La Triennale di Milano embraces virtual reality to recreate design landmarks from its 99-year history
For more than 90 years, architects have been at the heart of the art and design exhibitions at the Milan Triennale: from the hypermodern Casa Elettrica to the 1930 exhibition by Gruppo 7 to the display installations of this year’s edition designed by Francis Kéré – winner of the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize – who will also organize two installations dedicated to the voices of the African continent.
So when the triennial foundation and its Museo del Design Italiano, home to its permanent collection, chose to explore its 99-year history in virtual reality (VR), it was more than fitting that the museum’s curators, in collaboration with the Milanese creator the agency Reframe VR and the VR platform Vive Arts, should have chosen the architecture of the Palazzo dell’Arte, the headquarters of the triennale built for this purpose in 1933 in the center of Milan, and the designs by its architect Giovanni Muzio, as a narrative and aesthetic framework for the VR Room. catchment areathe first chapter of the VR experience 1923: Past Futureswill be launched at the opening of the 2022 exhibition—Unknown Unknown. An introduction to the mysteries— on July 15, with the remaining chapters to launch on September 1.
Recreate lost spaces
The project focuses on two areas of virtual reality of specific use both at the triennale and in museums more broadly: the ability to recreate lost objects or installations – as Matteo Lonardi of Reframe VR puts it, “recreating lost spaces in three dimensions so that the viewer can live in them” – and the possibility of playing with narrative timelines. Whether in the biography of an artist or an institution, VR has the power to offer users a cleaner and clearer documentary line. It can offer the choice of following “life” or “works” – and switching between the two – rather than a single “life and works” narrative, with other narrative spaces potentially devoted to historical, political or cultural. It is an approach well suited to managing the overabundance of information available in a retrospective of an artist or an institution.
Vive Arts, which has already worked with the Tate, in London, on a recreation of the Modigliani studio in virtual reality, and with the Victoria and Albert Museum on a Alice in Wonderland launched in 2021 – moved closer to the triennial to offer a VR piece. “Initial ideas were to spotlight an Italian designer represented in the collection,” says Celina Yeh, executive director of Vive Arts, “but [ultimately] the Triennale team decided to use virtual reality to present moments from the history of the international exhibition.
Vive introduced the triennial team to Reframe VR, founded by Milanese brothers Matteo and Francesco Lonardi, whose Reframe Saudi Arabia drew large crowds at Art Dubai in 2018. The brothers had previously worked with Vive on Il Dubbio, a two-part VR play, which premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Matteo Lonardi says museums are ideal partners for VR creators: “Because the problem with VR is distribution, the museum already has the audience built in, both the space and the audience.” Triennial Commissioners are targeting two groups with what is their first VR piece. In a statement to The arts journalthey said they were looking to attract local audiences aged 20 to 35 – “they are already part of our audience but we would like to increase their presence and involvement with the institution” – as well as “experience seekers culture and technology and international visitors”.
Exploring future pasts
The experience will recreate remarkable installations from the triennial’s fragmented history: the event was launched as a biennial in Monza, 20 km north of central Milan, in 1923, before becoming a triennial in 1930 and transferring to Milan in 1933. There was an inescapable break during World War II, and a 20-year gap without an official expo between 1996 and 2016. The triennale established its Museo del Design Italiano in 2009 and has built up an outstanding archive , a rich visual resource for the VR project.
Historic facilities that will come to life include the catchment area courtyard installed in the newly built palace in 1933, with statuary designed by Mario Sironi; the fantastic neon installation on the main staircase by Lucio Fontana from 1951; the futurist kaleidoscope from 1964; the “Triennale Occupata” of 1968, when demonstrators, dismissed by the demonstrators events in Paris, occupied the Palazzo dell’Arte; a recreation of Chamber of Changethe first part of the 2019 broken nature triennial; and a virtual tour of the museum’s archives, which will serve as a gateway to a work by landscape artist Giuliano Mauro, before rediscovering what Lonardi calls “the wise voices” of the 2022 exhibition.
Lonardi, who works closely on the VR experience with Marco Martello, digital director of the triennial, explains how Muzio’s drawings suggested the framing of the VR experience. “It was important to anchor the experience in some sort of identity. And the identity of the Triennale is linked to the architecture and designs of Claudio Muzio,” he says. “So we’re trying to create a bit of a vintage look. you click [using the hand controllers of a Vive headset] and see the lines of the catchment area form around you.
Lonardi and the curators see the experience as a “time machine”, where the user will be able to move between installations from 1933 to 2022 and back, and as anchored in the “future past”. (As part of the 2022 exhibition, Marco Sammicheli, the director of the Museo del Design Italiano, is organizing an exhibition whose subject, The tradition of the new— “The tradition of the new” — plays with this “past-future” theme.)
For the curatorial team of the triennale, the VR piece “is a starting point. Its modular structure allows it to be enriched and expanded,” the statement said. “Next year we will celebrate the centenary of the Triennale and, thanks to virtual reality, we will be able to further explore the futures of the past. To be continued.”