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Is artainment the future, or Van Gogh-ing, going gone?

Following a visit to the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, Eddie Sotto muses on the future of projection-mapped, immersive art attractions

Opinion
Van Gogh Experience Hollywood

By Eddie Sotto

I tend to shy away from writing reviews as so many are unfair and, frankly, we should just see these things for ourselves. So let’s just call this an observation. Our family attended the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in Hollywood recently, a series of large projection rooms with the iconic artist’s distinctive work remixed and projected onto massive walls as motion graphics, set to music in a 20-minute presentation.

Van Gogh Artainment

There was a Van Gogh themed snack bar, Absinthe inspired lounge and an obligatory retail store as well. Very pleasant, and yet we were done in roughly an hour. We came away with some impressions that I thought might be worth pondering. Not just about the exhibit itself, but what it might mean by its existence and popularity in the first place.

Selfies galore at Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit

The first thing I noticed was that visitors were photographing themselves in the lobby, and just about everywhere they could. This exhibit is a hit, if for no other reason than it makes for great social imagery.

Vincent Van Gogh Experience

Today’s attractions are more than just immersive shows, they are exotic backdrops for guests to prove they are collecting an experience. And the better the backdrop, the more media value the attraction apparently has. There is no end to feeding this selfie beast and the large colourful spaces of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit are a perfect setting.

Digital technology

The rooms trade on being large enough to immerse you in the world or style of Vincent Van Gogh, supersizing and animating his tiny abstract brushstrokes into moving environments, now free from their gilded picture frames. 

Elements of these famous works are digitally cut and pasted into motion graphics. Through the use of digital transition, filters appear to come to life, but without context or proportion to their original works.

Van Gogh Experience

To me, the motion techniques became repetitive over time and the effect began to distract from the imagery itself. It occurred to me that it must be a challenge for the producers to shoehorn shows like this into existing venues. Like the former record store where, in an uncanny way, the layout always took me right back to thumbing through Ramones albums.

The necessary Exit signs and other real-world limitations of using existing spaces distracted from the seamless projection. Maybe it was just me.  “Lighten up,” you say?

Immersive exhibit focuses on Van Gogh’s greatest hits

Immersive artainment

I had seen some real Van Gogh works in museums over the years. So, in a way, this felt like a movie trailer or celebration of the artist‘s style, the motion and scale replacing the purpose and context of why the images were created in the first place.

The lobby plaques explained The Seasons of Van Gogh and there was an app as well. But I saw no one using it. Some information was there under the surface. One QR code took me to write a virtual letter to Van Gogh and through the magic of AI, he was to respond, but all I got was a form letter stating that he was too busy painting to understand my letter.

The audience sits on the floor on a series of ottomans to enjoy the show in a contemplative way. But when the artist’s elements are transformed into a moving visual feast, what are we contemplating? To celebrate something is it important to understand the source? Is this the fireworks without knowing it’s the fourth of July?

Van Gogh lite?

This show is as much the work of the musician and animator as of the artist, perhaps more so. Yes, a celebration of Van Gogh will expose many to his work in a way a static museum does not. However, it begs the question, will guests then go to investigate the real works and understand the artist’s vision? Or will this video trailer version be their lasting impression?

Like seeing the movie versus reading the book, society has repeatedly repackaged the original source material in a more condensed, portable and digestible way for an audience.

Will guests then go to investigate the real works and understand the artist’s vision? Or will this video trailer version be their lasting impression?

What is the Quibi of fine art? In most cases, there is a trade-off. Like MP3s stripping away the warmth and nuance found on Vinyl to fit in your phone. Something gets lost in the quest to condense and package, yet most prefer the condensed version. Greatest hits versus the boxed set.

Instagram, and its way of posting only the best moments as days in the life, is the perfect output mechanism for exhibits like these. The “greatest hits” of the “greatest hits.”

Immersive projected shows like the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit seem very popular, and for good reason. Yet, I wonder if they replace standing in a room meditating on those framed canvases, being challenged to feel and sense what the artist was conveying, even though they are static and tiny by comparison.

Seems boring to most who want emotion more heavy-handed and to feel something more extreme immediately. Gladly, history shows there is room for both, as those MP3s and 33 RPM Vinyl coexist. In time, could Art museums become the new Vinyl? The less portable, analogue way to experience art as it was meant to be? You decide.

Repeatability

Artainment

The only concern as an attraction designer is the projection-mapped empty room format itself, even with changing IP being very repeatable. Maybe it’s me, but I am acutely aware of the wear out of theatre shows and simulators in malls and theme parks. Even content changes don’t completely sustain them.

So, will this new format survive the test of time? Maybe, if it evolves. I liked the idea that as an open space you can distance yourself and determine your own comfort zone. We are still in a wary viral world, where even being vaccinated only means you don’t die.

However, there are many contradictory distractions that take you out of the immersion, like corners in rooms, and to that end, this could all be far better and simply so. I get that it’s an event, like a travelling art exhibit, but some are building permanent venues for this.

I can’t help thinking others besides myself will sense immediately that we are just in an empty room with projected walls and the audio score.

If nothing else the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit is loud. Powerful yes, refined and seamless, not quite. My family enjoyed it, but our son and daughter wanted the depth and persistence of the immersion to sustain. To them, there was a bit of “been there, posted that.”

Improving the sensory experience

My guess is that for these types of exhibits to become a stand-alone, long term institution, the sensory experience needs to improve. The spell should not be so obviously and easily broken.

As an experiential designer, these omissions overpower the effect. That’s why I’m calling this an observation rather than a review, as most guests seemed to love it and you may as well. Don’t let me stop you from going. Having said everything, the evening overall was a success.

For now, the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit is a hit and has a lot to offer. It was also well-operated and the staff were great. Van Gogh’s world is inspiring and stunning as a motion graphic. This was a mind cleansing 45-minute experience that left me with a lot to think about. In the post-COVID rush for post-worthy experiences, it is a great outing. At least once.

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the futureproofexperiences.com group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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