Why are we so captivated by the work of Vincent van Gogh? Is it the bright, mesmerizing swirls of color juxtaposed with the often dreary, lonesome subjects that he would capture? Could it be the approachability of his paintings, offering a nostalgia for a feeling, rather than a place? Or is it simply the fact that his work and story has, over time, become so easily packaged as to fit neatly upon the back of a ticket stub?
Whatever the reason, it is clear that van Gogh has entered the 21st century as a brand name first and an artistic figure second. This is no more evident than at "Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience," which prioritizes the artist's name recognition over solid creative innovation. Before even entering the building, you must weave your way around signs that direct you to "Gogh This Way." Ushers offer you long-stemmed sunflowers, without offering a reason for why you should bear their burden for the evening.
It is difficult to extract a digestible theme for the experience. As you venture into the exhibit, you're met with neon sunflowers and moons and a sign that greets you with the classic: "I dream my painting and I paint my dream." While a very flowery and oft-repeated quote, it is unclear how this connects to the larger goal of the exhibit, which is to "go beyond the myth, beyond the images, to venture into the work itself." One gets the feeling that the point is not to encourage deeper inspection, but to push yet another barrier between you and the work in the form of your iPhone camera.
The more redeeming aspect is the expository section, which gives a rudimentary and succinct introduction to van Gogh's work and life. "Beyond Van Gogh" utilizes letters sent from Vincent to his brother, Theo, to give a bit of context to the relationship to the brothers and Vincent's inner monologue. This commentary and historical background, while not revelatory, are at least educational. Unfortunately, the effect is dulled by the blast of the symphonic music overhead, which makes reading feel impossible. Portrait frames float in front of the projected informational cards to give the effect of a painting, but some are obscured by pillars that cut into the middle of the room in front of the frames, which make reading literally impossible.
The main draw of the exhibit is a 360° projection of a film that consists of a stream of van Gogh paintings, quotes, and animatics. It is meant to make you feel that you have walked inside of a painting, but instead feels more like you have walked into one of those animated desktop screensavers that make your computer look like a fish tank. The projection is very choppy, as you can see along the walls where the image has been cut off and then pasted again without seaming the edges together. The walls also seem to blow in the wind, making the animation of the scenery paintings feel jerky, inspiring a bit of motion sickness. Much like the beginning of the exhibit, it is hard to piece together a storyline or theme to the film. It seems more like an automated collage of the artist's work strung together by similar subjects: nature scenery, then portraiture, then flower studies.
The end of the self-guided tour leads to the most important stop: the van Gogh store. Inside, they sell the kinds of trinkets you can find also at an Urban Outfitters: a Starry Night mug; a sunflower T-shirt; an art book designed to be seen but not opened. These are added costs to exhibit entry, which can range anywhere between $37 to $64 for a single adult ticket (unless, of course, you choose to fill in your name and Instagram handle for promotional tickets on their website under the header "Calling All Influencers"). If it looks like a lazy cash grab, and it quacks like a lazy cash grab, then, well.
This desire to shove traditional art, kicking and screaming, into the digital age, is not a singular one. Consider the short-lived trend of selling NFTs, which earlier this year essentially turned novelty and bragging rights into a million-dollar branch of the art-dealing industry. This venture to transition van Gogh's timelessness into modernity is very much an act of chasing one's own tail, as the goal of the exhibition feels contradictory in nature. To step into van Gogh's world, shouldn't we be willing to first look past mere aesthetics in the form of flashing lights?
As an introduction to van Gogh (although the artist needing an introduction at all is hard to imagine), "Beyond Van Gogh" does a fine job. It could definitely be an enjoyable experience for a younger audience, eager to engage directly with the artwork. For all its laziness and gratuity, we can't blame the exhibitionists for their efforts – after all, a year of isolation can certainly leave one clamoring for immersion, no matter what the cost.
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