Written by Maya Phillips
(Critic’s Pocket book)
In 2017, I took a visit to Paris, the place I greedily took in as a lot artwork as I may. In one of many cavernous chambers of the ornate Musée d’Orsay was the Vincent van Gogh exhibition, his framed works (“Starry Evening Over the Rhône,” “Bed room in Arles,” “The Church at Auvers,” quite a lot of his self-portraits) set towards a brazen sapphire background moderately than the same old chaste white museum partitions.
I’ve had a poster of “Starry Evening,” gifted to me by a school good friend, since my undergraduate dorm days. It hangs framed in my bed room at present. At Musée d’Orsay, I stared at his stressed skies and fields, stood for lengthy stretches in entrance of his self-portraits, rooted in place by the depth of his gaze. And I cried — all of the sudden, violently. I rushed out. I had by no means earlier than had such a fierce response to a portray, and I’ve by no means once more since.
What does it imply to construct intimacy with an artist — even one separated by over a century of historical past? And might an artist’s work be reimagined to offer an viewers in trendy instances an much more intimate modern relationship with the artwork?
These questions occurred to me as I visited the 2 competing immersive van Gogh exhibitions within the New York Metropolis borough of Manhattan: “Immersive Van Gogh” at Pier 36 on the East River and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Expertise” at Skylight on Vesey. Not like my emotional excessive at Musée d’Orsay, these reveals left me feeling largely detached; in actual fact, the strongest response I had was an alarming sense of intrusion and a disingenuous reference to the artist and his work.
Immersive artwork installations — and particularly immersive theater — set off my sense of play and activate each the critic and artist in me. There’s a big distinction between artwork conceived to be immersive, although, and artwork strong-armed into an immersive medium.
However first there was an exquisite translation of van Gogh: The entry ceiling of Pier 36, an imaginative 3D re-creation of “Starry Evening” by the designer David Korins, that includes 1000’s of painted brushes, felt like an exquisite homage — an artist taking up one other artist in a piece that invitations a brand new perspective, channeling the unique work’s type and motifs with out aiming to be a precise copy.
And but that simply was an appetizer to the principle present, a collection of related rooms the place individuals lie and sit and stand watching a video of van Gogh’s works projected in all corners of the room, and that left me numb. And what received to me wasn’t the younger ladies posing for selfies or the older vacationers lounging as if at a seaside or the stressed youngsters scurrying round and climbing on Korins’ massive summary monuments, their reflective surfaces catching all of the sunflowers and stars — I’ve encountered a lot of the identical in conventional museum exhibitions of van Gogh’s work.
It was the brevity of the work within the video sequence — how rapidly they appeared and disappeared. And it was the animations — his mighty cypresses manifesting like apparitions from the mist in order that the magic of the work is rendered actually. There’s no room for subtlety or implication right here. The great thing about being swallowed by projections of van Gogh’s multicolored fields was subdued by the sloppiness of the interpretation. I stood off to at least one facet to look at the projections and misplaced the resolute brushstrokes and tiny gradients of coloration within the fuzziness of the digitization.
I rapidly realized that for an excellent variety of these within the viewers, these particulars didn’t matter. The purpose was to make use of the artwork as a backdrop for a type of theatrical expertise.
It was exactly this expertise that made me uneasy. How do you make theater out of artwork that’s so explicitly contained and particular person to van Gogh’s perspective? Regardless of all the colour and character in his work, it might be inaccurate to restyle his work as surroundings on the quasi-stages that these exhibitions create for audiences to discover not as admirers however energetic individuals.
Irrespective of what number of instances I toured the chambers, I had the itching sense that it was dishonest to develop a 2 1/2-foot-by-3-foot portray to suit the horizons of a 75,000-square-foot area. The photographs are expanded and duplicated to create a repetitive panoramic. However there’s a purpose for the dimensions of the unique work; what the painter needed to obscure, what elements of the world we’re allowed to see and what we’re left to think about. A portray hanging on a museum wall is a declarative assertion, the artist saying, “Right here’s a chunk of a world of coloration, type and kind that I’ve given you.”
To attempt to introduce new depth and interactivity within the artist’s work is to indicate that van Gogh’s originals — his brushstrokes, his swaying fields and torrents of blues or the bowing heads of his oleanders — didn’t breathe.
The van Gogh present at Vesey equally used projections together with 3D deconstructions of his work, and I felt extra relaxed with these spectacular life-size re-creations of works comparable to “Bed room in Arles” in an exhibition that styled itself a “digital museum.” However my eyes glossed over the canvas reproductions of the work, so inferior to the true factor: The colours have been uninteresting, the textures nonexistent, and the fibers of the canvas shone artificially within the exhibit mild.
Not the van Gogh works I bear in mind, however no less than right here was the artwork, standing nonetheless and by itself, and with out interruption. And right here was the artist — a timeline of his life, blurbs about his profession.
Nonetheless, I discovered the ultimate a part of the exhibition — a journey through virtual-reality headset by way of a few of the landscapes on which his work have been based mostly — off-putting. On this digital world, I floated by way of van Gogh’s home, then out into the road amongst individuals milling round, working and chatting. Each on occasion, a body would seem in entrance of my sight view, and the scene would remodel, to match its painted counterpart. We’re meant to see the distinction between the true world and van Gogh’s world as seen by a mind-reading illustrator. However can any scenic designer actually step into the artist’s sneakers? Are some chambers within the impenetrable thoughts of an artist higher left untouched?
After all there’s no strategy to resurrect the artist, not by way of the Vesey van Gogh re-creation of his world, nor the Pier 36 exhibition, which additionally affords an artificial-intelligence van Gogh who will write you a letter (particularly, an algorithm recycles phrases and phrases from his real-life letters and delivers them in his personal handwriting).
What the 2 van Gogh immersive exhibitions made me notice is how I made unfounded presumptions of the artist and his work in 2017. I can by no means fake to know the way in which he thought and noticed the world. I solely know what I’ve learn, and that’s not sufficient to understand the whole lot of a life. What I do know is the way in which his works faucet one thing lovely and unfathomable in me — the critic, the artwork lover, the poet. As a result of on the finish of the day, we are able to’t fake to know van Gogh, simply as we are able to’t fake his work could be projected on partitions as if it’s the identical expertise. All we now have are the work within the frames, however these nights, these cypresses, these sunflowers — they’re greater than sufficient on their very own.
This text initially appeared in The New York Occasions.