Last week Google announced Google Art Project, an extraordinary website where Google has adapted their Streetview technology for indoors and used it to map some of the galleries in 17 of the world’s major museums, among them:
The Museum of Modern Art, Tate Britain, Uffizi Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rijksmuseum.
Within their galleries, you can peruse the walls and zoom in to look quite closely at the paintings. In addition to paintings scanned at ordinary hi-res, Google provided gigapixel scans of one painting for each museum; these allow you to zoom in to see the painting surface at a scale that the artists themselves may not have had in real life.
Each painting becomes a universe you enter and experience on an ever more abstract, mind-bending level the closer in you go. You have to see it to understand the experience. It’s like the Hubble Telescope focused on paintings instead of the heavens!
Some people have criticized the project because the navigation isn’t perfect – you can often end up in the street outside a museum as you’re trying to get from one gallery to another. Other criticisms include the fact that only some artworks are available to view while others are blurred out, and only 17 museums have signed up for this Project so far. You the user are stuck with the choices Google and the museums have made for you.
These things are true but I think they miss the point. What we as viewers have been given is an opportunity to see these artworks in a way you’ve never seen before, and that will change your whole relationship with them.
You can get to know these artworks intimately, becoming aware of every brushstroke and bread crumb, every curl of spray from a wave, every strand of hair, tiny bud, spec of dung, wispy cloud, every starry halo. And gradually you absorb the relationship of each detail to those around it and begin to build an impression of the painting from the inside out until you own it.
You can take as much time as you like, any time and place you choose, as long as there’s wi-fi or 3G. Imagine how this can change your experience of a work of art when finally you see it in real life.
The painter Ed Ruscha once described to me how he had been fascinated by Jasper Johns’ work when he first saw it reproduced in Artforum Magazine. But when he finally saw it in real life it was like a bomb went off in his head.
Whether it’s a bomb that explodes, or just a sharp intake of breath as you see the real thing, your bond with the art, and probably the institution, will be strong and personal, before you walk in the door.
Oh, and you can make your own collection of works, and even collect your own views of each work to return to, like your favorite piece of music. You can share these galleries too if you want.
If there is one thing I’d like to see it’s a way to know when I’m looking at the life size artwork – at the size the artist was working on; and when I’m looking at the image in hi-res, how much more closely am I able to see than he/she was.