‘Immersive Van Gogh’ is No Selfie Factory

The genre-defying exhibition brings the 19th century master into the 21st century.

When the waters of Starry Night Over the Rhône began to shimmer, I stopped caring about whether “Immersive Van Gogh” could be fairly characterized as capital-A art. I stood in my personal social distancing circle and let my senses take over. This thing is just freaking cool, I thought. 

I arrived at the show (let’s call it that: a show) carrying the baggage of someone who has read and written a fair bit about the immersive, experiential trend that has challenged the art world’s vocabulary. The critic Ben Davis has described this phenomenon as “Big Fun Art” — work that “doesn’t require any historical knowledge, context, or even patience to be enjoyed.” Davis was referring to selfie factories like the Museum of Ice Cream, immersive playgrounds like Meow Wolf, and viral, hyper-photogenic fine arts exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms

“Immersive Van Gogh,” which opened to the public on March 19 at SVN West on Market Street and will run through September, checks a lot of the Big Fun Art boxes, starting with its pitifully straightforward name. But its exceptional animation, emotional intensity, and its echoes of San Francisco’s Summer of Love make for a compelling evening of accessible, difficult-to-categorize entertainment.

In other words: It goes down easy without tasting like cotton candy.

What Medium?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Vincent Van Gogh, a late 19th century Dutch post-impressionist, is one of the most famous artists in history. His paintings, and to a lesser degree, his life story, serve as the basis for “Immersive Van Gogh.” The show is thus a visual art exhibition, showcasing his paintings in a new way. But as the show goes on, and the images begin to move and interact with one another, it starts to feel more like cinema. Ultimately, the dramatic music and emotional visuals felt closest to ballet: pure expression, no gab, the narrative subordinated to the beauty of each moment. The only thing missing was the ballerinas. 

Producer Svetlana Dvoretsky, who debuted “Immersive Van Gogh” in Toronto two years ago before bringing it on the road to about a dozen North American cities, describes the show as “a multimedia animation with a music score. So it’s somewhere in between film and theater and concert. It could be also called a digital art exhibit.” Since it’s “all of these things,” it makes everyone’s life easier to just call it  “an immersive experience,” Dvoretsky says. 

At ‘Immersive Van Gogh,’ spectators will have the sensation of stepping inside a painting. Photo courtesy of Cheshire Isaacs

“Immersive Van Gogh” is without question a technological feat. It includes 65 million pixels, 56,000 frames of video, 400 images contributed by museums and art galleries from around the world, and 40 projectors. All of that needed to be specially calibrated for SVN West — “San Francisco’s premiere experiential arts and entertainment venue” — requiring hundreds of hours to blend the video feeds and fine-tune the projectors. At this particular venue, the production’s video technicians had to work with a molding that juts out about two-thirds of the way up the wall. It’s to their credit that viewers probably won’t notice it at all. 

The Narrative 

“Immersive Van Gogh’s” video and projection tech makes possible some incredibly detailed animations. Massimiliano Siccardi, the lead artist for the production, painstakingly manipulated digital photographs of Van Gogh’s works to imbue them with motion. Siccardi and his team managed to bring to life what Van Gogh’s swirling brush strokes so powerfully suggest. In fact, “Immersive Van Gogh” is not the first time the artist’s work has found a popular reception in film: the 2017 animated film Loving Vincent earned an Academy Award nomination.

While that movie focuses on Van Gogh’s mysterious death, “Immersive Van Gogh” spans the scope of the artist’s life — although you won’t exactly come out on the other side a Van Gogh expert. “We go through all the most important periods of his life, and if you are familiar with his life story, then you will see the narrative. If you’re not familiar, you may not see that, but you will see many other beautiful things,” Dvoretsky says with a laugh. 

Indeed. The viewer gets a sense of Van Gogh’s troubled childhood in the Netherlands, his love for Japanese wood blocks, his prolific period in Arles, France, and his lifelong struggle with mental health. However, the main event is the paintings themselves, and the strange and unexpected ways they come to life. 

Anything that moves in real life moves in “Immersive Van Gogh”: clouds, trains, fire, water, birds, grass blowing in the wind. There are remarkable transitions, too. In one especially creative moment, close-ups of flowers are illuminated by falling raindrops, each little splash revealing new details. Van Gogh’s most famous works get special treatment, including Bedroom In Arles, The Church at Auvers, Café Terrace at Night, and many other recognizable favorites. There are gratuitous aspects as well, like a lonesome live-action shot of a grassy meadow that serves no discernable purpose. 

While nearly all of the imagery is beautiful, not all of it is uplifting, including some of Van Gogh’s dark early work and maniacally colorful later paintings. The creepy quotient is enhanced by the juxtapositions of the musical accompaniment. The eclectic soundtrack, available as a Spotify playlist, flits from Thom Yorke to Handel, along with several original compositions by musical director Luca Longobardi. The music occasionally reaches rock concert volumes, which can be a bit obnoxious, but usually, the sounds and images fit together nicely. Watching Starry Night swirl as the music crescendos serves as a moving finale. 

‘Starry Night’ comes alive in ‘Immersive Van Gogh.’ Photo courtesy of Cheshire Isaacs

The 38 minute show can be a lot to take in, and viewers are encouraged to stay for multiple screenings. After you’ve had your fill of Van Gogh, a pop-up rooftop bar awaits. 

Altogether, the experience is big and fun, but it still feels like art. It helps that it isn’t particularly photogenic, at least not for people. The projections, of course, look amazing on camera, but just like in a movie theater, it’s hard to capture human figures in the foreground. That is to say, if you’re coming just to take selfies, think again. 

A Fitting Venue

It’s fitting that the performance is taking place at SVN West. Formerly known as Fillmore West and Carousel Ballroom before it became a Honda dealership, the space has hosted more than its fair share of boundary-breaking performances. Just about every big name you can imagine came through Fillmore West when Bill Graham was running the place, between 1967 and 1971: Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, you name it.  

These performances included their fair share of liquid light shows — that quintessentially 1960s art form produced by manipulating colorful blobs of oil, water, and alcohol on an overhead projector. They were, in a way, extremely low-tech versions of “Immersive Van Gogh.” Both would seem to pair equally well with mind-altering substances. 

More recently, Non Plus Ultra, the company that runs SVN West, has been embroiled in scandals documented by former SF Weekly staffer Nuala Bishari, who’s now at the Public Press. In September, Bishari reported that the company had conducted a potentially illegal sweep of a homeless encampment next to SVN West. This past month, she revealed that Non Plus Ultra employees have accused the company of unemployment fraud. The company argued that the sweep of the homeless encampment came after months of complaints to the city, and denies the unemployment fraud allegations. 

The space also has a future befitting San Francisco’s present state. Sometime after “Immersive Van Gogh” closes in September, SVN will be redeveloped as a 984-unit high rise housing development. The project is on track for approval thanks to the developers’ agreement to buy the “Monster in the Mission” property next to the 16th Street BART station and give it to the city to build affordable housing, ending a major flashpoint in San Francisco’s ongoing struggle with gentrification. 

Even after SVN is gone, Dvoretsky and her production company hope to bring more immersive exhibitions to San Francisco. We might expect similar treatments of other famous artists, though Dvoretsky says she can’t reveal who they are just yet. For those craving more high-tech, genre-defying, pop-culture reincarnations of classic works of art, Dvoretsky vows, “There’s more.” 

‘Immersive Van Gogh’
Through Sept. 6 | $39.99-$49.99
SVN West, 10 Van Ness Ave.
844-307-4644 | vangoghsf.com

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