KAWS Augmented-Reality Exhibition Expanded for Social Distancing

Liz Catalano
Published on

With galleries, museums, and auction houses moving to online spaces due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the art market is experiencing an influx of new technologies and mediums. KAWS joins numerous other artists in this transition by collaborating with Acute Art, an augmented-reality platform. 

KAWS’ EXPANDED HOLIDAY digital project launched earlier this month to mirror his real-life inflatable sculptures in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. 12 augmented-reality COMPANION figures were strategically placed around the world for this project. Visitors can use the Acute Art app to view the digital installations in London, Hong Kong, New York, São Paulo, Seoul, and several other locations. Daniel Birnbaum, the director of Acute Art, compared the project to “a massive, monumental art world Pokémon Go.” 

KAWS: EXPANDED HOLIDAY installation at the Louvre. Image from Acute Art.
KAWS: EXPANDED HOLIDAY installation at the Louvre. Image from Acute Art.

The EXPANDED HOLIDAY project has adapted to social distancing by releasing a smaller version of the public COMPANION sculptures. A 45-centimeter augmented-reality installation can be downloaded for free through the Acute Art app

Acute Art also includes the option to rent or purchase editions of the series for USD 7 per week or $30 per month. To collect the installation permanently, a small number of buyers can acquire a sculpture for $10,000. 

This collaboration comes at a key moment, as many galleries and museums close their doors to the public. As of March 30th, at least 270 million people in the United States have been asked to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With nearly eight in 10 Americans practicing social distancing, art collectors and admirers are increasingly turning to online platforms for entertainment and culture.

Small version of KAWS COMPANION (EXPANDED). Image posted on Instagram on March 21, 2020 by Acute Art.
Small version of KAWS COMPANION (EXPANDED). Image posted on Instagram on March 21, 2020 by Acute Art.

Though the EXPANDED HOLIDAY project was in development for months before the outbreak, its creators recognized the importance of enjoying the art from home. Whether viewed on location or from quarantine, augmented-reality is proving to be a defining feature of the 21st-century art market. 

“When I realized the quality that could be achieved and experienced in [augmented reality], I was immediately drawn to its potential… The possibilities of locations and scale are endless, and I’m excited to start a new dialogue in this medium,” KAWS said about the project.

Virtual-reality art, though still nascent, is drawing increased attention. Artists such as Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, and Marina Abramović have all collaborated with augmented-reality platforms to create new experiences. These range from dramatic sensory dives into Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms to in-depth explorations of a single artist’s painting style. Megan Newcome, the director of digital strategy at Philips, recommends early investment in virtual- and augmented-reality art: “The history of this medium is being written now. But that fact in itself should be exciting to a collector who wants to be engaged in contemporary culture.”

This move to the digital space is not KAWS’ first. The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is offering a 3D virtual tour of its “KAWS: COMPANIONSHIP IN THE AGE OF LONELINESS” exhibition. The show, which first opened in September 2019, features the artist’s largest statue created to date. 

GONE. 2019. Patinated and painted bronze KAWS sculpture commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria. Image from Dean Sunshine, StreetArtNews.net
GONE. 2019. Patinated and painted bronze KAWS sculpture commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria. Image from Dean Sunshine, StreetArtNews.net

KAWS has been active since the early 1990s, creating graffiti, street art, and eventually his own branded merchandise. His presence in the market is extensive, with many of his vinyl COMPANION figures selling for between $1,500 and $5,000. However, he continues to set auction records as new collectors take interest: a 2005 painting titled The Kaws Album sold for $14.7 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong last year. 

As social distancing continues, augmented- and virtual-reality exhibitions such as KAWS: EXPANDED HOLIDAY are seeing spikes in participation. According to Birnbaum, the Acute Art app saw over 100,000 downloads following the launch of the KAWS project.

“The beauty of this is, there’s nothing that forces anyone to be inside together with lots of other people and you don’t have to participate at any specific moment,” he stated earlier this month.

The limited-time exhibition will be available on the Acute Art app until April 15th, 2020.