Immersive Van Gogh Is Engrossing, Gorgeous, and Just a Little Bit Sinister

An early look at the viral art exhibit, which boasts walk-through versions of Van Gogh’s most iconic paintings…and artificial intelligence?

For me, 6400 Sunset Boulevard is an address of firsts. Back when it still housed Amoeba Music, it’s where I first gorged myself on a veritable cornucopia of music, rummaging through CDs as greedily as Augustus Gloop in Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s where I bought my first record with my own money, settling on Foxboro Hot Tubs’ Stop Drop And Roll!!! (your guess is as good as mine). Now, after Amoeba’s decampment to a new location, it’s here that I first wonder if Van Gogh ever ate avocado toast.

I’m standing before a spread of the stuff in the foyer of Los Angeles’ upcoming Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit. The display, not to be confused with rival Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience, is still under construction and won’t open to the public until July 31. So, along with a few dozen other fellow media types, I’ve been invited to a sneak preview. I scarf down the free food, put on a hard hat painted like The Starry Night (I’m instructed to keep this, as it will soon surely “have value”), and begin my immersion.

David Korins, the Tony-nominated creative director who helped design the set of a little-known play called Hamilton and resembles a slightly deflated Armie Hammer, opens the tour. He beckons us into the next room—“this is like Cribs,” he quips—a bare, plaster-smelling hallway he promises will soon be filled. To prove the point, Korins speaks in front of four poster boards depicting what’s to come, simulacra of the room we’re in now. I peek into the gallery-to-be: photoshopped Angelenos’ living counterparts will wander through the foyer, where blown-up versions of Van Gogh’s smoldering eyes and recognizable signature will greet them. They’ll then head down a neon entrance tunnel and toward an absinthe bar that’ll be framed in a field’s worth of sunflowers—a favorite subject of Van Gogh’s.

immersive van gogh
The Sunflowers room

Greyson Tarantino

“It’s funny,” Korins states with unmistakable pride, “people like to talk about the supply chain. I was actually told that…there are no more silk sunflowers to be gotten in all of North America for the next two months, because the Immersive Van Gogh now has them all.”

While these exhibits have indeed gained global traction following their debut in Netflix’s Emily in Paris—a show about as lifeless as these off-white, pre-sunflower walls—each boasts a personal tribute to their host city. L.A.’s will feature a Gogh-ized painting of the Hollywood Sign, and, in tribute to its forebear, small billboards on the roof styled like famous album covers. The submerged infant of Nirvana’s Nevermind swims after a Gogh self-portrait in lieu of a dollar; a severed yellow ear stands in for the Velvet Underground’s banana.

In other words, avocado toast notwithstanding, the exhibit is to be accessible. “We’re not gonna, like, over-intellectualize this,” Korins insists. “We’re gonna meet you where you are…We really wanted to create a way to humanize this guy…He was just kind of misunderstood and really suffered, kind of at the root, from loneliness.” Korins and company are betting that, as the public still grapples with the social ramifications of a certain virus, it will relate.

We’re led first into a large room, and then a cavernous one. The walls and floor of each are covered in projected checkerboard—a “pixel map,” as its called—over which is superimposed several white lines in the shape of a crosshairs, over which is imposed the sort of indecipherable code that would make Lost fans salivate (“G1-C2 P-107 S-102,” reads one). But then, nearly without warning, the maps go black. Glitchy percussion pounds. And, all at once, images flood the room, quick as light through a windowpane. We’re thrust into the gardens of Saint-Rémy, succulents and irises snaking up the walls and across the floor. Soon, nearly every visible surface is covered in digitized, moving renderings of Van Gogh’s canon—with the addition of bright-white social-distancing circles marking the floor every six feet like a neat and orderly pox.

immersive van gogh

Greyson Tarantino

There is no denying that the exhibit is immersive. Overwhelming might be a better word. This is especially true at first, when both the music and visuals are loud and fast (I’ll assume the curators were competing with the whine of power tools one room over). But then things slow, and Van Gogh’s best-known work takes the stage with the warm familiarity of an old friend. Call me quirky, but like Emily (you know, the one in Paris), I have a unique and discerning taste in art, and The Starry Night is one of my favorites, too. As I’m bathed in milky galaxies and fiery moons, blue peasant villages over the Rhone with their windows aglow, I feel at home. The music softens in tandem: Luca Longobardi’s  reworking of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” swoons alongside the spilling paintings. It’s beautiful.

Immersive Van Gogh is a few things at once: obtrusive, gorgeous, alienating, engrossing. But there’s something else about the exhibit, something my pared-down sneak peek doesn’t let me see in full.

“We have, through artificial intelligence, scanned every single letter that [Van Gogh] ever wrote,” Korins mentions towards the end of his introduction. “And so we’ve created a computer program in which…you can write him anything…and through artificial intelligence and computer learning, he will write you instantly back a unique, one-of-a-kind letter in his own words. It is geopositioned, so if you say, ‘Hey, I was outside and I saw this thing,’ he will know where you are…We’ve written over 23,000 letters back and forth with Vincent.”

Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s little brother, was the recipient of most of these letters. The two were close. Theo was even at Vincent’s deathbed when the latter succumbed to the hole he’d bored through his own ribcage with a 7mm pinfire revolver. According to Theo, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever.”

It seems all it took were 64 projectors, 500,000 cubic feet of projection space, 148 million pixels, 17 miles of cables, and just a dash of A.I. to guarantee it.

Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Los Angeles, 6400 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; tickets currently on sale for July 31, 2021 through January 2, 2022. Tickets range from $50-$100 per person, $30 for children. 

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