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Multisensory art exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum taps into AI, VR

It is called Night in the Garden of Love, is produced in partnership with Weils, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Brussels, and it combines traditional art with an obvious technology bent that, in the words of its creator, “transports visitors into new and imaginary worlds.”

That creator is contemporary artist Shezad Dawood, a U.K. multidisciplinary artist who, according to his  bio, “interweaves stories, realities and symbolism to create richly layered artworks, spanning painting, textiles, sculpture, film, and digital media.”

Lateef and Dawood. Photo courtesy of Aga Khan Museum

Dawood based Night in the Garden of Love, which opened last month at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and runs until May 5, 2024, on the novella of the same name by African-American Muslim musician, composer, and polymath, Dr. Yusef Lateef, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.

Marianne Fenton, curator of special projects at the museum, described it as a “multisensory art experience. Centred around scores and rhythms, the exhibition explores the harmonic relationship between Dawood and Lateef’s work. It reflects the spirit and musicality of Lateef’s idea and drawings through Dawood’s interpretations, exploring gardens as realms of creation and optimism in the face of the climate crisis.”

During a media tour prior to the official opening, she described the exhibit, which contains a major virtual reality (VR) component as well as using artificial intelligence (AI), as “experiential, and we invite everyone to see it through that lens.”

The VR experience. Photo courtesy of Aga Khan Museum

Dawood collaborated with immersive film and digital arts production company UBIK Productions to create a two-player VR environment that Fenton said is designed to “immerse audiences in key scenes from the novella. This 3D reimagining of (it) begins in outer space, transports the players to the streets of Detroit, trails the mutant (a key figure in the novella) to a recycling plant, and culminates in a utopic garden adorned with imagined plants.

“The VR experience provides viewers with imagined interpretations of key moments from the novella. It also provides an interesting take on sustainability by viewing the discourse surrounding climate change through a hopeful lens.”

During the tour, Dawood, who is also a research fellow in experimental media at the University of Westminister in London, told IT World Canada he had never done a two-player VR before, and, he said, ” I was really interested, particularly with the thread of the narrative in the novella about this couple who the mutant leads into the Garden of Love. I was like, ‘oh, what is that experience of intimacy in the digital world? How do you bring intimacy into this space, which is not a likely candidate for intimacy?’

“I am actually very skeptical of digital media, believe it or not, even though I use it, but I think to use anything effectively, you have to be very critical of it. And it was this idea of like, ‘oh, what is that experience? Totally aside from VR, just the fact that you suddenly are in a position of a shared journey, or otherworldly space that opens up for you and one other person, if they are a partner, a friend, a colleague, or a perfect stranger.’ What does that do in terms of what you take away from the experience?”

AI was used in an unusual manner, according to a release issued prior to the Nov. 10 opening: “Accompanying the exhibition will be a scent created by Dawood in collaboration with Olivia Bransbourg of boutique perfume label Iconofly, perfumer Nicolas Bonneville, and fragrance house dsm-firmenich. The distinctive fragrance features eight middle notes. While some are recognizable, such as jasmine, others were crafted using artificial intelligence to represent plants that do not naturally produce a discernible scent.”

It is, said Fenton, “a union of nature and artificial intelligence. Here we see the digital and the analogue intersecting to create something previously unimagined and unique.”

According to the release, Dawood uses gardens as a starting point for creative, futuristic and intercultural conversations. It is a blend of two individuals – Dawood and Lateef, who the release notes was a “major force on the international music scene for more than six decades.

Photo courtesy of Aga Khan Museum

“Audiences will encounter a series of painted textile works by Dawood of real and imagined plants, original artwork by Lateef, and objects from the museum’s Permanent Collection as they journey through time, navigating a blend of analogue and digital spaces.”

Dawood’s interest in Lateef goes back well beyond his becoming an artist. “I knew the music of Yusef Lateef from my childhood,” he said during the media tour. “In a a very bizarre kind of twist of fate, my maternal uncle is called Yusef Lateef, so it was a running joke in our family, like, ‘not that Lateef, the other one.’”

He describes the exhibition as a “dynamic symphony with objects from the museum’s permanent collection joining the conversation as a juxtaposition between Lateef’s work and my own, it allows visitors to dive into the many flowerings and expressions of gardens throughout history.”

Admission prices for both the museum and Night in the Garden of Love are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, $12 for students, $10 for those aged between seven and 13, and free for children six or younger. There is no admission charge on BMO Free Wednesdays, from 4 to 8 p.m.

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