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Israeli augmented reality exhibit takes root at Kirstenbosch



An Israeli project that combines augmented reality (AR) with art has made its way to South Africa in an exhibition that is being displayed for a year in the famed Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens at the foot of Table Mountain.

Called Seeing the Invisible, the contemporary art exhibition features 13 AR artworks by established artists from various countries. Kirstenbosch was chosen as one of 12 different botanical gardens from around the globe to feature the exhibition simultaneously.

The project was initiated by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens in partnership with Outset Contemporary Art Fund, with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation, and is co-curated by Hadas Maor (curator of contemporary art) and Tal Michael Haring (virtual and augmented reality expert and curator).

They worked with the artists to select existing works as well as commission new ones, and to position these new experiential artworks in unique spots in each of the participating botanical gardens.

After downloading the Seeing the Invisible app, viewers enter the gardens and follow a map on their screen to find each artwork. A magical treasure hunt for children and adults alike, one may find an eerie cave, a giant archway, a mysterious sphere, or a piano playing music as birds flutter around the keys, amongst other dynamic works.

For more than 15 years, the Dead Sea has been a source of inspiration for Sigalit Landau’s video works, photographic series, and salt sculptures. Now, with a unique, innovative use of Dead Sea minerals, her AR artwork, Salt Stalagmite #1 [Three Bridges], is included in the exhibition. It originates from Landau’s original idea of building a floating salt bridge over the Dead Sea to connect Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.

“A symbol of hope and collaboration in the Middle East, this beautiful poetic utopian idea, conceived in 2010 and nourished by a wild political imagination, is yet to be realised on site. In its current AR manifestation, the work combines a tall salt stalagmite and a set of three salt bridges, offering viewers endless routes of exploration around the work and inside its hidden creeks. It touches on the notion of the bridge as a means of passage, a medium connecting people, cultures, and languages, and activating peace,” says the artist.

Says events and tourism manager at Kirstenbosch, Sarah Struys, of the choice of Kirstenbosch as a venue, “The organisers approached the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) to request participation by one national botanical garden in the programme. SANBI decided to place the exhibition in Kirstenbosch as it has the highest profile amongst SANBI’s network of gardens and would reach the most people.

“We are pleased to be one of 12 international botanical gardens – and the only garden in Africa – to be part of this unique exhibition, and to display the works of 13 top contemporary artists from across the world,” Struys says. “The use of augmented reality to create art is very exciting and has many benefits in our environment. There is no carbon footprint related to bringing materials in, and no physical impact on the garden to create the works as they are all digital.”

Struys says the space where each artwork is placed was carefully selected by the Kirstenbosch team in collaboration with the curators of the exhibition. “The natural environment complements each work beautifully, and visitors can experience and rediscover each work throughout the seasons, as the exhibition is on for a whole year. The experience of the exhibition also reaches beyond Kirstenbosch, because the same works are displayed in different biomes in various gardens across the world. Even if one cannot travel from garden to garden, each participating garden shares photos of the art on its website and social-media platforms. It’s fascinating to compare photos of a work set in Kirstenbosch to the same work in a garden in Australia, Canada, or Israel, for example.”

Asked why the exhibition works so well in a space like Kirstenbosch, especially during the pandemic, she responds, “It was the team of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens who came up with this brilliant idea. They had the same challenges as all visitor attractions when the pandemic struck, but they thought out of the box and came up with this international event that brings people together through gardens, art, and technology, in a safe way.

“Outdoor spaces are known to be significantly safer than indoor venues during the pandemic,” she says. “While we haven’t been able to hold big events at Kirstenbosch such as our concerts, this exhibition is a great opportunity for us to hold a big and meaningful – yet very safe – event that’s not affected by changing COVID-19 regulations. Visitors explore the exhibition individually or as families at any time of day, with lots of space for social distancing from other visitors.

“Each artwork is an interactive experience. We hope that visitors will enjoy each experience and discover or rediscover Kirstenbosch while exploring the art and having fun,” she says. “We are already hearing from visitors who have come to Kirstenbosch several times since the exhibition opened, to experience the works over and over. We also notice that the art, the use of technology, and the interaction of the art with the natural environment are sparking interesting conversations.”

Asked if Kirstenbosch has faced any backlash about the exhibition being an Israeli project and what its response would be to such a backlash, she says, “The exhibition is created by and for botanical gardens and nature is the theme that runs through it. The team of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens took the lead, and gardens from across the world joined and collaborated on the development. The focus isn’t on countries, cultures, religion, or any grouping, but on botanical gardens and the opportunities that exist in showcasing artwork in a new and exciting manner.

“It’s interesting and beneficial to us to work with like-minded managers of botanical gardens from across the world,” she says. “We feel that if people from all backgrounds can come to appreciate the artwork and the beauty of the surroundings in which they exist, this would have a positive and uniting effect across all sectors of society.”

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