

From Life, Royal Academy of Arts ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 14 months ago

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Naked Iggy Pop And Virtual Reality Offer A New Take On An Old Genre From Life, Royal Academy of Arts 3
The challenge of drawing the unorthodox body shape of Iggy Pop. Photo: Elena Olivo, (c) Brooklyn Museum

Amateur artists and art students form a ring around a posed nude model and draw away on their easels. Say 'art class' to most people and this is the picture they come up with, because it's been an essential part of art practice for centuries.

What new dimensions can be brought to this established genre? The Royal Academy of Arts is rising to this challenge to try and breathe ... ahem ... new life into the genre with an exhibition in two parts — firstly through physical artworks, and the second through virtual reality.

Here's a throwback to life drawing in the Royal Academy of Arts in 1808. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Let's start with the traditional art. The most poignant work here is by Jenny Saville, of a screaming newborn, umbilical cord still attached. With it's face squished up in anguish, this squirming being removed from the safety of the womb is the opposite of the poised nudes found in still life classes.

We like Cai Guo Qiang's approach of recording 1,000 youngsters drawing Michelangelo's David, possibly the most drawn artwork in the world. It captures the variability of life drawing in that each artist places their own spin on the famous sculpture. It's almost as if there's a futility to the act — what new aspect can possibly be found in an object that is so impressed into popular culture that we can all imagine it in our heads at any time?

Jonathan Yeo creates a chess board head and the sculpture of this is impressive. © Jonathan Yeo studio

There's a playful element too; Jeremy Deller asked punk rocker Iggy Pop to pose for amateur artists as they struggled to capture the craggy folds of his body. The idea sounds like a lot of fun, even if the results aren't so fascinating.

A sculpture by Gormley is based, surprise surprise, on himself. Gillian Wearing is manipulating her face to show how she might age, and Yinka Shonibare has a colourful statue referencing colonialism. It's the kind of work we've seen many times before and is largely forgettable — so much for giving us a fresh look at life drawing.

The many possible faces of Gillian Wearing as she ages herself digitally. © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

It's up to the virtual reality (VR) element to deliver, and this is where the show gets more fun. We can create a virtual painting ourselves with some intuitive controllers — not limited by real world limitations we can change our brush to create a trail of smoke or stars and it's empowering. It's something we'd like to spend hours on, but there's a queue, so on to the next one.

A second, simpler experience allows us to manipulate the architecture of a dome to change its style, height and shape. This is a bit more limiting but still enjoyable to explore, before we move into the final piece; walking through a sculpture with cherubs hovering over our heads — a little disconcerting.

Art imitates life drawing. © Liane Lang

All this experimenting with VR is eye opening but it would have been great to see what professional artists have created using these tools, so we can see what our amateurish efforts are up against.

Art hasn't fully grasped the capabilities of virtual reality but it's great to see this exhibition looking into it as it's clearly got a major part to play in the evolution of art. The two elements of the show don't link together that well and it does feel like two separate experiences with the VR element the saving grace — a rather prescient sign of what could be the future for this genre.

From Life at Royal Academy of Arts is on until 11 March 2018. Tickets are £12 for adults.

Last Updated 03 January 2018