After its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s virtual-reality installation, Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), was praised as as one of the most technically-accomplished and boundary-pushing examples of the burgeoning medium. It was the first virtual-reality to screen in the official selection of Cannes, but perhaps simply labelling it as VR is an injustice. The piece uses art installations, virtual-reality, and sensorial elements to takes visitors through the harrowing crossing at the Mexico-United States border experienced by tens of thousands immigrants each year.
I saw the piece when it opened over the summer at the Tlatelolco Museum in Mexico City. (It’s also currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Fondazione Prada in Milan.)
Presumably to make the experience more intimate, visitors go into the space alone. Border Patrol requires that immigrants remove their shoes after arrest, so I was instructed to do the same. The first stop is then the replica of a "freezer," the holding rooms where Border Patrol rounds up refugees and leaves them shivering for days at a time.
Here is where Iñárritu begins to create a physical experience as much as a virtual one. Although the piece in total lasts little over six minutes, I was in that room hugging my legs to my chest for what felt like hours. The room is strewn with pieces of clothing, real items that Iñárritu reportedly recovered from the desert between the Mexico and Arizona border.
In the next part of the exhibit, physical elements came into play again as I felt the crunching of sand beneath my feet while I slipped on a backpack and an Oculus Rift headset. The VR sequence then follows a group of migrants who are making their way through Arizona’s Sonora desert when they are caught by Border Patrol. Sensory overload takes hold with the beating of helicopter blades and wind flying in the spectator's face as the authorities approach. Although the characters are computer-generated, the beautiful landscape views of the sunrise at dusk were captured with the help of Iñárritu’s long-time collaborator and world-class cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.
The result is an expertly executed virtual reality that merges technological tools (it was created in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic xLab) with the kind of immersive journalistic work pioneered by Nonny de la Peña.
In a statement for LACMA, Iñárritu expressed his intention to break the dictatorship of the medium and give visitors the “direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”
While we are inevitably still spectators and no installation, regardless of how immersive, will be able to fully transmit the fear, isolation, and suffering that thousands of people face in their search for opportunity, Iñárritu jolts us into a very intimate experience with the immigrants portrayed. Carne y Arena shows, at the very least, that the artist knows the best medium for the story he wants to tell.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s New Virtual-Reality, Carne y Arena, Does More Than Just Toy with the Idea of Stepping in Someone Else’s Shoes
Photo by Emmanuel Lubezki.