by Emma Keas
Beyond Van Gogh—an immersive virtual reality exhibit—is popping up in locations across the world, proving to be a new way of examining fine art up close.
At McEnery Convention Center’s South Hall in downtown San Jose, the show was open till around the New Years’ holiday. Inside, visitors could walk through a gallery of gilded frame decorations and screens on which the life of Vincent Van Gogh was summarized at a glance.
Past that room, a doorway opened up to a larger, warehouse-like space, where visitors seemingly stepped foot directly into a Van Gogh painting. The entire floor and walls were awash in color, the premise of the production being projections of large-scale animations. Moreover, the show was interactive, allowing people to walk around the vast, tall room and its few partitions as the video transitioned beautifully from one acrylic landscape to the next. Stars from Starry Night twinkled and winked; the flowers in Almond Blossoms shed their petals in a whirlwind of white; cobbled streets materialized and crumbled; Van Gogh’s many portraits blinked down at us from their digital frames. During each presentation, whimsical music and recordings in French filtered through speakers, accompanying the amazing visuals in a way that spotlit their wonder. For a full hour, the experience was exciting and something I didn’t expect—most couldn’t stop staring.
From a pandemic standpoint, this show has been a success. The project’s website advertises its spacious locations’ capability to maintain 6-foot distances between visitors, and showtimes are spaced out so that only a limited number of people enter each hour. Masks and proofs of vaccination are required during check-in, so risks are minimized.
Outside the first exit was a small gift shop, boasting t-shirts, puzzles, notebooks, and more with prints of Van Gogh’s vibrant work. By flipping through posts on social media, it can be surmised that most customers, especially the younger generation, have enjoyed their visit and are promoting Montreal’s Normal Studio, headed by creative director Mathieu St-Arnaud, in the process. This is something that he and his team have likely noticed, clear in the exhibit’s website offers of “Become a Beyond Van Gogh Influencer!”
On the flip side, online reviews vary, especially among those who have attended similar exhibits before. In Paris, the L’Atelier des Lumières is currently featuring music-accompanied projections of Cezanne’s and Kandinsky’s works. In Tokyo, teamLab Borderless at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum procures fluid designs of nature meant to eclipse divisions between people, time, and space. In tandem with these shows, Beyond Van Gogh seems to lose the highlight of its brilliance. A user on Yelp reportedly heard “whispers of ‘this isn’t what I expected’ and the very common, ‘is this it?’” upon her underwhelming entrance into the main auditorium of the San Jose show. The same user was disappointed at how cheaply-made the gift shop souvenirs allegedly were. For the price of $50 per person, some may find the show to be less interactive, immersive, and complex than anticipated.
In the end, whether one visits Beyond Van Gogh for an Instagram-worthy shot under the glow of colorful projections or to learn more about the life and vision of artist Vincent Van Gogh, it can’t be denied that this virtual reality approach to art is unique to our time and perhaps something worth a glimpse of.