Interest in immersive Van Gogh exhibitions has exploded over the past year. We probably have Netflix's Emily in Paris to thank.
Released near the height of the pandemic in October 2020, one episode has Emily and her friends visit Atelier des Lumières in Paris, where they are awash with the bright colors of Van Gogh's work. It's romantic as fuck and apparently stirred up a strong desire for similar experiences stateside. Since Emily in Paris's release, at least five different companies have planned immersive Van Gogh exhibitions to cash in on the hype.
Earlier this month, one of those exhibitions, Exhibition Hub's Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, settled into a warehouse in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood. After its customers complained about its ticketing platform partner, as well as it going "missing" for a couple of weeks, the immersive "360-degree digital art" exhibition says it will now remain open for at least the next six months, a representative assured me. I had to check it out for myself.
As I walked into The Immersive Experience, a maze of soft carpeting and short black walls greeted me. Split into four separate gallery spaces, The Immersive Experience gives Big Conference Energy that it can't quite shake off. Throughout the experience, I was always aware that I was walking through a warehouse in SoDo.
The entrance gallery attempts to give an overview of the artist's life—and it's incredibly didactic. Large text panels eager to tell readers about Van Gogh's life explain why he was so obsessed with sunflowers, or detail the psychic pain he suffered. The panels are everywhere. Their language isn't pretentious but straightforward, which is refreshing. Their accompanying reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings are lit well, but they're flat. It's a shame because his actual paintings are sculptural, almost corrosive, which is their best quality.
This space also tries to give you a taste of the ~*~*~immersive experience~~** you shelled out for. Toward the back of this first gallery are three life-sized dioramas of different Van Gogh paintings, most notably "Bedroom in Arles." This is the first time, but certainly not the last time, that this experience feels so literal.
Viewers are then led into the exhibition's signature gallery: a high-ceilinged, 8,000-square-foot space replete with 360-degree projections, a loud orchestral score, and a man's voice reading the purple prose of Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo. A few dozen creaky sling back chairs (which you can purchase in the gift shop for $50) arranged in a giant circle invite you to sit back and look up at the 35-minute looping installation, which mishmashes over 200 of Van Gogh's works.
Though the wall text promises the space will "show the depth of the artist's art as well as his development of the various subjects he studied," there's no discernible narrative to follow. When I entered, the blank walls were given the appearance of a centuries-old rotunda, with dozens of Van Gogh's iconic works confusingly placed underneath archways.
The brains behind this installation animated each of his paintings—the skeleton in "Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette" sucks down a cig, the man from "Sorrowing Old Man" shakes from crying so hard. It literalizes Van Gogh's paintings, obliterating any meaningful connections you could have with his work. The Immersive Experience tries to wow you with the awe of its immersion, but it doesn't do anything interesting with it.
While getting drenched in the brushstrokes of "The Starry Night" felt soothing for a few minutes, I quickly got fidgety. What would Van Gogh even think of this? Would he like it or explode? Why does the voice reading his letters have a British accent and not a Dutch one? Why do people even come to shows like this? To take pics for Instagram? Could I even get a good selfie in here?
When we've talked about similarly Instagrammable exhibitions that have swept through Seattle, like Yayoi Kusama's hugely popular Infinity Mirrors exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 2017, we've often argued about selfies. Can you take in the art if you're taking a selfie? Is selfie-taking a central part of the experience? (Whatever you do, don't be this asshole.)
In the case of Kusama, her work is supposed to be participatory. She wants you to step or stick your head into her infinite, light-filled boxes that seem to stretch out forever. Documenting yourself as part of the art feels natural. But in the case of Van Gogh's work, viewers were never meant to be immersed in "Starry Night" or "Almond Blossoms" in the way The Immersive Experience suggests. The pleasure is in looking, in using your eyes and brain to situate yourself in the painting—which is to say all the selfies I took in The Immersive Experience looked like shit.
In the final two galleries, the exhibit invites viewers to scribble on coloring pages of various Van Gogh paintings and then snap on a VR headset to go on a "tour" of Arles, France, where Van Gogh spent some of his most creative and productive years. Even this experience in virtual reality encourages a literal interpretation. Everything you see—the tired peasants dozing on hay bales, the yellow stars reflecting off the Rhône at night—are composed to look exactly like Van Gogh paintings. As if he only painted what he saw, as opposed to, you know, being an artist and interpreting. This approach feels like when people assume everyone in the Elizabethan era spoke like Shakespeare characters, in rhyming couplets. It's a little stupid.
The show ends, expectedly, in a gift shop. You can buy a Van Gogh-branded ceramic vase or yoga mat before the exhibition spits you out onto the gray streets of SoDo. After my visit, that grayness felt like a relief.
Get your tickets to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience here. (There's limited ticket availability.)