Immersing yourself in Van Gogh is the best way to get rid of him

Gigantic, psychedelic, hyperpop. The immersive show dedicated to the Dutch painter was the hit of the summer in New York. We visited it to find out why. 

Imagine a trip to the park, but instead of meadows, trees, and perhaps the very same ducks that Holden Caulfield was so obsessed with, you are inside Van Gogh. And by “Van Gogh”, we mean a riot of his famous and less famous works, disassembled, outlined, animated, switched off and on again, in continuous transition, all powerfully soundtracked by a succession of music that goes from the melancholy of Edith Piaf to that of Thom Yorke, and more.

A visitor immersed in Van Gogh

This is, very briefly, “Immersive Van Gogh New York”, the exhibition of the summer in New York. A film presented as an immersive projection in three huge rooms on the East River: the video is everywhere, on the walls, on the floor, on the mirrored installations, on visitors aged 9 through 99 as in the Ravensburger games, sitting on the floor, on folding chairs, on the customised Van Gogh cushion, chilling against a wall or taking pictures of each other among sunflowers and starry nights.

The entrance

Millionaire auctions, Tim Roth and Willem Dafoe, crowds of pensioners packed in coaches like sardines, the myth of the cursed artist meeting that of the French Riviera and turning it into a maudit-chic. The Shonda Rimes’s Netflix series-like story of the chopped-off ear. And then those sunflowers - by the way, you would probably never tell but there are plenty of them in New York. With all those stereotypes anticipating it, Van Gogh wasn’t really on my New York to-do list until I interviewed Karen Wong and it turned out that this exhibition - in which there isn’t a single original painting on display - is the hit of the summer of the reopening city, for reasons that even she couldn’t fully explain. And that it was therefore worth exploring. 


The creator of the exhibition, Massimiliano Siccardi, whom Domus contacted via email, first of all shows his sincere love for Van Gogh, describing him as a person (sic) with whom he has had a long relationship that “started a long time ago”, when he was a child. He points out that this gigantic installation is the third he has created on the painter. “The suggestions that each work has generated in me have been settling in in my soul for many years”, he writes. Then, he says that the creative spark that inspired “Immersive Van Gogh” was a book about the journey of Van Gogh’s nephew, also named Vincent, in search of his uncle, which conveys “the great humanity (of the more famous Vincent, Ed.) free from the stereotypes of madness”. Siccardi, who has a long experience in the theatre, underlines the role of the music, curated by Luca Longobardi, and the “filmic” contribution to the writing offered by Vittorio Guidetti. “The work is the convergence of research, accurate vision of the iconographic sources, and music research”.

There is a message he wants to get across to the public, he explains, and it is “that life happens in this very moment”, (which perhaps reminds me more of John Lennon than of Van Gogh), in the hope, he continues, “that people overwhelmed by emotions can experience a little of the beautiful and powerful life that Vincent lived”.

Should I stay or should I Gogh?

Vincent Van Gogh painted The Prisoners’ Round in the mental hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, inspired by an engraving by Gustave Doré. The painting inspired in turn the prison scene of A Clockwork Orange. No longer able to paint outdoors, Vincent started looking for subjects in prints. It is hard to think of anything more claustrophobic and darker in the paintings of the time: extremely cold colours interrupted by flashes of orange, and a figure in the foreground that pierces the fourth wall and in whose features it is hard not to recognise the painter. Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver a few months later and died after an agony that lasted two days. It seems almost paradoxical that at Immersive Van Gogh the visitors take selfies of themselves in front of the work, or rather right in the middle of it, as soon as it appears on the walls of Pier 36. I wonder why a sane person would want to experience such madness. And that’s probably where I’m wrong. Any normalcore person would like, at least for a moment, to put themselves in the shoes of such an extremely talented artist driven by an insatiable self-destructive spirit, precisely because that will never be their life.

Read also: A summer in New York: the city and the pandemic

More than an exhibition space, “Immersive Van Gogh” is somethings between a playground and a place to live temporarily. A gigantic picnic, not on the grass, but inside Van Gogh. With that slightly Tron-like sensation of being encapsulated inside a series of gigantic screensavers, while the silhouettes of visitors pass by along the colorful walls, gathering in groups, taking pictures of everything. The Flemish painter’s works, deprived of their material consistency and converted into a dazzling stream of pixels, float and flow freely, spread out beyond the frames from which they have been removed, turn on and off, are outlined and animated, blind visitor by creating spirals of light, in a psychedelic concert of sound and colour, a dazzle, a Fantasia where Mickey Mouse has been replaced by Van Gogh. Suddenly there is darkness, then on the screen appears his signature and his self-portrait multiplies like a ghost. “Immersive Van Gogh” is a popular psychedelic experience, a Fantastic Fungi for the masses.

Exhibition store

In this pro-Van Gogh frenzy, however, the one who disappears in the end may as well be Vincent himself. The works, deprived of the distance from the spectator, who rather swims in them, repeated in a continuous cycle, amplified to the point of improbability, end up emptying themselves of any meaning, decaying to the role of shared aesthetic landscape, to the decorative Van Gogh that you find on every mug or t-shirt or sock or gadget available in the vast - and very crowded - shop set up at the exit of the exhibition, which also features a bar where you can taste Starry Night sweets. It is but a short step from being a cursed painter to the angel on the Fiorucci T-shirts. Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette totes are a big hit with the ladies. The effect is a bit like when you see a photo of a supermodel wearing a Sepultura T-shirt. Van Gogh is our shared wallpaper. Or rather, the screensaver.

Exhibition store

Regardless of the intentions of the creators, which are certainly very honest, regardless of the interest of the public, and regardless of the extent to which this exhibition represents the straightforward crystallisation of a contemporaneity constantly poised between the Divine Comedy and Jersey Shore, I can see the harried and fatigued ghost of Van Gogh, wandering around these rooms, dominated by his own works turned into a blockbuster, and finally running away, slipping under a red exit sign: and here he is, in the tropic that is Manhattan in August, going the opposite direction through the airport-style checkpoints outside the exhibition, passing by signs that say Gogh this way, going in the opposite direction to the arrow, and then reaching an isolated, deserted spot, perhaps facing the river under the Manhattan Bridge, near an empty playground, in the shade, with a subtle breeze that cools him down, but only for a moment, and without bringing him any relief, or perhaps in one of those courtyards that cut through the project buildings opposite Pier 36, the echo the hip hop music of three distant kids, and at that point - very pale, terrified, astonished - Van Gogh pulls something out from under his jacket and points it at his face. You decide if it’s a revolveror a smartphone.

Standing in line for inspections outside Pier 36

The secret of the success of “Immersive Van Gogh” probably lies in the fact that this exhibition is, essentially, not an exhibition. Instead, it is a film, projected in a loop in the most spectacular way possible, an emotional, overwhelming cinema, with all the epic of a Wagnerian opera transposed into the mild and digitalized language of the present, which transcends any need for a linear plot and finds comfort in an extremely pop form in the shadow of that convergence between the arts, which today seems perhaps the only reasonable way to make a project flourish. Many people could learn something from that.

“It is a journey that takes immersive art to an emotional level, while involving the deep perception of the Spectator-Actor as a human being”, Massimiliano Siccardi explains via e-mail, emphasising the decisive contribution of what he defines as a “nearly osmotic exchange between music and images”. “Immersive Van Gogh" is a dramaturgy made of noise and silence, light and darkness, and pauses and suspensions that takes you beyond everything, beyond the folding chairs, the queue at the entrance, the heat outside and the cold of the AC inside, the anxiety of the people taking selfies, the children crying and their parents not caring, the ecstatic girl who is watching everything for the third time and will probably stay until someone from security tells her the museum is closing. Beyond even Vincent Van Gogh, who he was, his work. Here, you are in the flow, and when you are in the flow there is no room for reflection, there is no self-conscious novel; you are where you are, without asking questions, and perhaps this is just fine.


Postscript. It should be noted that the one told here is only one of several immersive exhibitions dedicated to Van Gogh that can be seen today in the United States and in various cities around the world, and judging by the titles, it is a war of clones: there are "Imagine Van Gogh: the Immersive Exhibition", "Beyond Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience", and then, precisely "Immersive Van Gogh", which can currently be seen in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In its installation in the 22 thousand square feet of Pier 36, on the East River, it bears the full title of "Original Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in New York".

All images in this article were taken with a Fujifilm X-Pro3, kindly loaned by the brand.

Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition New York
Massimiliano Siccardi
Luca Longobardi
Fino al 29 agosto
Pier 36, 299 South St, New York, NY
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