Immersive Van Gogh: Homage or Exploitation?

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Written by Alex La Loggia

For the past few months, advertisements for the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit have been unavoidable. Every time I ventured online I was greeted with advertisements of sunflower projections and newspaper articles raving about the latest cultural experience. As a fan of art, I was intrigued by the promises of a “completely new way of encountering art”, as the website boasts. A few weeks ago I fulfilled my curiosity and attended the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit located in San Francisco. 

The Art

The experience itself was beautiful. Animated displays of Van Gogh’s paintings created a cinematic experience as they came to life on colorful walls. Sunflowers, fields, and skies swirled around parties sitting in circles of light as sweeping orchestrations flowed in sync. Sections, where the floor became flooded with projections, were some of the most enjoyable. Throughout there were moments of the excitement felt at a museum when viewing a known artist or familiar painting. But despite the elegant displays, something about it rang false. As an art fan, the flatness of the art was immediately recognizable, as well as the subtle butchering of some paintings and the bias towards others. Any attempts at a narrative within the show became lost behind showy execution, leading it to feel like the actual paintings were a background rather than the main event. The show itself lasted around 40 minutes, 

The Profit Venture

When it ended, I braced for rounding the corner. Having not encountered a gift shop at the beginning, I figured this was the moment of truth. The size and variety of it still managed to shock most of my party. Starry Night and perhaps two other paintings, spread across keychains, wallets, magnets, teacups, and a couple of dozen other trinkets. Even as someone who is no stranger to Van Gogh products (I can admit to owning a stray Cafe Terrace at Night bookmark or Starry Night skirt), the display seemed utterly revealing. At best, it was a way for the audience to take home a little piece of revisited art. It was, at worst, the culmination of an “experience” that relied on familiarity for profit: much like the feeling of disembarking from a Disney ride and being led immediately from a nostalgia trip into a gift shop. 

Several other members of my party also seemed off-put at the display. Others simply seemed bored. That gave me pause. I had been thinking of what the experience fell short on – because, in all, it was lacking something fundamental – and at first the immediate answer was it had strayed too far from the art, and Van Gogh himself. There were times I found myself longing to see a full piece rather than chopped-up bits. And though there were attempts at narrative, they never seemed to result further than build-ups for the more widely known paintings. However, their reactions made me consider: if this was an attempt to reintroduce art, it didn’t get very far.

Van Gogh and Us

For people who love art, it will most likely be enjoyable. For those who don’t, they’ll likely find themselves bored. In this way, the experience is practically indistinguishable from a museum. Both are attempting to instill an appreciation for art in the public, and both are succeeding and failing in similar ways. Immersive Van Gogh differs in attempts to re-introduce the art through a more lifeless, profitable measure. But even with that, I enjoyed it. Because buried beneath the lure of advertisements and flashy displays, something was enduring about the idea that humanity continues to seek out art despite our current hardships and technological age.