Therme Art Program


In the past decade, image- and video-centred social media platforms (most prominently Instagram) have shifted the relationship between people and art. People’s experiences in museums are no longer private, but rather can be posted online and shared with all their followers. 

As documenting the viewer’s experience with the work becomes an essential part of visiting a museum, institutions are becoming incentivised to invest in large-scale, immersive environments. These spaces often take up entire rooms, and will receive crowds of people waiting for their timed entry, with many of them posting about it on social media, ultimately furthering the popularity of the work as it reaches a wider audience. Yet the rising popularity of these spaces also brings along imitators, interested in the success of experiential artworks without much consideration for the art component. In this environment, differentiating experiential art from other experiential spaces becomes essential for establishing artistic legitimacy.

Take Rain Room, created by art collective Random International in 2012 and first displayed in London’s Barbican Gallery. The work is a massive installation, requiring a minimum of 100 square metres, that pours water from the ceiling onto the grating floor, mimicking natural rainfall for an enclosed space. However, step into the space, and sensors carefully ensure that the rain stops wherever you stand. The result? Beautiful images in moody black and white lighting of the visitor, perfectly untouched, surrounded by heavy downpour. 

In the years following Rain Room’s debut in London, its popularity has led to blockbuster exhibitions of the work in New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Busan, with its first permanent installation in Sharjah, UAE beginning in 2018. For an additional price of up to 25 USD, visitors could line up for hours for ten or fifteen minutes of access to the space–plenty of time to take a nice photo.

Rain Room - Random International (2012)

Rain Room sits perfectly within the growing phenomenon of Instagram art, works that draw in visitors specifically because of how they look through the lens of an iPhone. These experiential artworks, often room-encompassing spectacles, attract the public with some combination of bright colours, careful lighting, mirrors, and water effects. Their social media appeal provides museums with free advertising for the space, drawing in more visitors who want to experience it for themselves (and, of course, post about it afterwards). 

Beyond Random International, artists are increasingly creating large-scale experiential works–and museums are buying them. Perhaps the most prolific of these artists is Yayoi Kusama, who has experienced a resurgence in the past decade, partly thanks to the broad appeal of her more immersive works. 

Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms all offer variations on a common theme: mirrored spaces filled with dots, or dotted objects, which fracture into a multitude of planes that aim to spark reflection on the infinite universe and human presence within it. They also look great on camera. 

“In the last six years, Infinity Mirror Rooms have become to museums what pandas are to zoos: surefire crowd-pleasers whose costs are easily justified by their popularity” claims Greg Allen in a 2020 ARTnews article. This holds true beyond Kusama’s work–experiential art has been a growing genre in museums globally, a practice which has inevitably generated imitators who are less interested in the artistic quality of the spaces, and more in the potential of monetising them. But Infinity Mirror Rooms seem to be the most popular iteration of this phenomenon.

As reported by ARTnews in 2020, from 2014 to 2019, at least 11 international art institutions acquired Infinity Mirror Rooms. The Broad (Los Angeles, USA), Tate (London, UK), the Hirshhorn (Washington D.C., USA), and the Rubell Museum (Miami, USA) each acquired two. While part of a larger resurgence around Kusama’s oeuvre–both her contemporary output and earlier works–the mirror rooms also provide museums with the perfect opportunity to draw in visitors whose interests lie outside of fine art. Through Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, museums are able to capitalise on Instagrammable spaces without having to sacrifice their artistic credibility. 

Museums are drawn to these immersive works because of their broad public appeal–visitors don’t need an art history degree, or even to read the wall text, to enjoy the experience of being in Rain Room or one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms. Mera Rubell, co-founder of the Rubell Museum, sees Kusama’s installation works as “accessible and enjoyable for visitors of all ages, which goes to the heart of our mission of sharing our collection.” As museums aim at reaching segments of the population who have long felt left out of traditional art spaces, a playful, immersive environment proves an increasingly appealing route to draw in new audiences. 

Superblue, an experiential art centre, leans heavily into these new trends–purchasing and commissioning artworks that embrace the experiential and interactive. This can be seen throughout their “Every Wall is a Door” exhibition, such as with Forest of Us, a reflective maze by the artist and designer Es Devlin. The many mirrored planes of Forest of Us are reminiscent of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, but Devlin reaches that design through the eco-philosopher concept of the “hall of mirrors” of human creations, which lure people away from their natural connection to the environment. The mirrored surfaces of the work make it perfect for taking pictures of oneself surrounded by the work–even Kim Kardashian thought so . However, the mirrors stem directly from the theory and ecological messaging behind the artwork, rather than serving as the basis of a space designed only for online aesthetic appeal. This is a delicate, but essential, tension to strike. 

Forrest of Us - Es Devlin, Superblue, Miami (2021)

Art that photographs well can provide major benefits to museums and boost the prominence of the artists who created them. These spaces are often separately-ticketed, providing museums with an additional revenue source that both offsets the cost of purchasing the work and can be contributed towards other museum initiatives. Artists may also find they are receiving greater name recognition through increased posting about their works by visitors. Superblue Board member Marc Spiegler hails the advantages of embracing the experiential, and the instagrammable, saying “it’s the age of social media, so the fact that this is an artwork that people like to be photographed within, and then spread all over the world means that the work of the artist has an incredible resonance that it wouldn’t have had before.” However, in experiential and immersive art, the line soon blurs between art that becomes popular because it happens to photograph well, and spaces that are created for the purpose of photographing well.

The first notable example of this comes in 2016 with the Museum of Ice Cream, an “Instagram museum” or “experium” (a portmanteau of “experience” and “museum,” coined by Museum of Ice Cream Founder Maryellis Bunn) full of colourful themed rooms that exists to be photographed and shared online. 

This experium claims to focus on multisensory experience, but it’s one where scent, smell, taste, touch can all be distilled into a simple Instagram story.  Beginning as a pop up experience, the concept currently has five permanent locations and plans to expand. It has also spawned several similar initiatives, including the Color Factory, and while each experium claims a slightly different premise, they all follow the same path: draw in visitor through colourful, aesthetically pleasing spaces, encourage lots of pictures, and hope that enough people who see the resulting Instagram content feel drawn to go there and post about it themselves. 

AKHU - James Turrell, Superblue, Miami (2021).

What does this phenomenon, then, mean for museums and experiential art centres such as Superblue? How can an institution thread the needle of art that draws in visitors through raw aesthetic appeal, and becoming consumed by Instagram gimmicks? And how can you distinguish between Infinity Mirror Room and Color Factory? 

Experiums may appropriate the language of museums, but they all carefully avoid the word “art”–a tacit recognition that their spaces exist to provide aesthetic experiences that do not aim beyond beautiful set dressing. Superblue leans heavily on the online appeal of its photogenic rooms, yet the centre works to keep art, and especially art driven by social and environmental causes, as its core raison d’être. By leaning into the meaning behind the spectacle, Superblue supports artists and artworks that produce true experiences and can only be fully understood in the moment of presence.

Perhaps the most immersive work at Superblue is the body-dissolving Ganzfeld AKHU by James Turrell–visitors become so entranced in the milky light and shifting colour of the total space, they had to install sensors to prevent them from walking off into oblivion. Incidentally, this is currently the only work in the space that does not allow photography.

Museums aren’t going to stop visitors from taking Instagram photographs of their most immersive works. It draws in people who may not normally have a huge interest in art, providing them an opportunity to post on social media and experience a work that may affect their perception of themselves, their community or the planet. However, throughout this practice it is essential that the works they choose are not selected merely for their instagrammability. Museums and art centred spaces must insist on art driven by higher thought, considering foremost the artistic value and meaning of the selected work, and find a balance between the Ganzfelds and gimmicks.