Meeting Vincent Van Gogh at the South Bank
Review of the Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Art Exhibition in London
Vincent Van Gogh once asked:
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything”?
It is with this spirit that his works have been mashed up with new technologies in different ways, from an outstanding room-scale VR immersive experience which brings the Night Café to life (if you have a spare room), to the experimental animated biopic Loving Vincent. I have given a brief low-down of both experiences here.
What happens when you desire to enter Van Gogh-induced trance but do not have the space, money to burn or resolve (High spec VR devices are still quite cumbersome and hot) to purchase an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift? This is where an immersive art experience, such as this one at the South Bank London, may be of interest. Taking a leaf out of the sort of adventure which TeamLabs creates to stimulate the senses using a variety of technologies, as well as the elemental mastery of Olafur Eliasson, this limited exhibition promises to bring Van Gogh to you on an emotional level:
“Meet Vincent and listen to him as he speaks directly to you and learn about his hope, his despair, his inspiration and his friendships in a magical and emotional journey through his life. The Experience will speak to all of your senses”
The exhibition has been hit by both Storms Chiara and Denis causing last-minute cancellations, due to the foundations of the temporary building being rather weak. Beyond this, demand has been less than anticipated. This has its benefits, with no queue to enter and no pressure to keep moving to the next item of interest. The exhibition rotates you through various stages of Van Gogh’s life, and the myriad challenges he encountered, in a dark room illuminated by recreations of Van Gogh’s work. The staff working were unfailingly polite, and the general atmosphere was low-key. Seating is plentiful, with chairs and artificial hay bales as well as a decent floor.
Audio is provided by a rather flimsy set of headphones and a module device carried like a necklace. It plays based on location and is similar as most museum audioguides, but hardly complements the illusion of an immersive experience. The narration is excellent in content, but the audio quality is weak, and it crackles at higher volumes.
Everything can be touched, and interacted with. If it’s your thing, there is a lot of Instragrammable content here, from the giant canvass recreations to various props. You can even jump on the bed from Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles (1888). Although you have to be careful not to fall asleep….
Sadly, it does not quite deliver the promise of speaking to all ones senses and connecting on an emotional level. The large recreations and canvases are certainly pleasant to explore, but you are left consistently wanting more. An immersive art experience needs to be an all-encompassing affair. However having to listen to a soundtrack on a headset whilst in a room with fields of wheat on a large screen just doesn’t touch the feasts provided by other digital art experiences, especially for the steep £18–21 cost of entry. The Café tables are a particularly turgid affair, with fastened down props. I felt torn about seeing some of Van Gogh’s most iconic art in the corridors — does it take away from the experience of the real thing or complement it? His visceral brush strokes just don’t look as expressive when enlarged to this size. But it’s still nice to look at them….
There are some “ah, that’s nice” moments, though. The recreated Yellow House shimmers in the dark exhibition room:
Children particularly seemed to enjoy the interactive parts, particularly the ones which involved virtual brush strokes. As in other immersive art installations, this highlights the possibilities of inspiring youngsters into learnign and appreciating art. I heard a young boy shouting “Mum can you get a Van Gogh phone case”, hopefully something was incepted by his visit.
Van Gogh asks us to have the courage to attempt things. This exhibition certainly does have a little, but like an overly-diluted Jenever, a little more Dutch courage might have hit the mark. It is on at the South Bank (London) until 21st May 2020.
To read about the amazing TeamLabs: Borderless Experience, click here
To learn about the multi-sensory artwork of Olafur Eliasson, click here