The Stolen Art Gallery VR experience features five works of art that have been stolen. (image courtesy Compass UOL)

It is mostly dark in the Stolen Art Gallery, with a night sky above punctured by twin skylights that passively illuminate the room. You can’t see the walls, because there are no walls. You can’t see your feet, because you have no feet. All you can see, aside from an orientation pad in the middle of the gallery, is a semi-circle of five paintings floating in black space. They aren’t there either, of course. They were all stolen decades ago.

Reconnecting with these lost works is the premise of the Stolen Art Gallery, an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience built by Compass UOL and accessed through the MetaQuest 2 headset. Though the company touts itself as the first metaverse museum, it is not actually even the first virtual Stolen Art Gallery — but it certainly is a refinement from earlier iterations of the idea, and perhaps the first one that allows users to meet in meta-space while viewing stolen artworks long lost to public view.

A virtual arts writer explores a twice-stolen Van Gogh via VR technology in the Stolen Art Gallery by Compass UOL. (all screenshots Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

The gallery presents Caravaggio’s “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence” (1609), stolen from an oratory in Sicily in 1969; Rembrandt’s only seascape, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (1633); and “Chez Tortoni” (c. 1875) by Édouard Manet — both taken from the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 in one of the most notorious art heists in modern history. There’s also Cézanne’s “View of Auvers-sur-Oise” (1879–80), purloined from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; finally, there is Vincent van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” (1887), stolen in 1977 from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, recovered in Kuwait a decade later, and then stolen again in 2010.

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“We chose five relevant masterpieces of art by famous painters that had been out of popular reach for a long time,” said Compass UOL’s CEO Alexis Rockenbach in an email interview. The team hopes to add other works to the gallery, as well as interactive features that can take users to “more and more realistic levels of people’s immersive experience within a metaverse.”

Here are things you can do in the Stolen Art Gallery: customize your avatar; navigate right up to a painting and stick your face in it (or through it!); summon and dismiss detailed labeling info without bending over a tiny wall placard; hear overlaid audio piped straight into your brain via mysterious Oculus technology, which puts you on a ship at sea or in a busy café, depending on what you’re looking at; use an array of handy pens to write messages in the air, or temporarily defile paintings; send little streams of approval emoji out of your tool-watch and into the air (presumably to appeal to other gallery visitors, of which there were none during the times I visited), and use a selfie stick to take photos.

The virtual arts writer takes in Rembrandt’s lost seascape.
Another version of the same arts writer, visiting in disguise.

Here are things you cannot do in the Stolen Art Gallery: get a feel for the quality of paint on canvas; overhear hilarious exchanges between children dragged to the museum on a school field trip; take pictures other than selfies; make notes that exist outside the app; and appreciate details of brushstroke. The optics of VR are staggering, and there is an undeniably immersive quality to all experiences within that sphere (I also took a tour of a coral reef and danced with a robot in unrelated apps) — but it does not feel like a replacement activity for seeing a work of art in person, or even looking at a high-quality reproduction in print. It is something quirky, funny, and interactive, but it’s not the same.

Most galleries discourage putting one’s face through the artwork, and you almost always have to wear bottoms of some kind.

“The artistic conception of the gallery was designed to give greater importance to the pieces of art than to the gallery itself, so the environment and lighting gives focus and importance only to the pieces, not having other points of distraction,” said Rockenbach. “To represent the images of the works, we used photographs taken in high resolution so that the experience was as realistic as possible.”

This perhaps comes down to quality of Internet connection, so it’s possible that my virtual experience was less focused than it should have been, but I was not able to glean the level of detail afforded by an in-person encounter, or even a static high-quality image. However, the point being made in this case is that you can’t see the artwork in person, so creating an immersive VR scenario is a pretty fun way to take a look at long-lost masterpieces. Certainly, it is no more or less a departure than any number of “immersive” exhibitions that are popular at the moment, and leverage light projections and audio accompaniment — though the price tag on a MetaQuest 2 is more prohibitive (when not provided by the gallery, as it was in my case).

The virtual arts writer experiences real existential angst.

I was left with a sense that the Stolen Art Gallery is not so much a vanguard for the museum of the future, but a showcase of ways to create dynamic shared experiences in virtual reality. And of course, it has the distinct advantage of enabling an arts writer to attend without having to wear pants, virtual or otherwise.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....