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Immersive Van Gogh

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Being bathed by all those sunflowers seduced my imagination. Before I was able to reason, I found myself inside an abandoned parking structure, confined to a four-by-four square of tape, panting for the exhibit to begin. The show promised a breath-taking experience of color and mood, an escape into the world of one of the most famous European artists. I could wander into a canvas of blues and greens, feast on the texture of paint come alive, hear the whir of bristles and cloth.

Photo by Beyza Eren on

Instead, as the slideshow filled out the walls, I felt dizzy and bored. Where were the golden fields I was supposed to meander in the south of France? Why did the irises I’d once admired look so contorted? What was I gaining from this presentation? Not much. As the show continued, my eyes began to focus more on the architectural vagaries of the building. I found myself distracted by strange doors in corners, bolts mysteriously lacking support beams, curious moldings under the skylight.

Photo by Brett Sayles on

My legs whined from cramp and my back longed to stroll through actual corridors anywhere else. The idea of collecting things to house in a specific spot has long been problematic to me, but at this point I would’ve happily traversed the halls of fifty museums searching for van Gogh masterpieces. The exhibition was making me acutely miss standing in front of one of his real canvases, staring uninterrupted into the work of his hands. I wanted to admire the uneven daubs of carmine, vermillion, and cobalt. I wanted to study the overtly elongated lines which gave his houses their sinister mien. I wanted out of this slow dripping miasma of images and elevator music.

Photo by Rahul Pandit on

Digital technology keeps assuring us that virtual immersion will free our imaginations, guiding our society to a new dawn. And as a species we are enthralled by worlds of fantasy — escaping into the myth of superheroes, wizards, and second lives as easily as we slip in earbuds. Why not? In these other worlds we can actually be whoever we want. We wield power. The story revolves around us. It’s so much easier to dream about freedom than to repeatedly keep bloodying our hands in search of it. Distraction is endless. Dependency on the sources of diversion is all consuming.

Photo by Steve Johnson on

Perhaps worship of the virtual proceeds from fear of a universe we cannot control, or disdain of our inevitable decay? I don’t know. In the midst of all this immersive experience, however, I am yearning for the messiness of paint daubed onto canvas. I am desiring to do the hard work of understanding what another human’s creativity has to tell me about myself. I am dreaming of walking along a dirt path while sunflowers watch my progress, nodding in the breeze.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on

As I waited impatiently for the van Gogh immersive exposition to end, I realized exactly what I needed from technology: help in exploring and engaging with the world I live in. A tool that enables the powerless to architect their future, one that frees society’s substructure from limitations. Where is the digital device for that?


In his nine hundred letters written over a lifetime of passion, sorrow, and labor, Vincent van Gogh shares his views on technique, the artistic practice, and determination. The epistles are a beautiful look into the odyssey of a complicated human searching for love and meaning through the medium of canvas.

Have you had a virtual experience and if so, how was it for you? What did the virtual one deliver that you couldn’t gain from a real-life experience? Let me know in the comments below.

65 replies »

  1. Love the bravery of this review. You’re not supposed to be able to say, or even think, these things. But wouldn’t it be just what VvG himself would think? Why weren’t his paintings good enough, as they were? Who decided to fill a kaleidoscope with them? It is here where I live, in Salt Lake City; I don’t think I will go. Though that movie I saw–which happened in VvG’s paintings, characters (including VvG himself) moving through them, to tragic end–was all a movie could ever be, and I think would have greatly satisfied him. Maybe. His thinking, surely, was never predictable.

    • Thank you for your lovely comment. I think the artist would simply have been amazed to find out what a celebrity he’d become since he spent so much of his lifetime trying to get people to see the value of his paintings.

  2. Enjoyed reading about your perspective on the immersive experiences I’ve been hearing so much about this past year. While I think they sound interesting, somewhat similar to your feeling prior to actually entering the exhibition ~ this line of yours had me laughing at the honesty “… at this point I would’ve happily traversed the halls of fifty museums searching for van Gogh masterpieces.” Fantastic writing and the photos that accompanied your writing were perfectly selected 🙂

      • It is funny because I missed several opportunities to see the Van Gogh immersive experience. I saw another for an artist (it escapes me who it was) and regretted not taking the time, but after reading your post, I think I would not enjoy it, but my mind would wander exactly how you did (the facilities, bolts, etc. 😂).

  3. There’s nothing like seeing the original art in person. It’s kind of intimate, in a way, isn’t it? To see the texture, and, sometimes, a stray hair from the artist’s brush.

    Your post kind of blew my mind because over the past year I’ve been gaining a deeper appreciation of Van Gogh from – don’t laugh – a digital colouring app I use sometimes to help myself focus. Even though the digital colour-by-number reproduction isn’t the best representation, you can still appreciate his use of colour and composition. But it in no way would be the same as seeing his works in person.

    Thank you for this post. You’ve given me much to think about, as usual, and I suddenly realized I need to visit an art exhibit very soon.

    • Hopefully I was not implying that because I didn’t find the exhibition to be very good, it wouldn’t be a source of beauty to others. I’m so happy you shared with me that your appreciation of Van Gogh came from a digital coloring app! I find that fascinating and would highly recommend this exhibition for you. I’d be interested to know what you thought of the large scale reproductions and the way they decided to mobilize Van Gogh’s works. I still think everyone should also have the opportunity to see his actual paintings and a real field of sunflowers. Context is everything and seeing both of these gives even greater perspective to what Van Gogh was attempting to achieve through his artistry. May you soon visit an art exhibit! Take care.

  4. How interesting to have this point of view! I plan on seeing the immersive in Montréal which everyone who I know and saw it rave about! I will approach this with a curious mind and see where it takes me 😊

  5. I will admit when I began to read I was not expecting to learn how much you disliked the experience. As much as you prefer to see the actual paintings, I am struck by how these digital experiences bring in people who have never taken the time to go to an art gallery or museum. Perhaps there is the value in broadening or reaching more
    people through different mediums. What do you think?

    • I’ve been wondering about that. As someone privileged to have seen Van Gogh’s work in several museums, it’s hard for me to know what sort of experience I would have seeing this without that knowledge. Would someone uninterested in art consider a digital presentation? Also, admission to the exhibition can be as expensive or more, depending on the city it’s being presented in, compared to many museums (which may offer free admission) so that’s a consideration. Such food for thought. Thanks so much for asking!

  6. Some how my comment got lost, I saw quite a few years in Los Angeles an Exhibition from Van Gogh named Van Gogh’s Van Gogh Museum, unfortunately they only brought mostly his very earlier works as when he try painting for the first time, with maybe four or five from his more mature paintings.

    • I think your comment came in as anonymous. It’s too bad that you didn’t get to see more of Van Gogh’s famous works in that LA exhibition. Though as an enthusiast of his oeuvre I like seeing anything by him.

      • Somewhere between 1980 to 1985 I read a ton of books about painting, and painters, and read many books about Vincent, and Gauguin, I even try to reproduce some of their paintings, and did some of my own inspiration, I had so many that it was hard for me to storage them, I could not sell but one single painting, but my ex wife after I moved out of the house she sold them all, a son of mine confided me she got a very good price for each of them!🤷‍♂️

  7. Well, since I retired and move out from LA, no exhibitions of any kind for me, right now, during my 32 years in LA I did attend to many exhibitions including Van Gogh’s Van Gogh, quite a few years ago, which was kind of disappointing, only minor works exhibited, and most from his very early period, when he had not found his way yet, most of his later, and famous paintings in other Museums.

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