Salvador Dalí once said, “I’m going to live forever. Geniuses don’t die.” Now we know he was right.
The eccentric surrealist master personally greets us with his trademark mustache at the entrance of his museum in St. Petersburg. He is in high spirits and great shape – considering it’s been 30 years since his death.
The START button on a human-size screen is all it takes to summon the Catalan painter and bring him to the foreground, where he might share the impact his brother’s death had on his psyche or what he carries in his pocket in lieu of cigars. Keep invoking him and he will talk for some good 45 minutes; not bad for someone who would be 115 years old.
Currently on view at The Dalí Museum through Dec. 31, 2029, Dalí Lives is a complementary experience that enhances the effect of an already attractive permanent collection that traditionally gave viewers plenty to talk about. Now, three video kiosks scattered throughout the building do the talking. On the second floor, a lively Dalí is happy to elaborate on the inspiration behind his pieces and give his opinion on current events. Before exiting through the museum store, he invites departing visitors to take a selfie with him and subsequently forwards it to their phones.
“Since I don’t smoke, I decided to grow a mustache. It is better for the health,” he says at one point.
At times, he turns sentimental.
“My brother died three years before I was born. My family named me like my dead brother: Salvador. I wish to prove to myself that I am not the dead brother but the living one.”
Aided by the emerging new technology Deepfake, a voice actor and a physical actor who studied Dalí’s mannerisms, the resemblance delivered is striking. This outstanding case of flesh-meets-algorithm involved feeding the computer 6,000 frames of the artist. To achieve the full realistic effect, the museum partnered with Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a San Francisco-based advertising agency committed to the creation of experiences with ample reach and a personal touch; something it calls “mass intimacy.”
“We think of installations like this as the museum version of a new ride at Disney World,” said GS&P co-chairman Jeff Goodby via email. “The thing has been an enormous hit. It has humanized the experience in a stunning way.”
The implication of immortality and forgery makes the use of this software somewhat controversial. The latest season of Black Mirror tackles this very subject through an episode starring Miley Cyrus as a nearly deceased singer whose image is exploited via a hologram. Then, there is the increasing abuse of deepfakes by pranksters for political and pornographic purposes.
In June, a doctored video of a drunk House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went viral while a more benign use saw Jim Carrey’s face superimposed over Jack Nicholson’s body in The Shining. Instead of here’s Johnny! we might get here’s Jimmy! but I digress. Positive application of this technique has been slim so far, but that could change. Goodby said NASA and the Smithsonian have shown interest.
“In ‘Dalí Lives,’ we have used it for the first time for good purposes, education, and expansive thought,” he said. “I daresay this is also the finest, most detailed, and truest version of the technology to date.”
Dalí’s own writings, quotes, interviews, and archival footage feed the script effortlessly reenacted by the actor. The short clips are intentionally random and keep visitors accustomed to video loops waiting in anticipation of what he will say next. In between speeches, his obscure figure is seen submerged in the act of painting or walking across the frame with his cane.
While it is true the real Dalí cannot really defend his reputation should someone disagree with one of the scripted statements, it is hard to imagine the flamboyant artist would have opposed the appropriation of his image to advance his genius. This is not someone who wanted to rest in peace but remain high-profile.
Accompanying his resurrected version is Visual Magic, an exhibition that animates some of his largest masterpieces via augmented reality. Picture Gala taking a dive through Abraham Lincoln’s face. This is one of three summer exhibitions running simultaneously through Nov. 3. Bronzes from the Vault showcases a series of 20 small-scale bronzes sculptures – the only sculptures Dalí made by hand.
Meanwhile, Before Dalí: Goya – Visions & Inventions features paintings and etchings by Francisco Goya, another Spanish master who was a strong artistic influence on Dalí despite being born 158 years earlier. Collectively, the interactive exhibits and regenerated Dalí help us move past the ego and gimmicks that made him notorious and land in a clearing where we suddenly understand him better.
“Everyone talks about eccentricity. It’s a little true, but I am totally and absolutely a paradoxical man. I am eccentric but, at the same time, I’m concentric,” he says while highlighting this superpower balance he possesses with his palms. “Please remember that the only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad.”
This is not the first time the museum employs cutting-edge artificial intelligence to defy the limits of the gallery experience. In 2016, a similar collaboration led to “Dreams of Dalí” virtual reality experience that transported viewers into Dalí’s painting, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus.” Two years earlier, “Gala Contemplating You” turned a visitor’s selfie into a projected, full-scale replica of the 1976 monumental painting Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko).
The compelling outcome of these efforts point to AI and AR as strong contenders for redefining cultural experiences. Cultural institutions acutely aware of the need to keep audiences engaged might look into resurrecting their fellow artists. Dalí sets the bar incredibly high, though. He is uniquely qualified for this sort of experiment and was intent on transcending death long before the present-day technological renaissance. In the words of his digital replica:
“Painting is only one of the means of expression of my total genius, which exist when I write, when I live, when – in some way or another – I manifest my magic.”
The Dalí Museum is open daily from 10:30 am to 5 pm (except for Thursday, when it is open until 8 pm) at 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg. Tickets for adults are $25; call 727-823-3767 or visit thedali.org.