Blow Up

Joseph Henry on immersive van Gogh

View of “Immersive Van Gogh,” 2021. Photo: Nina Westervelt.

IT COULD NOT BE AVOIDED. With the lingering force of a traumatic memory, an advertisement for “Immersive Van Gogh” resurfaced constantly across social media. All over our screens, clips of masked visitors taking in wall-size projections of the Dutch painter’s self-portraits, still lifes, and landscapes proliferated. A thousand Starry Nights bloomed in rapid succession. Any cursory investigation of the phenomenon would uncover a veritable ecosystem of similarly titled, large-scale digital van Gogh installations, their locations ranging from Atlanta to Antwerp, Houston to Hangzhou: “Immersive Van Gogh,” “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition,” “Van Gogh Alive.”

These installations belong to an elusive category generically referred to as “experiences,” but also labeled, variously, “immersive art,” “immersive edutainment,” “digital art exhibitions,” “omnidirectional experiences,” “multisensory experiences,” and, per the minds behind “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition,” Image Totale©. The uses for the format are similarly variegated, not just blowing up modernist masters to grand proportions (in addition to van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, Cézanne, and Kandinsky) but supplying mise-en-scènes for Broadway, Vegas extravaganzas, and ballet. These image environments epitomize a moment when the digital totally saturates theatrical entertainment and the “creative” encompasses profuse varieties of commercial and aesthetic production. Pity the virtuous intentions of today’s serious media-installation artist.

View of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” 2021.

New York City is currently host to dueling van Gogh experiences, a corporate rivalry that “Immersive Van Gogh” addressed in a now unavailable web page comparing itself (favorably) to “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” “Immersive Van Gogh” (IVG, if you will) occupies a warehouse on the banks of the East River near the Manhattan Bridge; “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” (TIE) has taken up residence in a complex blocks from the World Trade Center. Both attractions continuously project and animate canonical van Gogh paintings, at times greatly expanding a work’s dimensions, replicating a certain detail across the entirety of a wall, or modifying a motif or scene so that it locomotes (the skull in Head of Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1886, actually takes a drag). TIE situates the action in a central area, preceding it with a hallway containing wall texts, a full-scale diorama of The Bedroom, 1888, and facsimiles of several beloved paintings. IVG distributes its projections across two antechambers and one large hall, also reflecting images onto abstract sculptures arranged throughout the space. Mercilessly constant music accompanies both enterprises, whether classical composers like Debussy or pop: In one gloriously arbitrary moment in IVG, Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” soundtracks the earthy Sower of 1888. Other divertissements abound, including a VR segment in TIE and a gift shop almost equal in size to the projection room in IVG.

Perhaps more strongly than any “serious” artistic project, these installations synthesize the Conceptualist program of dematerialization with the irreducible, affective singularity of the artist.

At first blush, the current van Gogh moment could be chalked up as an easy win for the culture industry—as the critic Ben Davis has acknowledged, the experiences function in part as a balm for lockdown-weary audiences eager for artistic edification yet dependent on the familiarity of the screen. But the conjoining of two words usually in mutual opposition, “digital experience,” hints at something deeper in the Immersive Van Gogh Industrial Complex, a desire for authentic feeling within even the most rationalized of technologies.

Given his persistent association with feeling above all, van Gogh is an artist whose resurgence could be said to herald a return of the repressed. The artistic mythos van Gogh personifies, all self-harm and social alienation, is a bygone model for serious practice, now supplanted by the artist as critic, as researcher, or as spokesperson. Van Gogh is instead the artist as expresser who conveys the singularity of his own feeling—simply put, the kind of artist most people encounter in their everyday life, and the archetype motivating children’s pedagogy, art therapy, and, of course, mass culture.

View of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” 2021.

From the artist’s own rebuke of his early Symbolist reception to Roger Fry’s contention in the mid-1920s that van Gogh was more of a “personality” than an actual artist, the emotionalist component of the modernist’s career has always structured what people get out of van Gogh—or don’t. It distinguishes him from other modernists receiving the digital-experience treatment, even figures like Klimt, who, having worked in the mural tradition, produced art better suited to monumental upscaling. While van Gogh’s status as spiritual visionary has hardly made him a fashionable figure within the academy (he’s neither the formalist Cézanne nor the primitivist case study Gauguin), it has secured his posthumous prosperity since at least his 1935 MoMA retrospective, remembered as the first exhibition to peddle van Gogh merchandise. Thanks to a steady drip of cinematic dramatizations and popular biographies, the success has never abated. Yet a wave of interest has undeniably crested in the past five years: At least seven museum exhibitions appeared in 2019 alone, while headlines consistently track stolen van Goghs or decadent hauls at the auction block. 2017 saw Loving Vincent, which billed itself as “the world’s first fully painted feature film,” and Julian Schnabel tried his hand at a biopic the next year with At Eternity’s Gate. The hugely successful video game The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt even employed van Gogh’s roiling style for one plotline that takes place inside the memories of a doomed, phantasmal painter with the nom d’artiste “van Rogh.” The digital installations now carrying the torch emerged as early as 2008, although the de facto leader of the pack, “Immersive Van Gogh,” first manifested as “Vincent Van Gogh, la nuit étoilée” in 2019 at L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris. The venture gained visibility when it appeared in episode five of the Netflix show Emily in Paris, where it features as yet another stop during one of Emily’s freewheeling soirées en ville. This June, Artnet News could report that nearly fifty digital van Gogh experiences were taking place around the world. 

View of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” 2021.

As art historians increasingly attend to underexplored aspects of van Gogh scholarship—for example, his participation in the art market (Judy Sund); his investment in the economy of images (Michael Lobel); and the role of his sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, in shaping his posthumous reputation (Hans Luijten)—the pop-cultural products bearing his name have continued to capitalize on van Gogh as an outsider subject of true feeling, to paraphrase the late Lauren Berlant. Biographical specifics shift with each presentation (Loving Vincent and At Eternity’s Gate entertain a controversial thesis that, rather than shooting himself, the artist was in fact killed by a local miscreant, or a pair thereof), but the van Gogh Idea—madness, visions, amputation, suicide—remains pervasive. It saturates “The Immersive Experience,” with quotes and psychiatric conjecture peppering the didactic material; van Gogh is simultaneously the most quoted and most mystified artist of the Euro-American canon. By contrast, “Immersive Van Gogh” dispenses with biography, dissipating psychological interiority in a Gesamtkunstwerk of sound and image. This is the curious impersonality of “genius”: In both of the experiences, van Gogh functions as cosmic visionary, desiring-machine, and artistic martyr but rarely as a specific individual informed by ideologies, beliefs, or histories.

There are questions to be asked about the role of the expressive artist in a contemporary moment of perpetual crisis, but it feels more germane to ask: Is digital van Gogh the van Gogh we deserve? Recent endeavors have sublated the issue, luxuriating in the analog qualities of oil, paint, and touch through the prism of binary code. Loving Vincent employed a mix of rotoscoping, green screens, and actual painting on film stills to both humanize CGI and force van Gogh into the information age, while Schnabel harnessed the motility of a digital camcorder to exalt the telluric landscapes of southern France. For digital enlargement, van Gogh’s pictorial contributions lie in the measured compositions and color contrasts, even if the monumentalizing of tender works like the portraits of van Gogh’s friend the postman Joseph Roulin risks absurdity. In their animation effects, the immersive experiences tend to showcase time-honored digital techniques like the wipe or the dissolve rather than simulated brushwork, but they still glamorize that index of the expressive artist, the physical painterly mark. Van Gogh’s signature arabesque stroke functions as the spiritual opposite of the atomized pixel that structures both the digital installations and our everyday visuality, especially when compared to a contemporary like Seurat and his proto-code divisionism.

The organizers claim that the scale and detail of the installations allow visitors to “step inside” the paintings, when really any tectonic understanding of the image gives way to its diffusion, the viewer instead bathed in light and color. The effect isn’t as technologically sublime as one might think; while total, the experiences aren’t truly spectacular by today’s media standards. Rather, the feeling is nearly cushioning, befitting the familiarity of the digital that Davis notes in his essay. More than gawking in stupefied awe, people mostly sit down, lie on the floor, and stay silent, performing an especially placid take on what Sianne Ngai calls “stuplimity.” Van Gogh’s modernist pathos, whether conjured through biographical detail or through a reflexive association of the artist with painterly feeling, adjoins a vibey, cybernated Stimmung.

View of “Immersive Van Gogh,” 2021. Photo: Nina Westervelt.

If the van Gogh events represent an emergent exhibition model, they do so without any pretentions toward the auratic artwork. The blockbuster artistic spectacle no longer needs to have that one thing you can’t see anywhere else—indeed, part of the allure of the experience is that it can be replicated anywhere. TIE included canvas reproductions with no qualms about their authenticity, while both installations modified and collaged van Gogh’s paintings as if they were so many Photoshop files ripe for modification. Perhaps more strongly than any “serious” artistic project, these installations synthesize the Conceptualist program of dematerialization with the irreducible, affective singularity of the artist. If the subject retains a certain piquancy, the object undergoes the leveling effect of digitization. Art becomes pliable data: expression by algorithm, feeling by code. In this paradigm, museums don’t function as repositories of unique objects but as custodians of intellectual property. The public-domain status of the long-dead painter’s works is, of course, crucial for their appropriation and reconfiguration (perhaps soon we will see the obverse operation: the petrification of museums’ artworks, typically very accessible online, into NFTs).

That van Gogh would warrant discussions of property as much as feeling or mythology is one of the artist’s more curious art-historical legacies. In a 1982 Art in America essay, the critic Craig Owens revisited a well-known scholarly conversation among Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Meyer Schapiro about van Gogh’s Old Shoes with Laces, 1886. Heidegger claimed the shoes to be a peasant woman’s, and Schapiro rebuked the philosopher on ostensibly solid art-historical ground, arguing that the footwear in fact belonged to the painter. Derrida’s role, in Owens’s account, is to show that Heidegger and Schapiro are in “perfect agreement,” insofar as both believe there needs to be some attribution of ownership. “The Heidegger-Schapiro debate,” Owens writes, “is basically a contest over the proprietorship of the image,” over art history’s need to secure its own objects, its “desire for appropriation.” Perhaps more than anyone, van Gogh demands reconsideration of what it means to claim an account of an artist: Griselda Pollock, arguably the founder of what could be called critical van Gogh studies, has recently circled back to her early writing to offer today’s version of the artist, an emblem of an Instagram-enthralled population committed to their own microdramas of the self. Given the artist’s deepening enmeshment with technologies of digital reproduction and augmentation, attempts to position van Gogh with stability feel increasingly tenuous; he becomes more dispersed, as sheer and radiating as feeling itself. Van Gogh is less an art-historical constant than a surface on which the terms of aesthetic experience itself can be thrown into relief—this is perhaps his most consequential role when he reemerges in popular, scholarly, and commercial imagination. Propriety, capital, and cliché linger within today’s van Gogh, but so too does the desire to feel within and beyond life’s normative infrastructures. Van Gogh is an affect theory.

Joseph Henry is a Ph.D. candidate in the art-history program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.