Van Gogh Experiences: Immersive Art in the COVID Era




All photos by the writer

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THE IMMERSIVE VAN GOGH art experience is now showing in cities around the globe, from New York to Nashville to Toronto to Dubai. With some minor variations, the shows are all based on the same central premise: in large venues like warehouses or churches, they project Van Gogh paintings onto the walls, blown up to giant proportions. I attended the New York show on Pier 36, a 75,000-square-foot waterfront space with three rooms of pulsing Van Gogh patterns streaming on every surface. It was immersive, popular, ideologically suspect in numerous ways, and — I won’t lie — I loved it.

Ever since, I’ve been puzzling over this show’s contradictions, trying to understand what it means for art, commodity culture, popular crazes, and aesthetic history. While critics trained in fine art values have been predictably snobby toward the VG shows and other similar phenomena, these shows actually offer new aesthetic experiences whose complexities transcend mere “kitsch.”

In fact, as I’ll explore further below, the VG shows presage a new kind of popular, immersive aesthetics. They follow on immersive marketing experiences, like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream, that have been accused of focusing more on profit than aesthetics. But they ultimately point toward an art of the future that challenges traditional kinds of art value and spectatorship — moving from the museum’s air of hushed contemplation to the immersive art’s ambiance of noisy, kinetic world-building.

Let’s acknowledge right away some of the more problematic aspects of the VG experience. If producers are scrambling to bring Van Gogh to cities around the globe — sometimes with multiple competing shows in the same city — it’s not because they’re art philanthropists. These shows make money. With tickets ranging from $25 to $65 and up for “VIP experiences,” there’s a fortune to be made from the world’s apparently insatiable appetite for Van Gogh. Among the various shows’ backers is the Los Angeles talent company IMG (International Management Group), funder of fashion shows, sporting events, and other lucrative spectacles.

Of course, the fine art world itself is not exactly free of commercial concerns, especially at the high end, where financiers invest millions in fashionable artworks for profit. But there’s something blatant about the commercialism of a Van Gogh experience where the gift shop offers a vast, magnificent array of Starry Night mugs, socks, and water bottles. While museum gift shops are likewise guilty, the VG experiences take the scale of this merchandising to a whole new level.

Another troubling element of the VG craze, specifically in America, is its tie to the hit Netflix show Emily in Paris. The TV show portrays Emily attending the VG experience with her dreamy French love interest — along with his girlfriend, who conveniently disappears while the two would-be lovers discuss a forbidden kiss with VG patterns streaming over their faces. Emily in Paris drew international condemnation for its stereotypical, caricatured, and whitewashed portrayals of Paris and French people. But the show’s scene at the VG experience was enough to inspire the American craze, highlighting a link between the TV show and the art show: both craft a kind of European-culture-lite, eminently consumable and Instagram-ready for image-conscious young Americans. (This is definitely an essential part of the VG experience: watching young people take selfies against a VG background.) In a now-familiar critique, all of the show’s beautiful surfaces perfectly cater to a glitzy, post-postmodern media culture that defines selfhood through a series of eye-catching pictures and videos.

For all of its hospitality to new media culture, the VG show also promotes a very old idea in lionizing Van Gogh as a master and genius. This old-school art-historical narrative still lingers in the museum world, and it gains literal magnification with this larger-than-life treatment of his works. Van Gogh’s story, in particular, epitomizes the type of the genius male painter, with his poverty, madness, and cut-off ear. A spectacular immersive show — which has also been orchestrated for artists like Picasso and Monet — seems especially suited for those deemed male artist geniuses. It is not yet available for the works of an artist who’s female or a person of color.

Given all the manifestly problematic aspects of the VG experience, then, I was shocked to actually enjoy the show. In fact, it’s aesthetically compelling in some surprising ways. The version I saw was created by Massimiliano Siccardi, a lighting designer who shaped the show expressly for the vast Pier 36 space. He worked with David Korins, the Broadway set designer for shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. I’d thought that I would be encountering a kind of glorified PowerPoint presentation, but the work is actually much more intentional and artistic.

Across three different rooms, the show unfolds as an integrated artwork of projected visuals, animation, music, sound design, and architecture. Sculptural elements of mirrors and silver balls take up the streaming visuals, reflecting and fragmenting light and color. The show tells a visual narrative of Van Gogh’s subjects, from working-class people and prison inmates to sunflowers and a night full of stars. Siccardi has stated, somewhat dramatically, that the show intends to depict Van Gogh’s world flashing before his eyes in the seconds before his death. Using animation, paintings come to life at large scale: crows fly over cornfields, and irises take root and bloom. The music, composed and arranged by Luca Longobardi, was haunting and at times disturbing. I recognized many of the pieces that had been cunningly reworked to fit the imagery — for instance, Samuel Barber’s slow and sad Adagio for Strings, remade here as a bare-bones piano piece. The music and soundscape (buzzing flies, clanging doors) helped to move the show through a series of building climaxes, arriving at maximalist eruptions of color and sound.

The show’s large scale also creates its own distinctive aesthetic experience. Depending on where you stood or sat during the projection, you could take in a completely different show. I saw some attendees choosing to lie flat out on the floor, letting the visuals pour over them. Different rooms have different scales and mirrors; we took in parts of the show in each of the rooms, comparing the effects. The huge, immersive qualities — with pixels even streaming on the floors — allowed us to entertain that age-old fantasy: what if you really could step into a painting and enter its world? There’s an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to the dreamlike, painterly surrealism encompassing you at such large scale.

The whole experience was also magnified by the impoverishments of the COVID era. I’ve tried to stay safe by avoiding crowds or any kind of mass event. The VG show marked my return to an in-person, mass experience: its large scale made it well suited for COVID social distancing, with rings on the floor marking out appropriate pod spacing. No doubt the feelings unleashed by the show were in part a response to the privations of COVID. (As I write this, the Delta variant is now wreaking havoc, suggesting that my VG visit might have occurred during an opportune window.) My cynicism about the selfie-taking young people was mitigated by the sheer joy of being in the presence of others, experiencing pleasure together.

While some VG attendees have reported being moved to tears, more traditional art critics have been skeptical or downright hostile. It’s not hard to understand why. Van Gogh’s original paintings are small-scale, thick with impasto layers of paint rendered in distinctive brushstrokes. As art historian C. Shaw Smith puts it, “In the original works, what you’re really talking about is the hand.” But in the case of the VG experience, where spectacle dominates, “you’re talking about the eye.” The large-scale projections obscure the authentic trace of the master’s hand, so important to art-historical analysis. Jason Farago, an art critic for The New York Times, scorns the show as catering to babies, “distill[ing] fin-de-siècle French painting into an amusement as captivating as a nursery mobile.” Farago gets off a number of zingers against the show, which he has been forced to attend in long-suffering service to his newspaper. “These wall-size screen savers,” he suggests, are “not more sophisticated than the flat-screen visuals in airport terminals or sports stadiums.”

While Farago presents himself as almost a parody of an elitist art critic — as numerous indignant readers point out in the comments section — he’s channeling long-standing Western aesthetic values that go all the way back to Kant. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant declared that judgments of beauty must be “disinterested” — while they’re based in pleasure, they can’t be based in physical desire, whether for food, sex, or pretty colors. Kantian aesthetics excludes primitive physical pleasure from judgments of taste and beauty, and since then Western art critics have continued to look down on artworks that cater too much to the senses.

The VG experience blatantly disobeys Kant’s injunction, much to the delight of the millions of attendees. Farago’s disdain reflects a sociology of art of the kind documented by Pierre Bourdieu, in which elite art appreciation takes place in temples of art, based on education and cultural capital; the VG show, by contrast, needs no education to appreciate, and occupies a popular space with no formidable cultural gatekeeping. The show plays directly to the sensorium, unabashedly aiming to please the senses, and triggering suspicion among those who’ve been trained to see bodily pleasure as a questionable aspect of high-art aesthetics. Again, these art-critical values are based in Enlightenment-era dichotomies, denigrating the feminized, primitive body while elevating the masculinized, abstracting mind.

Yet Farago concludes his review on a revealingly soul-searching note:

[A]fter a few hours in these sensoria, I had to believe that the millions of visitors who enjoy these immersive van Gogh displays are getting something out of it. There’s a speechless and irreducible quality to great art. […] And if audiences find that quality more immediately here than they do in our traditional institutions, maybe we should be asking why.

Why, indeed.

Farago points out that the admission costs to the MOMA and the Met are cheaper than the VG show tickets, as though cost is the only barrier that might keep a person out of a museum. Farago is obviously not thinking about Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, with all of its invisible yet potent barriers. I couldn’t help but notice that the VG audience was surprisingly diverse, representing many of New York’s various populations, despite the manifestly white male artist on view. Perhaps the audience felt welcomed by a marketing campaign that was cheerily unpretentious, leaning heavily on cheesy VG puns (“Gogh with the whole family!”). Museums, by contrast, begin the inhospitable gatekeeping with their grand architecture, whose pomp inevitably signals “high art” and all its exclusions.

The VG show also inevitably makes the typical museum experience seem static by comparison. Paintings seem stilled and inert on a museum wall, seen in quiet thoughtfulness. The subdued museum experience makes for a striking contrast with that of a profane, noisy urban warehouse, with art growing and morphing all around. In fact, I wondered if the VG experience might intimate new possibilities for art beyond traditional genres or frames. The show might be put in productive conversation with recent kinds of art-making that emphasize immersion, performance, and audience involvement. Yes, the immersive trend was invented by marketers, but it’s also being adapted by artists in innovative and exciting ways.

For instance, Sleep No More, a theatrical show that imitates the look and feel of a 1930s five-story Manhattan hotel, retells the story of Macbeth in loose vignettes; masked audience members move through the elaborate rooms in random order, with performers and sets telling different pieces of the story. Or there’s Meow Wolf, an unusual museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which describes itself as a “mind-bending, explorable art experience” featuring “70 rooms of immersive art.” In Meow Wolf, a nonlinear narrative unfolds as spectators can climb through refrigerators and fireplaces, unlocking trippy hallways, surreal decor, and weird lighting.

All of these shows emphasize world-building and immersiveness, bringing to mind Richard Wagner’s venerable concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” or “all-encompassing art.” Wagner used the term to describe the multimedia aspects of opera, an artform whose fine art status today might disguise its more popular, crowd-pleasing aspects in the 19th century. Beyond the concept’s roots in opera, the Gesamtkunstwerk is also useful for thinking about art forms today that integrate diverse media to create an immersive altered environment. (Apparently, some Van Gogh experiences even stimulate the sense of smell by circulating scents of cedar, lemon, cypress, or nutmeg.) Today’s immersive arts don’t have the worshipful, high-culture aura of the museum cordoning off the masses. Instead, they position themselves as welcoming tourist attractions, open to anyone who can afford the entrance fee. They’re still shaped around an idea of “art,” but it’s an art that’s valued for its palpable beauty and hits of pleasure, rather than for its high-culture status.

Of course, the boundary between museum and tourist attraction today is as permeable as it ever has been, and I don’t want to overstate the contrast. Yet it is undeniable that the VG experiences are offering audiences something that they aren’t finding in museums. The museum emphasis on originality, purity, framing, high art, and authenticity here gives way to kitsch, reproducibility, repeatability, spectacle, and a profoundly inauthentic yet pleasurable experience. Interestingly, at least one museum is joining the crowd: the Indianapolis Museum of Art recently opened “the Lume,” an immersive display themed around Van Gogh’s art. I will be curious to see if other museums follow suit.

While there’s much to be suspicious of, then, in immersive shows that capitalize on our hunger for accessible and beautiful art experiences, there’s also much to ponder and even enjoy. After COVID and Zoom have conspired to deaden our senses and alienate us from our communities, it’s a welcome relief to return to the body, to pleasure, and to the company of others.

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Rachel Teukolsky is professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Her latest book, Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media, was published by Oxford University Press in 2020.

 

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