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“Although I’ll have painted the actual painting in a relatively short time, and largely from memory, it’s taken a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands. And as for the few days in which I’ve painted it now – it’s consequently been a formidable fight, but one for which I have great enthusiasm. Although at times I feared that it wouldn’t come off. But painting is also ‘act and create’.”
– Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo (30 April 1885)
I wonder: would my opinion of the new Immersive Van Gogh exhibit be higher if I hadn’t recently read about “Deep Nostalgia”? For those unaware, The name applies to a service from the website MyHeritage whereby user-submitted still photos are animated via an AI-powered, deep-fake-style process. As with all deep-fakes, it’s as unnecessary as it is unsettling.
The more I think about it, though, the more the project seems much ado about, well, not much. Don’t get me wrong, the exhibit – which sold out in all its other cities and sold out its first block of SF tickets in record time (a new block is currently available) – is fine for what it is. I just find it hard to recommend that cash-strapped San Franciscans sheltering-in-place pay a minimum of $40 to see an half-hour animated screensaver.
Upon entering the SVN West at a socially distant pace, the second thing one notices after the Starry Night-jacketed ushers is the columns. They were done by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (a name rightfully familiar to Bay Area theatre) and are part of several on-site van Gogh installations created by local artists and designers. They stand out well from the uniform aesthetic that adorns even the free gaiter we’re given upon check-in.
As one heads up the stairs, adorned puns like “You’re Gogh-ing the right way!”, it’s clear that this installation is the art equivalent to a BroadwaySF touring show, complete with venue re-branding and near-identical merchandise everywhere you turn.
Although one enters at groups of one-hour intervals, there isn’t much in the way of rushing out the previous group or worrying about the group coming in. Still, distancing was easy. Throughout the exhibit, the floor of the massive auditorium is adorned with maybe four-foot diameter spheres of light spaced about six feet apart from one another. One is encouraged to walk around at their leisure, but to only stop inside the spheres (some of which have benches). In the center of the auditorium is a raised viewing platform with mirrored sides.
As for the exhibit itself, I say again that it isn’t bad. All four walls (and, occasionally, the floor) are used for the video projection, with two walls holding the entire image. I stepped in just as the walls had a flickering lantern against a black backdrop. This eventually illuminates enough to be revealed as The Potato Eaters. Another sequence begins in all black (there are a frequent number of blackouts) before white lines begin sketching a table, chair, and bed – it’s only when color is added that one recognizes it as Bedroom in Arles. And so on and so forth with many of the painter’s most famous landscapes coming to life on giant walls.
The images are scored to a hybrid New Age/classical score that includes aethereal versions of Bach’s “Cello Suite”, almost David Lynchian droning & vocalizations, and even Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (best known for its use in the film Platoon). As lovely as the music and sounds are, they are far too loud for the auditorium. I imagine it would be tough to dress the space for sound without sacrificing visual real estate, but the cacophonous volume was a bit too overbearing at times, depending on the selection.
Since I wasn’t asked to leave after the first loop – which ends with an animated Starry Night being consumed by several of van Gogh’s self-portraits (one of the few times his non-landscape work is seen) – I watched it again, this time from the platform. The higher angle does indeed make it easier to take in all the visuals, but it’s still the same show.
And again, the show isn’t bad. It’s a nice way to lose half-an-hour enveloped by lovely works of art. But it’s more about branding than it is about learning anything or showing off the artist’s range. Upon leaving the auditorium, we’re escorted past the gift shop (which was not open that day) to, appropriately enough for a French artist, the rooftop café, where we can order themed dishes and drinks.
I noticed quite a few kids that had been brought to the exhibit by their parents. I honestly hope those kids left the exhibit with a lasting affinity for some of the most lauded paintings in the western world. It just doesn’t seem that much bang for your buck to experience something that I’m sure exists as a download somewhere.
Immersive Van Gogh is scheduled to run until the 6th of September at the SVN West in San Francisco.
The exhibit is a 35-min. repeating loop with entrances allowed in one-hour increments.
For tickets and information, please visit the exhibit’s official site here.
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