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Switched-on Van Gogh: Review of San Francisco’s ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ experience

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My spring break sojourn in San Francisco lasted only a week and, pandemic withstanding, was spent largely indoors. Still, the advertisements for “Immersive Van Gogh” were inescapable. Bus stop benches, newspaper centerfolds, targeted digital ads — the city and my screen brandished countless images of people standing amid those instantly recognizable swirls. 

Right now, you can see animated versions of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings projected onto three-dimensional space in almost every major American city — Miami, Austin, Las Vegas, Seattle and St. Petersburg, to name a few. This trend began in 2018 with the Paris art space L’Atelier des Lumières, but builds on a larger phenomenon of “immersive experiences,” or multimedia funhouses that provide a multisensory aesthetic experience. Other examples include the millennial pink Museum of Ice Cream that peppered Instagram feeds in 2017, or Meow Wolf, a permanent exhibition in Santa Fe, New Mexico that invites visitors to walk, touch and crawl their way through a fantastical story. 

San Francisco’s offering to the pyre of Van Gogh immersion is housed in a car-dealership-turned-event-space in the SoMa neighborhood. After having my temperature checked at the door, I was led through a long, meandering corridor adorned with plastic sunflowers and hundreds of paint brushes hanging from the ceiling. Finally, I entered the space where the experience would unfold: a single, four-walled room with a grid of speakers and projectors suspended overhead. A large platform encased in a mirrored material allowed for both additional light reflections and an elevated perspective from which to view the animations beamed onto the walls and floor. My social-distancing-compliant circle secured, I spun around to take in the 360-degree projection. The first painting to envelop the room was “Café Terrace at Night,” which, in its original form, depicts a sidewalk cafe awash with golden yellow light. Behind a smattering of tables and the amorphous figures seated at them, a dark alleyway buttressed by shadowy buildings narrows as the cobblestone street recedes into the background.

A GIF panning across a wide view of the room. Cast on the walls is a yellow and blue Van Gogh of people at a Cafe Terrace
(Photo: Hannah Scott)

However, in its immersive rendition, the perspective shifts dramatically. Exploded across the dimensions of the room, the plaza becomes a wide expanse, flattening the original’s linear perspective into a wide-angle panorama of yellow, blue and green brushstrokes. The darkened buildings have multiplied to form an array of skyscrapers in the background. Set to a contemplative, minimally electronic Thom Yorke track, the sketched figures bob up and down as the painter’s trademark stars rise above the skyline. Refigured in this way, the Arles of Van Gogh’s day looks and sounds more like a 21st century metropolis. Was the intention to create a transhistorical reanimation of a canonical artwork? A retrofitted Van Gogh to match the modern technological medium? 

My knee-jerk inclination to search for intention and meaning was, I think, not the point. As soon as my interpretation began to germinate, the nighttime cityscape cross-faded into a pastoral wheat field. “Immersive Van Gogh” is not a museum, and it doesn’t want to be — it’s an experience. The audience let their collective gaze twirl around and around the enormous, ever-shifting display, stopping only to take the requisite selfie (head tilted up and to one side, eyes not meeting the camera lens so as to convey a state of total immersion). A room illuminated solely by projectors, the dynamic effects provided by the animation of certain aspects of each painting, the novelty of participating in an embodied experience after a year of lockdown: all these elements made me feel sensorially overwhelmed, if a little dizzy at points. There were, however, no labels offering biographical information about Van Gogh, no exhibition catalog to provide further context about his paintings. The goal was not to replicate the didactic, educational format of the traditional, white-walled museum. 

And maybe they have a point. Lighthouse Immersive, one of the many production companies that comprise the extensive behind-the-scenes scaffolding for the “Immersive Van Gogh” enterprise, envisions “a world where art is a part of everyone’s everyday lives,” according to the mission statement on their website. A traditional museum maintains a distance between audience and art, both in the sense that physical art objects are hung on a wall or displayed on a plinth, and that these works exist in a singular location that one must typically pay to access. If you want to see the original “Café Terrace at Night,” for instance, you’ll have to travel to Otterlo, The Netherlands and purchase an 11-Euro ticket to the Kröller-Müller Museum. 

In San Francisco (or Phoenix, Dallas, Toronto or Cleveland), however, your ticket doesn’t just allow you to look at a famous painting, but invites you to step inside one. As the paintings melt into one another in chronological order, the viewer gets a whirlwind impression of the artist’s evolving style, while the music cues an emotional plotline (rhapsodic symphony to signal creative inspiration, melancholic Bach to suggest mental break resulting in infamous ear casualty). If the museum constitutes an imperfect or outmoded meeting space between people and art, are these pop-up attractions that allow attendees to engage with the work on multiple levels of sensory engagement the answer?

Despite Lighthouse Immersive’s noble initiative to create more opportunities for engagement with art, their $55 admission fee suggests that profit is the real bottom line. The liberation of art from the museum’s scarcity paradigm is better served by Google Images, where every Van Gogh piece is instantly available to view on your phone or laptop, than by “Immersive Van Gogh.” But even beyond the exorbitant cost for an hour of immersion, the branding of such an experience as “art” also seems suspect. 

The medium of the immersive experience may transcend the limitations of traditional institutions dedicated to public engagement with art. Why, then, have multiple independent production companies all chosen to center their attractions around megawatt artworks and around Van Gogh specifically? Rather than giving contemporary artists the opportunity to define the character of this new, highly-Instagrammable mode of creative work, implementations like “Immersive Van Gogh” reformat the work of dead white men with household names to signify the “art” part of their product. 

Though Lighthouse Immersive aspires to inject more art into everyday life, what they really offer is an opportunity to give one’s senses over to the unavoidably intoxicating effect of light, sound and basic animation effects displayed at a scale larger than life. This experience has nothing to do with vases of sunflowers nor the story of a troubled artist; the real product is the format itself and the hijacking of the senses it provides.

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