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"MARMO | Marble. Carving the Future" @ Dupont Underground

DATE VIEWED: 10/6/2023
DATE REVIEWED: 10/7/2023

On its closing weekend, I booked an $8 student ticket to visit the Italian Cultural Institute’s MARMO exhibit in Dupont Underground. MARMO showcased the prowess and influence of Italian marble, from revered classical sculptures to speculative cityscapes. I thought the venue was appropriate — an abandoned streetcar station turned exhibit space turned exploration of infrastructure across time.

For the past three years, I have been scoping out the range of the “immersive experience,” searching for a future within the DMV for someone with “Immersive Media Design” on their resume. I visited ARTECHOUSE. I saw the (rather, “an”) Immersive Van Gogh. MARMO was presented on the ticketing site as an “immersive experience, and like the others I’ve visited, I was able to walk through the entire exhibit in ten minutes without being profoundly moved.

My first walk-through, I paused for a moment in front of each video, projected onto a wall-sized screen. The video reflected against the shiny, tunnel-like frame looming over each projection. I paced from projection to projection as footage of Roman mythology, marble mining sites, and architectural models cycled in and out. I reached the end and ran my hands over the marble swatches. The experience was visually impressive, but not personally resonant. But I paid $8 and was determined to make the most of it, so I stuck around to consider the installation design.

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Some of the larger projections displayed what appeared to be a “loading” screen as I walked past—blue marble texture with monospace font displaying a countdown. I quickly grew bored watching them, walking over instead to the projections where there was something going on. But eventually I realized there was an order to which videos loaded and played. The exhibit space was divided into five segments, five main screens: an introduction, and then the four pillars of the showcase: STRENGTH, BEAUTY, TECHNIQUE, and ATELIER. While one segment played, let’s say BEAUTY, the adjacent segments, in this case STRENGTH and TECHNIQUE, would display the “loading” screen. When the segment ended, there would be just enough time to walk to an adjacent segment before that segment started playing. Each segment was just over eight minutes long. So suppose the “status” of each projection screen was this:

Intro STRENGTH BEAUTY TECHNIQUE ATELIER
Playing Loading Playing Loading Playing

then after eight and a half minutes, it would transition to this:

Intro STRENGTH BEAUTY TECHNIQUE ATELIER
Loading Playing Loading Playing Loading

When I realized the pattern, I was standing in front of TECHNIQUE, so I watched the videos in the following order: TECHNIQUE, ATELIER, STRENGTH, INTRO, BEAUTY.

There was an intentionality to how you should have navigated the space, and in what order. I didn’t exactly follow the order, but I felt that I was viewing with much greater purpose once I figured out the video timings. One annoyance I have with “immersive experiences” is that I feel that they are ambiance rather than artful. I feel that there’s some personal taste involved in that judgment, but I at least like to have some idea in mind when viewing art installations.

Unlike the Immersive Van Gogh and its clones, MARMO was not “immersive” because it blasted every angle with digital footage. Each large projection was spaced perhaps a thirty-second’s pace apart, and displayed on flat, 2D surfaces. The rest of the space was dark save for a few simple lamps. There was enough space between each screen to take in the murals on the walls of Dupont Underground. The only time I felt surrounded by LED light was during the last segment, where two screens were positioned at a 90-degree angle to form a mini- “projection room.” The room’s two other “walls” were empty metal panels to bounce the cinematic soundscape back to the viewer.

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Behind (rather than beside) each earlier projection there were smaller screens displaying more subdued graphics: a slow, Ken-Burns-esque pan over the surface of a marble sculpture. At the beginning of each video segment, a static photograph of the sculpture would display on the large screen while the smaller screen guided you over the details: Apollo’s hair, Daphne’s parted lips. You had to physically turn your back on the big screen for a deeper experience. And nothing on the smaller screen indicated that the main segment had continued playing; you could watch, mesmerized by each sculpture’s intricacy while the main video moved on behind you.

There was a narrative pattern to the STRENGTH, BEAUTY, and TECHNIQUE videos as well. After showcasing a marble sculpture, the video segments displayed a definition of each pillar in both English and Italian. I was particularly struck by the definition of TECHNIQUE as the opposite of art theory, which I had never considered before. ATELIER was a little different in that it did not define the term, and I had to look it up later—it refers to an artist’s workshop or studio. That segment was the one with the room-like setup, which I realize in hindsight was appropriate.

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My favorite video segment was that of ATELIER, which I think made the greatest use of 3D graphics and cinematic panning. The other videos in comparison were edited mostly with 2D footage. ATELIER panned across ancient Roman architectural landscapes and 3D renders of unconventional building designs with spherical texture “swatches” like planets orbiting the cityscape. Outside of the viewing room, there were physical models of the depicted structures:

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The exhibit was built around juxtaposition. The typography with white monospace font resembled sleek sci-fi interfaces, overlaid over Renaissance masterpieces depicting biblical figures and ancient mythology. Otherworldly cityscapes are carved out of stone that is hundreds of thousands of years old. I haven’t talked much about the soundscape yet, because it followed the trope of ambient space-music that I’ve seen everywhere in new media art, but the classical piano cascading over the most intense parts of the videos impressed me more. The blend of classical and futuristic was fitting for a tribute to marble. Hell, this stone has loosened human jaws since ancient times and will continue to do so when we’re building cities on the moon.

In traditional art museums, I’ve seen enough headless sculptures on pedestals to make my eyes glaze over. The three sculptures showcased in MARMO—Michelangelo’s Moses, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss—are already iconic. Pictures of them decorate textbooks and Art History 101 PowerPoints everywhere.

MARMO attempts to restore the jaw-dropping power of Italian marble by reframing its beauty outside of the stuffy museum setting. This is not easy with immersive tech, where the focus can easily slip over to the medium’s novelty. The designers realized this, and the exhibit was tastefully installed in a way that wasn’t over-engineered. But the experience is passive—to be watched, not to be played with—curating the angles at which we view 3D works. It clips the marvel of sculpture to a flat plane. Walter Benjamin’s “aura” is lost in the 2D reproduction—in the Louvre, at least, we can observe Cupid’s kiss from all angles.

I wonder how I’d feel if, after my first walk-through, I hadn’t stopped to analyze MARMO’s design. Like a teenager in a sculpture garden, would I have just passed it all by?


MARMO | Marble. Carving the Future was on display from September 9 to October 8 at Dupont Underground. In a QR code outside the entrance was a link to the exhibit’s description, which you can read here.

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