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Dalí Cybernetics: The Immersive Experience

Salvador Dali

It’s a tantalising question: what happens when you marry state-of-the-art technology to the inexhaustible imagination of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí? The Altlier team ached to find out, so we headed off to The Boiler House on Brick Lane to witness London’s latest immersive extravaganza.

Upon arrival, we enter to the sounds of whirring synths and soft percussive pulses. It envelops us as we flash our tickets, grab our 3D glasses and move hurriedly through a partition. In the exhibition room itself, drawings, paintings and their accompanying descriptions run the entire length of the garish blue walls, revealing Dalí’s unerring obsession with the natural and mechanical sciences.

The Salvador Dalí presented here knocks you off balance at first. Creators and organisers, Layers of Reality and Exhibition Hub, have wisely eschewed the tired and derivative associations fostered by 1960s hippiedom and novelty psychedelia for a more sober and studied examination of Dalí’s little-known fascination with the metaphysical and mathematical world. And as is made clear by the works on display here, Dalí was less the painter but rather the keen scientist who simply harnessed art as a means to describe scientific phenomena. In fact, it was Dalí himself who stated that painting was secondary to his interest in nuclear physics, quantum mechanics and sacred geometry.

We get our first glimpse of this on the wall directly in front of us. In his piece “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man”, the “egg” in the centre is helpfully overlayed by a dotted outline of the golden ratio, the mathematical equation renowned by artists for the beauty, balance and harmony of its curves. 

Elsewhere, we learn how the discoveries of Planck, Heisenberg and Schrodinger justify Dalí’s “molecular” vision of the world.  

The principles of quantum mechanics, with its spinning particles and oscillating waves, find expression in many of Dalí’s paintings.

It is no surprise to learn that Dalí is credited as the first artist to draw an electron and proton particle.

On the next wall, Freudian psychoanalysis receives a mention, as does Niels Bohr, whose conception of the atom greatly spurred Dalí’s imagination. To him, the atomic age was as mystical as it was terrifying.

Through another door, we encounter an area planted with podiums, each cradling an iPad. Here, we can play with colours and shapes and have them projected onto a large robot mural mounted on the wall in front of us. Great fun, but more for the kids, we’d say.

A dimly lit screening room is next. We scramble for the front seats and watch a short clip of the great man himself lying in a coffin stuffed with dollar bills while a tiger cub scurries towards him, sniffing around his head. (Yes, really.)

And next, the centrepiece. We descend a set of stairs and enter a sprawling projection space with a large column in the middle. Peppered around the room are bean bags and deck chairs.

From the off, Dalí’s iconic elephants, suspended some 15 feet into the air by long, spindly legs, march right past us in military formation, rounding the wall behind and reappearing on the adjacent one. They are closely followed by another company of even taller elephants. Soon, there are elephants everywhere, splashed across every surface, marching to the swell of music blasting from surround-sound speakers. Jurassic Park immediately springs to mind. We jolt as sudden thunderous sound spirits the elephants away. Now, a giant hand wielding a blade of some sort looms down on us, thrusting up and down in a staccato, stabbing motion. This is a section from “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)”, a disturbing allegory of Franco’s clash with the Republicans. Duplications of this frightful scene are projected all around, engulfing us like cornered prey in the midst of a hunt. A heady cacophony of war drums thunder all around as a tiger leaps out, all fangs and fury. These sights unnerve as much as they inspire. There truly is something magical about the scale of these projections. One feels very vulnerable yet awe-struck at the same time.

When you enter determines where in the cycle of proceedings you are. Split into sections, the 30-minute presentation moves from one of Dalí’s predilections to the next.

We are prompted to don our glasses to savour an extraordinary sequence where shiny globular particles emanate from the walls and swim past our faces.

Again, atoms, particles and waves of light dance in front of our eyes, repaying the themes we’d read about earlier. Protons dance and spin, and double helix structures form and deform, only to disappear completely.

The quantum theme continues on the central column. Swirling globes expand outward and form a familiar composition. We see the head and shoulders of Dalí’s beloved Gala as she appears in “Galatea of the Spheres”.

Most stunning of all, however, is the artificial intelligence (AI) sequence. Ever the savvy prophet, Dalí had anticipated AI and machine learning before the likes of John McCarthy codified it in 1956. Here, an entirely computer-generated blur of Dalinian symbolism spools out of the walls like molten wax.

Bizarre figures and shapes merge, melt and collapse in on themselves in a seamless flow that feels alive, urgent and organic.

All too quickly, our time at this extraordinary exhibition draws to a close. The team spill out of the venue feeling sated and a touch disoriented. True, there are some criticisms: the 3D glasses, though functional, were no substitute for a sturdy VR headset. And the lights in the immersion room were a little too bright, washing out the contrast and robbing the projections of some of their wow factor.

But these are minor quibbles. Dalí Cybernetics: The Immersive Experience is ultimately worth your time and money — a welcome addition to the growing number of immersive events London has to offer.