What's Gogh-ing on here?! At least 3 different Van Gogh light shows are happening this spring

It's one of the few things you can see doing during lockdown, but why are they all about Van Gogh?

It's one of the few things you can see doing during lockdown, but why are they all about Van Gogh?

People watch ‘Imagine Van Gogh,' an immersive exhibit that features work from famed artist Vincent Van Gogh on Thursday. The exhibit is currently running at the Canada Convention Centre in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Movies and concerts are off-limits, and getting lost inside an art gallery remains forbidden. Still, since March 19, people in Vancouver have been able to visit something called Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition.

It's a multimedia production, one that takes familiar images of Van Gogh's paintings and blows them up into light projections. Masked visitors can roam the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre on a timed ticket, basking in supersized versions of the artist's greatest hits as a classical soundtrack plays. According to the event's marketing and PR director, Angela Di Corpo, roughly 100,000 tickets have sold in the city so far, and its run has been extended through August to meet demand.

The same spectacle was expected to open in Edmonton last week, though COVID-19 health and safety guidelines have forced it to reschedule to June. Despite that blip, sales suggest the city is still hungry to see it, and Di Corpo says some 50,000 tickets have moved in Edmonton thus far.

Also in June, Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience will arrive in Calgary — a completely different production, though also immersive and also involving elaborate projected displays of Van Gogh's paintings. And in May, Immersive Van Gogh — an exhibit that debuted in Toronto last June — will return to the city, occupying the former home of the Toronto Star printing press, a warehouse that gives them 600,000 cubic feet to play with.

For Vancouver's edition of Imagine Van Gogh, the show is projected on walls that are eight-metres high. (Laurence Labat/Imagine Van Gogh)

If your head's already spinning like the sky in Starry Night, we haven't even touched on the dozens of other shows happening worldwide. At least two more companies are having a gogh at their own separate productions. Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, which launched in 2017 and involves a blend of VR and projections, is currently running in 15 cities across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Van Gogh Alive, created by an Australian company (Grande Experiences), ramps up the "multi-sensory" aspect of their show by pumping in smells (cypress, lemon, sandalwood — fragrances meant to evoke the landscape of southern France).

In March, the Better Business Bureau put out a blast ("art lovers beware!") cautioning New Yorkers of two competing Van Gogh spectacles (Immersive Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience). Consumers were complaining about ticket-buying confusion, and as if the situation weren't puzzling enough, following the initial announcement, the BBB added two more Van Gogh productions to their list. 

What the hell is Gogh-ing on?

Though perhaps new to North Americans — or just dazzled fans of Emily in Paris — similar light shows have gained traction in Europe for roughly a decade. Annabelle Mauger, the French designer behind Imagine Van Gogh (Vancouver, Edmonton), produced her first immersive tribute to the artist in 2008. Massimiliano Siccardi, who created Toronto's Immersive Van Gogh, was the artist-in-residence at Atelier des Lumières, the popular venue featured on a certain aforementioned Netflix series. 

In May 2019, Svetlana Dvoretsky found herself there after succumbing to a bit of polite peer pressure. "It's kind of strange that something digital and multimedia would be so popular," she says, noting the endless cultural attractions that Paris has to offer. "But I quickly realized why I went to see it. It's an experience that gets under your skin — if it's done well, of course." 

Rad or ringarde? Emily in Paris at Atelier des Lumieres. (Netflix)

Dvoretsky was so taken by the show that she and co-producer Corey Ross decided to develop Immersive Van Gogh for Toronto audiences. The duo has also co-founded a production company (Lighthouse Immersive) that is pursuing similar events, and Immersive Van Gogh has since set up shop in various other centres, including New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. (Dvoretsky, who's typically based in Toronto, called CBC Arts from Florida, where she was looking at a yet another new venue for the exhibit.)

The origin of Imagine Van Gogh is a similar story. According to Di Corpo, Paul Dupont-Hébert, whose Tandem Expositions developed the show, was likewise inspired by a trip to Atelier des Lumières. Montreal hosted the debut of Imagine Van Gogh in 2019, and it appeared in Quebec City and Winnipeg last year.

Toronto's Immersive Van Gogh became the world's first drive-in art exhibition when it opened in June 2020. (Immersive Van Gogh)

Those mid-pandemic events weren't without their challenges, however. In Winnipeg, Imagine Van Gogh was unable to re-open this spring as originally planned. Immersive Van Gogh was forced to close in late December as Ontario's health and safety measures tightened, and to pull off their 2020 premiere, they invented a drive-in format which required visitors to "Gogh by car." Still, compared to other forms of entertainment, the format's proved more adaptable than most.

An immersive multimedia experience is unusually well-suited for a low-risk night out. The shows require cavernous venues, often warehouses or convention centres. The audience size can be tweaked according to local guidelines with tickets usually tied to specific entry times to manage capacity, and operating hours might stretch late into the night to make up for thinned crowds. In some examples, tidy little social-distancing circles are programmed right into the animations.

Inside the Chicago edition of Immersive Van Gogh. (Michael Brosilow/Immersive Van Gogh)

Mathieu St-Arnaud is the creative director of Beyond Van Gogh, and one of the founders of Normal Studio in Montreal, which has produced multimedia design for a variety of clients, ranging from public installations (Cité Mémoire) to live performance (Lady Antebellum). In September 2020, six months into our current live-culture-less reality, Calgary-based company Annerin Exhibits pitched him the idea for Beyond Van Gogh. "It was like, 'We can do this during COVID, we can make it safe.' And we did the math. Even if we reduced the amount of people in there, it's still viable," says St-Arnaud. And though lockdown measures delayed the show's world premiere in Alberta, it has since opened a satellite version in Miami, and plans to expand. (Detroit, San Diego and Milwaukee are among the American cities scheduled to host it in 2021.)

Still, when Annerin first brought him the idea, St-Arnaud was wondering the same thing that you're probably muddling right now. "My first question? I was like, 'Why Van Gogh?'"

Why Van Gogh, indeed

"Obviously, there's what we call copycat exhibitions that are coming out of the woodwork now," says Di Corpo, although the question of who's copying whom might change depending on the cat doing the talking. 

"I think it's complimentary," says Dvoretsky. "After we started this wave, and because of our success, people are trying to copy this," she says, referring to Immersive Van Gogh, which had roughly 200,000 visitors before turning off the lights in December. (Di Corpo takes the same stance; imitation is flattery.) 

"This is happening only because Van Gogh is in the public domain," Dvoretsky suggests. Although there are fees involved in licensing photos of Van Gogh's art from various agencies, the images are largely free to use for the purpose of building the shows. But still, why Van Gogh — and not some other icon whose copyright terms have expired?

Installation view of Imagine Van Gogh. (Laurence Labat/Imagine Van Gogh)

There's something about Vincent

St-Arnaud's team has two more immersive productions in the works, including a show about Monet that's expected to premiere in Toronto by the summer. So it's not as though there's something about the medium that's Van Gogh-exclusive. "Van Gogh, I think it's just because people know him," says St-Arnaud. "We knew it would be popular; people would enjoy it. It would be easy for people to get into."

Annabelle Kienle-Ponka is the associate curator of European and American art at the National Gallery of Canada, and she's regularly reminded of Van Gogh's perennial appeal. "The pull that he has is intense. And people, they flock to it," she says. "Where do I find the Van Goghs?" is a common visitor question, and the current crop of immersive events doesn't surprise her. 

"Everyone has an image in their head, or a painting in their mind — whether it's on a coffee cup you got as a young kid or it's a poster you saw in your grandmother's bedroom. He penetrated the cultural landscape in a way that I don't think any other artist has," she says. And curiously, Van Gogh was the most-Googled artist in Canada last year.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 24: Visitors take a look at Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" at the MoMA exhibit, on March 24, 2004 in Berlin, Germany. The exhibit, which opened February 20 and runs through December 14, has been a tremendous success and is averaging between 5,000 and 7,000 visitors a day. Highlights of the exhibit, all of which come from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, include works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein. (Photo Sean Gallup/Getty Images) (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Caroline Shields, associate curator and head of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says there's a "particular aura" to Van Gogh that appeals to viewers. "His works are beautiful. They're also incredibly expressive. And looking at the texture of his paintings, we can almost feel the expressiveness exuding out through the canvas."

"Starry Night at the MoMA I'm sure for decades had walls of people standing in front of it to see the painting," she says. "So I think that he has kind of an enduring popularity — at least, during our lifetime."

Still, opportunities to connect with his actual work can be rare, never mind the lockdown. In 2012, Kienle-Ponka was the co-curator of Van Gogh: Up Close at the National Gallery. It's among their highest-attended summer exhibitions, drawing 230,146 visitors during its run. The show took five years to compile, and Kienle-Ponka says a similar blockbuster is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The works, which are in high museum demand, are also expensive to ship and insure, and as time passes, they become increasingly fragile. "Would we now, post-COVID, be able to pull anything like this off? Probably not." 

A museum's goals, however, tend to involve more than luring Van Gogh fans through the gift shop. Ideally, an exhibition pushes the research on a given subject a little further; it provides a fresh perspective. Like the immersive shows, though, the audience experience is still key. Says Kienle-Ponka: "If I can give a 10-year-old a taste of Van Gogh that hopefully will stay with them and make them go to Amsterdam one day, that's what I want to achieve. But other formats can do the same."

Face masks, toilet paper ... Van Gogh?

When the lockdowns end, what impression will these multimedia shows leave? Maybe supersized sunflowers will come to mind when we look back on this era. Or maybe we'll just remember how there was nothing else to do — and that's good enough.

"I believe it will leave a mark for some people," says St-Arnaud. "People will remember. They're going to take pictures of it. We got out. We did something. We needed that."

Inside the Chicago edition of Immersive Van Gogh (Michael Brosilow/Immersive Van Gogh)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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