Talking to Mona Lisa & Michaelangelo

Computer graphics, holograms and 3-D animation technology bring 62 world-renowned masterpieces of Western art to life in Seoul's Alive Gallery. The new project is a clever combination of art history, technology and imaginative — but fact-based — stories, offering a compelling multimedia cultural and entertainment experience.

A who's who of art across the ages — such as Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Mondrian — interact with visitors to explain the creative origins of each piece and the circumstances under which each was made. In the process the artists talk, wave, wink or even scuffle among themselves over who is more popular.


The Mona Lisa answers questions from visitors, such as "Why don't you have any eyebrows?" She answers: "When I was alive, a woman who had big forehead was a beauty … so most women had taken off their eyebrows for beauty."

As she winks and waves at two visiting girls, their mothers giggle. "It's amazing. She speaks!" they exclaim. Mona Lisa's lip movements, facial expression, and body language are in perfect sync with her words. The details are depicted using a DirectX 9 software engine that employs real-time virtual 3-D characters.

"We call it edutainment," said Ted Kim, director of Alive Gallery, who came up with the idea. "We want everyone of all ages to be able to enjoy the experience of understanding art. These masterpieces are not only for sophisticated art majors, you know."


The target market is students — from kindergarten to high school — with each program designed to match the understanding level. Kim says the current art education system is "too boring" and "textual" for modern kids exposed to a high-tech multi-media environment.

The solution was to engage visitors with virtually anything that modern technology could offer: cinematic studios, digitally powered theatrical pop-up stories, state-of-the-art audio-visual rooms, hologram short movies, 3-D animation and digital games.

At the end of the tour, even Van Gogh's painting "Café Terrace at Night" comes alive, with visitors taking souvenir photos at a real-life reproduction stage of the Café with perfectly matching Van Gogh colors, powered by high-tech lighting facilities.

Walk into the first exhibition hall, open every 15 minutes, where a dark cinematic room plays a 3-D animation story of Papyrus of Ani, a 1240 B.C. Egyptian manuscript known as the "Book of the Dead." A narrator dressed as an Egyptian girl appears from a backstage door and plays one of the characters in the piece, explaining what the pictures mean and how people in those days thought of the afterlife.

The ambiance couldn't be more different from the conventional solemn and quiet museum experience. It feels more like a waiting room at a theme park before getting on a roller coaster ride.

The next exhibition hall, "The World of Gods," features Greek sculptures of Hermes, Apollo, Venus de Milo and Nike in a theatrical-sized hologram in which Venus flaunts her perfectly shaped body and Hermes boasts about his bravery and popularity during their glory days.

In the hall named "World Viewed Through Science," where the most well-known Renaissance paintings are displayed, Michelangelo himself appears in the hologram screen behind an exhibition space recreating his Sistine Chapel murals.

A narrator's voice calls on Michelangelo, who is portrayed busily painting. "Me?", he replies," You called me? I'm busy now. What do you want?" As he walks toward the visitors, the hologram technology sparks an optical illusion making it seem as if he might pop out of the screen. Then the conversation begins.

Michelangelo explains the fresco technique he is using to paint "The Last Judgment." He then explains the work of another masterpiece he had completed earlier on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A pop-up screen shows a close-up of the famous "Creation of Adam."

"I wanted to reinterpret the Bible from the human's point of view rather than God's. That painting means that life, heaven and earth are created through the connection between Adam and God's fingers," he says.

Across the hallway, Jan Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" is displayed using 3-D graphics in which the married couple in the painting greet visitors and explain profound symbolism expressed in the piece.

When a group of toddlers on a field trip step closer to the wall, the 3-D animated bride explains, "The little puppy in front of us," she says, extending her arms towards the puppy, "symbolizes fertility or our desire to bear many children." The kids watch in awe.

In the following hall featuring work from the period of industrial revolution, one of the artworks displayed is turned into a computer game. "We don't want people to be quiet here," says Hyun Jung Kim, manager at the Alive Gallery. "Sounds of kids' laughter, sounds of people having fun and watching visitors walk out in satisfaction were our goal."

The first of its kind in the world, Alive Gallery says the project cost $8 million funded by venture capital money. An English-language version is to be completed this month. The tour costs about $17, and is open from 10 a.m.-7 p.m.