Immersive van Gogh


The Immersive van Gogh Exhibit is now showing in the former 600,000-cubic feet printing room of the Toronto Star building at 1 Yongs Street.  The 35 minute show is presented through 53 projectors and 90 million pixels (Now Toronto),  covering the four 50-foot walls and floors with 400 images from 40 of van Gogh’s paintings (Toronto Star).

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The sense of immersion is the result of the viewer being situated in the middle of a large space, upon whose walls are projected, like surround sound, the works of an artist, in this case, van Gogh. “Rather than distinctly framed works mounted on walls, the space itself transforms into a boundless show, with the viewers at the centre of the action becoming a part of the paintings” (Varsity). Mr Monnier, President of Culturespaces, says immersive art is “pushing the boundaries between entertainment and art, and between real life and virtual reality. Gone are the frames and the meditative stillness viewers are used to in museums, replaced by huge images that transform to the music of artists as varied as Beethoven and Janis Joplin” (New York Times).  In this installation, producer Cory Ross explains “There’s an attempt to delve into his psychology and to capture what he might have been feeling. You have this moment, which is my favourite moment of the show, where this symphony of colour crescendos to the music. Then the room becomes completely speckled in color” (Now Toronto).

Monnier submits that these types of works engage a wide demographic, “People who never go to museums, younger generations, guys and girls who are 16-year-olds walking around hand in hand, families, grandparents, young parents” (New York Times). Now Toronto submits the demographic skews to females ages 20 to 40.  

Reviews of the show have varied.  Artist Joseph Nechvatal, decried it as “a nasty bit of metaphorical necrophilia” that degrades van Gogh’s daring works, adding “the show [is] ‘one of the greatest banalizations of painting I have ever seen, matched only by van Gogh kitchen hand towels now being sold around town’” (CBC).  

Hrag Vartanian, the Canadian-raised editor-in-chief and co-founder of the influential art criticism website Hyperallergic, believes these large-scale projections can make a viewer feel closer to the artist and the work than you otherwise might get from standing in a museum, seeing the original (CBC). 

Elena Foulidis, of The Varsity, concludes: “…but the show ultimately proved to be a cheap appropriation of genius”, adding “A subjective experience captured in stillness on canvas was instead in constant movement, undermining van Gogh’s lively line work that carries enough suggestive power in itself. The movement does what your own imagination is meant to, and the loud soundtrack replaces the reflective silence one experiences in a gallery” (Varsity).  

It would seem then that ones response to this show might lie in where they stand between performance and quiet reflection.  Both are valid; one might respond positively to either, depending on expectations, generation, the moment or the mood.   

If the objective of the show, as Vartanian submits, is to make the viewer feel closer to the art, then it needs to be determined what closeness means to each of us and how it is achieved. The presentation is large-scale, in-your-face, and If zooming in, if physical proximity, is what is meant by getting close to art, then may be this form is successful. But if getting close involves a more cerebral experience — that might be motivated by physical proximity — this comes from seeing, reflecting and understanding. All of these, not just one. Being fed a firehose of digitized, fast-moving animations privileges the seeing, but to many, stifles the ability to reflect and then understand. A cerebral response is unable to flower. This work is a performance, geared to those in tune with and accepting of a performative culture, preferring the titillation of the immediate rather than the fulfillment that comes with contemplation. Can one person accept either of these definitions of closeness, or do they represent an untraversable divide?

As Elena Foulidis of The Varsity points out, one of the elements of van Gogh’s work is his ability to catch motion in the stillness of a painting. The animation of this performance has the effect of squaring the motion of the original works, making it almost overwhelming, like some bad drug trip. I was unprepared and thus found the divide uncrossable.



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