In recent years, art has taken on new platforms that reach an audience greater than fancy travelers, snobby critics, and art nerds. One no longer needs to visit world-class museums to experience creativity firsthand. Through digital art, projectors, and motion detectors, immersive experiences have taken over the modern art world.
But what happens when you mix this format with world-renowned artists of the past — say, Vincent van Gogh?
“Well, we’re not a museum," Sebastian Grenier-Cartier, CEO of Normal Studios, says succinctly. "You can’t really pretend that you can replace a painting. That’s not the idea.”
"Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience," created by Montreal-based Normal Studios, makes its world premiere today, April 15, at Ice Palace Studios in downtown Miami. It is an immersive experience that takes its viewers through projections of 300 of the Dutch master's works. (The current exhibit is not to be confused with another Van Gogh-centered "immersive experience," "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience," which has announced its arrival this summer.)
The exhibit begins with a room full of references to the artist’s well-known "Sunflowers" series. Large installations of the works decorate the room, and a faux-fur re-creation of Van Gogh’s "Irises" lines the wall — making it an influencer’s ideal photo op.
After everyone has snapped a selfie or 20, visitors move through another hall themed to another recognizable piece. The famed Starry Night suffocates the small space, with mirrors and flashy neon signs leading the way.
Then suddenly everything shifts, and viewers find themselves in a dark room with a projection on a single doorway — an introduction to what lies beyond. On the door is a self-portrait of Van Gogh, moving between brushstrokes and muted colors, as if inviting the visitor into his mind. Ahead is a long, winding room wherein the artist's life and career are presented in textual detail. Feelings go from the desire to snap a cute photo to understanding the deep pain that pervaded the artist's short life.
Empty gold frames are hung between the projected texts. They may seem like just another photo op, but perhaps these frames reflect, as described in the text, how Van Gogh’s art was created by his trauma. Reading and slowly traipsing through this section makes all the difference when you enter the exhibition's next and final room.
In this massive space, ambient music plays as viewers behold digitized movements of Van Gogh’s works projected onto the walls and floors. Sometimes just one work is projected; other times it's a group of paintings, as in moments that are filled with multiple self-portraits. The most gratifying aspect of this experience is the ability to stand inside a Van Gogh masterpiece and feel part of the painting as the colors move around you and sounds transport you.
But can this truly be said to be an interactive experience?
“Yes, we pushed the limit. Yes, we played with the paintings. But I think we did that out of respect and mainly out of the idea where we think we stepped beyond the canvas," Grenier-Cartier says. "What we’re looking at is the painting as the jewel, but really, we believe that we are creating a dialogue, and we are able to immerse people in the painting: If you were in the painting, where would you be, and what would it be? That’s our intention.”
In today’s world of real-time news and instant gratification, long paragraphs of information are rarely read, and works of art are barely digested. It is easy to experience this exhibit quickly, without recognizing the significance behind Van Gogh. It is also easy to experience "Beyond Van Gogh" as quick social-media clout. Perhaps if there were more ways to interact, such as motion sensor-triggered activities that compelled viewers to involve themselves with the many masterpieces displayed, there would be a greater sense of appreciation of the artist’s significance.
Grenier-Cartier hopes that those inclined toward immersive experiences and modern art will find that "Beyond Van Gogh" opens their eyes and ears to these timeless paintings and allows them to consider visiting an art museum to see the real physical deal.
But what about purists who need no extra encouragement?
“I think what we want them to understand is that we did that out of respect, and to understand our creative process — and that what we do is to push the person into the painting and not just project the painting on the wall. Because anyone can do that," Grenier-Cartier says.
Experiences are individual. Those who are willing to part with the $40 entry fee can draw their own conclusions about the effectiveness of mixing classic masterpieces with a modern-art phenomenon.
"Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience." Through Sunday, July 11, at Ice Palace Studios, 1400 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-347-7400; icepalacestudios.com. Tickets cost $40 to $94 via vangoghmiami.com.
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