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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.

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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.

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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. I’ve been in two events in Paris. Klimt/Schiele and Van Gogh. Both were very well done. Maybe it was another production?
    “exploring and engaging with the world I live in.”? That’s an ambitious tool you’re looking for. Maybe humankind could just go back at using its brain, which I feel has been neglected lately?

  2. Totally agree. A friend offered me free tickets that they couldn’t use but I said no thanks – because I love Van Gogh!

    • Hahaha. Yes, I can see that you were preparing yourself not to be disappointed! An intriguing idea. Perhaps an artist I’m not as fond of or familiar with would be worth seeing as a digital exhibition. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.

  3. My sentiments exactly, Atreyee. I have never had an interest in these “immersive” exhibitions. A wonderful memory is seeing the massive Van Gogh exhibit at the Met. This is the way to see a great artist’s work.

  4. In my opinion the main goal for immersives like this one is to bring artworks to a broader audience, to the mainstream. Is this a good thing or not? I don’t know. But like you, I’d prefer marveling at the world’s great art pieces directly in front of each of them. That way I can take a closer look at specific parts without the distraction of moving images and sorts.

    • “the main goal for immersives like this one is to bring artworks to a broader audience, to the mainstream. Is this a good thing or not?” I know. A good thing, but when not done well, I’m not sure what it achieves. Thanks so much for the always thoughtful chat. Wishing you well!

  5. Yes, yes, YES! I wouldn’t go near one of these immersive exhibitions and it saddens me that people are flocking to them. Essentially I think they are a poor substitute for the real thing and a Disneyesque way to make money. Immersing myself in the works of many artists over many years, I’ve learned so much and most of those experiences have been in galleries and museums, where I stand there physically in front of a physical object. Artists’ studios and outdoor sculpture parks have also been inspirational.
    I’m grateful for technology because it allows me to connect to people all over the world – which has enriched my life. I wouldn’t want technology to free me of all limitations though, limitations are valuable, they engender creativity.

    • Limitations do engender creativity. I think done in certain ways, this type of exhibition could be wonderful for those who wouldn’t have the chance to go to a museum. But, I don’t think I’ll be attending more of them. Thanks so much for stopping by to chat with me!

  6. Oh I had such a different experience, as did my sister. She went to the one in France in the cave and loved it. Together we went to the one in Montreal and she tried to get her money back so poorly did it compare to her experience in France. I, on the other hand was completely enthralled, starting with the music, which was classical, about as far as you can get from elevator music, and swept me along. Also there was little architectural distraction. This is what I wrote: “At Imagine Van Gogh it’s the music gets to me first as I walk along a dark corridor behind the exhibition to the bathroom. The music is classical and familiar and I find myself swept up by it, floating on it, elated. I ride the musical wave back down the corridor and into the room. The exhibition is fully immersive, immediately shocking in its comprehensive beauty. Floor and walls are covered by Van Gogh’s paintings, constantly changing, shimmering and moving as if alive, their colour a living breathing thing. We are subjugated to a different reality; I am transfixed. I cannot see in enough places at once as the images change, and change again. Wheat waves in the wind. Boats bob on water that ripples. His paintings have come to life.”
    Of course I love to be engulfed by a field of sunflowers, or Van Gogh’s original works, but I definitely found the exhibition compelling too.

    • Happy to hear that both the exhibitions you went to were so enthralling for you. I think perhaps a lot depends on the venue. Van Gogh lit up in a cave sounds like a fascinating trip. I went to read your post about this and from your photos the Montreal one looks so much bigger and…compelling.

  7. Very interesting. So many people rave about this exhibit that seems to have gone around the world and I’ve been mildly tempted on the one hand, but on the other, I feared that I’d feel the way you described it. I am not enamored by technology for technology sake and I’m usually disappointed in this type of “experience.” Thank you for the excellent description and the confirmation.

    • I think many people who are more entranced with what digital technology can do may have a much more fun time. Possibly. I’ve also heard that the venue they choose to be at has an effect on the exhibition, which makes sense. Done in an abandoned parking garage as mine was, it didn’t have the inspiration it might otherwise bring. Thanks so much for stopping by to chat! I hope this finds you well and safe.

  8. I’m sorry to hear that your “yearning for the messiness of paint daubed onto canvas” (wonderfully said) wasn’t realized. But I hope that you will be able to fulfill your dream of “walking along a dirt path while sunflowers watch my progress, nodding in the breeze”–and soon. The sunflowers are starting to show their beautiful faces. 🌻🌻🌻

  9. I was tempted to go see it when it was in town, but it seemed overpriced and stagey for an exposition that didn’t actually contain “real” Van Gogh works. Glad I gave it a pass.

    • You had that pegged correctly. I’m not sure if all the digital exhibitions are similar, but I have to say, seeing this is not equivalent to seeing one of Van Gogh’s paintings or a real field of sunflowers.

  10. Yeah, I saw something similar a couple of years ago with Klimt and maybe Van Gogh or Monet, can’t remember. But I was disappointed. It felt like a slideshow, like you said, and I didn’t like their choices. The Klimt ones seemed to all be about death and it was depressing, since there was soooo much time to look at them…

  11. I seldom find technology as captivating as the real world, Atreyee. A garden not far from us is a towering mass of sunflowers and I cannot help but stand and stare. The ability to transpose that feeling onto canvas has never been mine, and I am poorer for it.

  12. I was about to book tickets for this here in Perth for my daughter and i since its winter school holidays. Not so sure now…. Lol. Thanks for your honest thoughts!

    • You are welcome. I’ve heard people who’ve seen the one in France say that it was amazing, so I think a lot of it has to do with the venue they put the exhibition in. Still, give me a field of sunflowers to wander through instead, any day! Enjoy your winter holidays!

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