Immersed in the Work of Art
This summer, five different immersive Van Gogh opportunities are circulating in dozens of cities around the world, including Detroit, Buenos Aires, and Perth, Australia. If you live in one of the cities that has (or soon will be) hosting one of these exhibits, you have no doubt been bombarded with social media promotions, many involving insufferable “Gogh” puns: “It’s Time to GOGH to see Immersive Van Gogh!” “It’s Safe to Gogh!” “Like Yoga? Try Van Goghga!”
How should this phenomenon be assessed? Popular reactions fall broadly into two categories: 1) excitement about seeing Van Gogh’s work projected, illuminated, animated, and scored or 2) disdain for the flashy, costly exhibits as an Instagram era substitution for genuine art appreciation.
I’m in a third camp; I’m fascinated by the history and appeal of these exhibits, and I also wonder what they can tell us about the relationship between art, social class, and work.
Immersive art exhibits have been around for nearly two decades. The Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, has been showing “Van Gogh Alive” since 2011. In 2017, MOMA offered a hugely popular immersive version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Beginning in 2021, larger cities like New York, Chicago, and LA had multiple competing immersive Van Gogh exhibits, while in dozens of other cities there was at least one version of immersive Van Gogh. More than 5 million tickets have been sold worldwide, and, with ticket prices averaging $35 a piece, that’s at least 175 million dollars in sales.
The tipping point may have come in early 2020, when home bound Netflix viewers watched as Emily in Paris visited an immersive Van Gogh exhibit. Immersive art exhibits were not designed with the pandemic in mind, but in 2021 immersive Van Gogh became the most profitable form of in-person entertainment in the US.
What makes digital art immersion so popular? Part of it might be the experience of being out in public with a large crowd, especially after so many months of being confined. Josh Jacobs, one of the creators of Immersive Van Gogh, explained that he was inspired by “collective action. And the idea that experiences change based on the people who are going through it together.”
I had my own immersive Van Gogh experience in 2021. During a low point in Pittsburgh’s viral transmission last November, I entered a large hall in a defunct factory on the Southside of Pittsburgh. Van Gogh’s paintings, enlarged to the size of the two-story building, wavered and wafted, appeared and disappeared. Sometimes a cicada or a flock of birds from one of the paintings was animated, flapping their wings toward the ceiling. Iconic songs such as Edith Piaf’s “On, Je Ne Regrette” and more avant-garde works by the Italian composer Luca Longobardi accompanied the images. In a time of doomscrolling and social media distraction, immersive Van Gogh gave me a sense of complete absorbtion, similar to that of an escape room.
But what does all this have to do with class?On the one hand, these exhibits make art accessible, attracting viewers who might not be inclined to visit museums. Still, critics have maligned the exhibits as déclassé, arguing that they dumb down the work of a great artist in order to provide patrons with cool selfies. With tickets running up to $50, these exhibits are not priced for working-class consumers, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
Working-class people many not be able to afford these exhibits, but they are present nonetheless. As I found myself immersed in such paintings like Worker’s Noon Rest from Work in Field, The Sower, The Red Vineyards at Arles, and The Large Plane Trees, I noticed Van Gogh’s attention to ordinary workers. Seeing these workers projected on abandoned factory walls made me want to learn more about Van Gogh’s attitude toward the working class.
Digging around a bit, I learned that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that he hoped his painting, The Potato Eaters, would emphasize the dignity of his subjects: “I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food.” He wanted to represent them in their “coarseness” instead of softening their portrait with “sweetness.” He hoped that The Potato Eaters would be seen as a genuine “peasant painting.”
Of course, the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit is itself a work space, one that is possible in part because of the economic struggles faced by the cities in which they are staged. Because these immersive productions require large, vacant, and relatively inexpensive spaces, they rely on abandoned warehouses and vacated strip malls for their venues. When an immersive exhibit comes to a particular city, tickets are often sold before the venue has been secured. Organizers argue that this creates a sense of mystery, though, in reality, the process of finding the right space can be tricky. In Nashville, anxious Van Gogh enthusiasts had to wait through several months of delays after thousands of tickets had been sold, as producers sought the rights to a former movie-theater-cum-abandoned-grocery-store from the grocery chain Harris-Teeter.
Mounted in spaces haunted by the displaced 20th century working class, these immersive productions represent a new entertainment genre for the 21st century, as Corey Ross, one of the producers of Immersive Van Gogh, explains. “It’s not specifically an art exhibition as you would experience it in a museum, with the curatorial support that a museum would have.”
As critic Charles Passey argues, this is precisely the problem. In early 2020 US museums laid off nearly 1500 workers. The millions of dollars made by immersive Van Gogh have not benefitted museums, or even the Van Gogh estate, since all Van Gogh works are in the public domain. The profits circulate instead within a small network of digital production companies, such as Lighthouse Immersive, one of the partners behind the Pittsburgh Van Gogh experience.
It’s hard to make a single conclusion about this rising phenomenon. The criticisms are compelling. But, still, I’m fascinated that over the last year millions of viewers flocked to see massive projections of European peasants from the 1880s, painted by the class conscious Vincent Van Gogh. I’m fascinated, too, that these immersive experiences required an abundance of defunct warehouses and strip malls and grocery stores. They don’t profit museums and museum workers, but they do rely on new forms of art-related labor—including promoters, coders, animators, composers, and digital event designers. Where there is art business, there is art work!
In the end, I confess to a certain ambivalence, but I also confess to this: I’ve got tickets to see Pittsburgh’s Immersive Frida Kahlo next month!
Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University