Orchestral music blares from ceiling speakers in the cavernous, dim room of a convention center. Projections of Vincent Van Gogh's Noon: Rest from Work, part of his iconic haystack series, scroll upward on screens two stories tall. Is this art?
That's a loaded question and impossible to answer. Anything can be art! The Avengers is art! (Or not!) The real query perhaps: Is Imagine Van Gogh, along with the other projection Van Gogh show visiting Washington this year, a satisfying art experience? After visiting the Vancouver, BC, stop of the Imagine tour in September, I'm not sure.
Two nearly identical Van Gogh "experiences" land in Washington at the end of this year; Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience arrived in October to a cloud of confusion, selling tickets before announcing its SoDo location and pushing its opening date. Imagine Van Gogh from a group called Image Totale, the one that ran in Vancouver, opens December 18 at the Tacoma Armory. (More versions exist, from Van Gogh Alive to Beyond Van Gogh. Clearly, Vincent is having a moment.)
Back to the convention center: People wander and pose for photos. Paintings morph on the walls like a soothing screen saver. When The Starry Night appears the mood noticeably heightens, like when a band plays the first notes of their biggest hit—this is the one everyone's been waiting for. But the blockbuster blue skyline scrolls by as fast as everything else; the entire loop takes about 25 minutes before starting again.
It's easy to quibble with the projection experience. When Van Gogh's artwork is blown up to the size of a billboard, it loses the tactile precision of seeing a painting in real life; even web browser reproductions of Noon: Rest from Work feel more vivid than those giant, rolling images. Neither can compare to the chills from standing in front of the original in Paris's Musée d'Orsay.
But even if we could exactly recreate the 3D textures of Van Gogh's brushstrokes, would it be the same? In a world where ultra-original digital NFTs go for $530 million (sort of), old-fashioned paintings remain an actual, physical link to their creators. Van Gogh, Picasso, or Cassatt touched these very pieces of canvas; talk about non-fungible. But those precious collections sit in the world's most esteemed museums, mostly in large Western cities. How is exclusivity a good thing?
(Though while getting to Paris obviously takes significant investment, note that admission to the world-famous Musée d'Orsay runs about $18.50, while an adult Immersive ticket is $50; Imagine is $51. The shows may be Instagram fodder, but democratizing they are not.)
Imagine Van Gogh begins with a series of biographic panels in a single room, quickly checking off the bullet points of the Dutch artist's life: isolation, depression, professional struggle. One placard delves into the man's interest in "Japonism," Japanese aesthetics. The main room, the text-free projection space, occasionally mixes in Asian artworks with Van Gogh originals and black-and-white photos, presumably to illustrate that influence. But as the panels insist, the projection style "frees the viewer from traditional constraints" and leaves them "guided by their emotional intelligence." The lack of context is not a bug, it's a feature.
The shows are unquestionably popular; Imagine sold nearly half a million tickets in Canada alone. The close-ups, animations, and music do add layers and life to famous works, and the experience feels interestingly distinct from a gallery visit. Society's relationship to art is ever in flux; consider London's Tate, which recently rethought the entire concept of acquisition when it agreed to buy temporary custodianship of an Indigenous Mayan's work. On the flip side: When a Belgian gallery was denied permission for a California artist's work, they simply purchased a print and used it anyway. Ownership ain't what it used to be.
Standing before projected sunflowers the size of Teslas, one has to imagine what Vincent Van Gogh himself would think of Imagine Van Gogh. (Goofy sci-fi show Doctor Who notably featured the artist time-traveling to the modern-day Musée d'Orsay, to predictably heartwarming results.) Perhaps he'd nod in recognition. Maybe this is what the idiosyncratic, short-lived genius saw through his own eyes—shapes and colors writ large, soundtracked with bombastic Bach.
Or maybe, as I did, he'd grimace and flee the sensory overload, visit a local art museum to see some less-famous brushstrokes in person, and start saving for a trip to Paris.