Seeing the invisible: A very special holiday outing

This reporter really got into Pneuma by Mel O’Callaghan.
This reporter really got into Pneuma by Mel O’Callaghan. Pneuma is Greek for “that which is breathed or blown” and this shimmering sphere includes the sound of breathing. Its title also refers to one’s vital spirit, soul, or creative force.
(Maurice Hewitt)

If you’re looking for something unusual to do this holiday season, take a trip to the Garden — San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG) on Quail Gardens Drive. Always a lovely place to visit, it’s more fun than ever these days, with a fabulous AR exhibition called Seeing the Invisible waiting to be discovered as you walk along the tree-shaded trails.

What is AR? It’s Augmented Reality, which enhances a real-world environment with computer-generated, multi-sensory information. It’s quite different from VR (Virtual Reality), which completely replaces the real-world environment with a simulated one. Seeing the Invisible is a full-body-and-mind experience that may change the way you see the world around you.

My photographer/husband and I were lucky enough to have a walk-through with Ari Novy (SDBG’s president/CEO) and Ashley Grable (communications manager). But before we were able to see any of the 13 invisible artworks, there was some prepping to do.

First you need to download the app — available on Apple or Google Play — onto your smartphone or tablet. Then you need to learn how to use it, once you’re standing in the seemingly empty space behind the Dickinson Conservatory where the first piece — a 20-foot-tall Gilded Cage by world-famous artist/activist Ai Weiwei — is located.

Making the invisible visible on our smartphones was easy. It took longer to figure out how to make our way into and out of the cage and how to take photos. But moving along, one AR after another, we got deeper into the Invisible adventure.

There’s plenty of color, movement, and music
There’s plenty of color, movement, and music in Sarah Meyohas’ Dawn Chorus as bluebirds pluck the strings of a player piano and change size when they fly toward you.
(Maurice Hewitt)

A little background on Seeing the Invisible

The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens initiated this grand-scale AR project, a year-long exhibition planned to open simultaneously at 12 gardens in six different countries — Israel, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the US and the UK. Ari Novy and SDBG were involved from the beginning, and things were just getting started in January 2021, when the Covid pandemic was peaking.

“Each garden had to come up with 20 potential sites for AR sculptures,” Novy said. “We couldn’t meet in person, so everything had to be worked out online, with Google Drive and maps. The exhibition would be outdoors, where people could safely interact with the art and the natural environment, and we wanted everyone to feel that they were traveling, experiencing exciting new pieces created by artists from different countries at a time when travel was severely limited. We ended up choosing 13 artists, and the exhibition opened in late September.”

Un-Augmented Reality: the Jacob’s Coat plant.
Un-Augmented Reality: the Jacob’s Coat plant.
(Maurice Hewitt)

The 13 artists:

• Ai Weiwei, born in Beijing, currently based in Lisbon. (Sculpture #1)

• Sarah Meyohas, New York City. (#2)

• Daito Manabe, Tokyo. (#3

• El Anatsui, born in Ghana; based in Nigeria. (#4)

• Sigalit Landau, born in Jerusalem, based in Tel Aviv. (#5)

• Timur Si-Qin, born in Germany, based in New York City. (#6)

• Jakob Kudsk Steensen, born in Denmark; based in Berlin. (#7)

• Pamela Rosenkranz, born in Altdorf, Switzerland, based in Zurich. (#8)

• Mel O’Callaghan, born in Sydney, Australia, based in Paris. (#9)

• Refik Anadol, born in Istanbul, based in Los Angeles. (#10)

• Isaac Julien CBE RA, London. (#11)

• Mohammed Kazem, Dubai. (#12)

• Ori Gersht, born in Tel Aviv, based in London. (#13)

Many of the artworks include sound and motion, and all call out for interaction. The more you get into them, the more they give. “Visitors have been thrilled about this exhibition,” Novy said. “Some come back again and again. And it really works well for groups. People say how much fun it is to go through it together.”

SDBG President/CEO Ari Novy with Ai Weiwei’s Gilded Cage.
SDBG President/CEO Ari Novy with Ai Weiwei’s Gilded Cage.
(Maurice Hewitt)

Taking time to stop, look, listen and dive into each artwork can also intensify your awareness of the garden’s natural attractions. I found myself focusing on things I’d never noticed before, like the brilliance of the multi-colored leaves on a plant labeled Jacob’s Coat. For the first time, I understood its name — a reference to the many-colored coat Jacob gave to his favorite son Joseph in the Bible.

“That plant was just waiting for the AR experience to allow it to be properly appreciated,” Novy said, smiling.

One of the visitors we met along the trail neatly summed up the experience. “This is the future!” he said. And what better time to have a heightened view of the future than now.

San Diego Botanic Garden is open Wednesday-Monday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Christmas Day. Seeing the Invisible is included in the admission price but visits must be scheduled in advance at Hot tip: ask for a paper map at the welcome desk and a bit of advice on how to take AR photos.