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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.