Monday, November 28, 2022

Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience … bringing the artist to life in Carlisle Memorial Church, fittingly a building as old as the paintings

The style and works of the late-nineteenth century Dutch impressionist painter Vincent can Gogh are familiar. The Starry Night and Sunflowers are amongst the most searched paintings on Google. His face is recognisable through his vivid self-portraits. But what do we know about the man, other than he cut his ear off?

The traditional way of engaging with an artist’s work is either to look at it in two dimensions in a book or a website, or to visit one of the few galleries or museums that can afford to own or borrow their works. But modern technology can offer other opportunities, devoid of the original artefacts, but perhaps in more fulsome albeit less authentic ways.

The Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience has opened in Belfast. Fittingly it’s being held in a building that is the same age as many of the artist’s paintings, opening in 1876. The exhibition tells the story of the painter, his technique, and his works.

A series of illustrated panels give a sense of the artist’s life, the torment and mental anguish that affected his well-being, and ultimately foreshortened his life. A giant sculpture of his head is brought to life with video projections, a taster of what is to come.

At the end of the corridor of panels and reproduction paintings, you’ll step into the 20,000 sq ft white room and you’ll see the textures in more detail that you’d be able to squinting from behind a rope in a gallery. The floor to ceiling projections bring to life familiar, and less familiar, works by Van Gogh. Animations convey a sense of the brushstrokes and artistry, the exaggerated and often garish colour palette, the golden sunlight, the shimmering backgrounds. They also but also express a sense the artist’s psychosis.

Sit back on a deckchair and soak in the changing panorama as it cycles through its scenes, largely wordlessly building up a sense of Van Gogh’s work and world. There’s no rush, no need to quickly move on. Though if the colours and animations become too much, there’s also an endless supply of people watching as those around engage with the work, take selfies, and look up Wikipedia to find out more. An annex in one corner allows you to slip through the curtain into the artist’s bedroom, a physical recreation of another recognisable painting.

For those who buy the top tier ticket, a more personal immersion can be experienced in the VR room, allowing you to sit on a bar stool and swivel around as the virtual reality video moves you through Van Gogh’s world.

The immersive video space gives a sense of scale of the dimensions of the former church building. Frankly, in late November, it also conveys an impression of the poor insulation in nineteenth century buildings, so wrap up warm. Very warm.

A New York Times reviewer somewhat sniffily referred to “wall-size screen savers” which is both accurate and unfair. Exhibition Hub who produce the Van Gogh immersive experience use the portmanteau “edutainment”. The giant animations and reproductions do appeal to the Instagram generation; you’re buying a ticket to a place of perpetual selfie temptation. But you’ll struggle not to leave with a better impression of how a troubled artist could create such distinctive work, how he could be a commercial failure in his own lifetime, and perhaps leave with a sense that so many (including the viewing public) profit from his abstract genius.

I came away from the exhibition realising that there was much more to learn about Van Gogh. It’s an enticing introduction that might lead to reading a book or listening to podcasts to hear more about the visual images that are now locked into my memory. The Immersive Experience can be found in cities around the world, including Belfast.

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