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[Herald Interview] Making art available to anyone

Amit Sood, founder of Google Art Project, talks about how technology changes experience of viewing art

The Internet has reshaped our daily life in almost every aspect. And it has been redefining the traditional art viewing experience, too.

To view masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the Louvre is not the place to be anymore. The painting can be viewed on a personal computer, without having to pay thousands of dollars on an overseas trip.

The Google Art Project, launched in 2011, has enabled art lovers around the world to view masterpieces without visiting actual museums and art galleries.

The art viewing platform, which started with some 100 museum partners, has joined hands with more than 500 art institutions around the world.

“It pretty much covers every continent except Antarctica,” said Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute and founder of the Google Art Project, in an interview with The Korea Herald in early September in Seoul. Sood was invited to speak at an art forum co-hosted by Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art and Gwangju Biennale, on expanding experiences in art.

The Google Art Project allows viewers to take a virtual tour of galleries and view paintings in high resolution. With just a mouse click, viewers can enter a museum, navigate and stop in front of any painting. The mouse scrolling allows viewers to zoom in for a closer view of the painting, which reveals every paint crack, every brushstroke and even a tiny signature of an artist on a ceiling painting in impressive detail.

Each painting is captured in high-resolution with gigapixel-capturing technology. A robotic arm captures every detail of a painting, with a human assistant checking the quality of each image.

“Think of it like you are going to a museum with your own camera and press 1 million clicks and go back home and stitch every picture together. You take many pictures and put them together using an algorithm,” Sood explained. 
Amit Sood, director of Google Cultural Institute, talks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
Amit Sood, director of Google Cultural Institute, talks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Marc Chagall’s massive 18-meter-high painting on the ceiling of Palais Garnier in Paris, painted in 1964, is the most recent example of using both manual and automatic work to create a digital version.

“We had people on a ladder capturing the painting for eight to 10 hours. If you continue to zoom in, you can see the tiny signature Marc Chagall left on the ceiling,” said Sood.

Recently, a digital replica replaced an actual painting. The digital edition of Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” was shown alongside real paintings in a popular Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay. Google made a substitute for the actual painting, which was too fragile to travel from Amsterdam.

In the digital world, viewers transcend time and place too in viewing artworks. They can gather works at different institutions around the world and curate their own exhibition. A lot of student projects in the User Galleries show paintings brought together under different themes. Favorite works can also be shared with friends on Facebook and Twitter.



Moving beyond art



The Google Art Project recently added two architectural wonders ― the Taj Mahal in India and Angkor Wat in Cambodia ― for online viewing.

“It started with art, but now we have three pillars we focus on ― art, archive and archaeology. And soon we will include performing art,” said Sood.

Type Taj Mahal into the search box, and soon you are taken to the majestic tomb in India. The virtual tour and zooming works the same as it does for museums. Clicking on the exterior reveals the geometric patterns and elaborate calligraphy of the Taj Mahal on the computer screen.

The Google Art Project supports the residency program 89plus with renowned curator Han Ulrich Obrist to support artists born in or after 1989 ― members of the digital generation, which came after the emergence of the Internet.

The Project also evolves based on new requests from museums and viewers.

It recently created mobile applications for contemporary museums in Brazil that assist with exhibition tours, functioning much like audio guides. The automatic cloud-based tool by Google helps museums create a mobile application in a single day by simply registering exhibition information.

“We are trying to understand what people are interested (in) about art online,” said Sood.

Sood added that what drives the online art experience is making art accessible to everyone, not just the “elites.”

“I’m trying to reach taxi drivers, laundry ladies. That is the reason for the creation of the project. It’s a fun art experience,” said Sood.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)
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