The VR helps recover the fascination that might have been felt by a person in the 16th century, when their seemingly impossible precision was part of that awe. It was a deeply contemplative mental condition, — not unlike, as Serrano put it, “the flow state you have when you are playing a game.”
The Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures exhibition that opened this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters is a rare gathering of around 50 tiny wood carvings created for religious meditation. The details on the prayer beads, some two inches in diameter, are incredible, so layered with their saints and devils, that, according to Anna Serrano, “The moment people see these objects, they wish that they could go inside.” Serrano is the chief digital officer at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC), and producer for “Small Wonders: The VR Experience,” which allows museum visitors to do just that.
Unlike a lot of art-related VR I’ve experienced, the Small Wonders interactive is much more about appreciating an object in a different way than just a novelty. It’s also impressively transporting, as one moment you’re standing in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters, and the next you’re on some Ender’s Game-esque gridded plane, the bead looming above you. A soundtrack of 16th-century Northern European spiritual songs sets the mood, drowning out the museum sounds. An attendant guides you through the process so you don’t trip over the rope and stumble into any priceless art, and with a controller you can explode and contract the diorama of the bead. Even though you are aware it is a digital view, there’s still something startling about walking through the carved surface. For Givord, who has an industrial design background, preserving that tactile nature with the scans, instead of simulating a digital wood grain, was essential to the project. He wanted something “that’s visceral and that you can touch,” even if your hand goes right through.