Van Gogh: the verdict. Today I'm going to tell you what JR and I thought of the immersive Van Gogh experience we saw a few weeks ago
Hi there everyone, I'm Jeff; JR is the producer; and you are listening to Plain English lesson number 443. Plain English is where we help you upgrade your English with current events, trending topics, and the occasional rant by yours truly. JR has uploaded the full lesson content to PlainEnglish.com/443.
Last Thursday, you heard about the new "immersive" Van Gogh shows. I tried to keep my opinions to myself last week, but this week I'm telling you exactly what I think. In the second half of the lesson, I'll tell you what it means to be "turned off" by something and JR has a song of the week. Let's get going.
The verdict: Overpriced and inauthentic
As you learned last Thursday , a number of private companies have developed new ways to display and experience the paintings of famous artists, from the street artist Banksy to Mexican icon Frida Kahlo. But the most common subject of these shows is Van Gogh, and no wonder. The Dutch painter produced over 900 paintings in his lifetime and the images are now all in the public domain.
So one frigid night in January, I met JR at the Germania Club building in Chicago to see the "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit."
Our tickets were timed, so we had to arrive at our specified time, 6:30 pm. After checking in, we passed through a set of curtains and walked into the exhibition space. All the lights were out and images were projected on all the walls around us; there was music playing. There was one big room, with long white walls on all sides. But from the first room, there were open doors that led to smaller rooms, also with walls covered in white, also with the exhibit showing in them.
The show is on a loop; when we walked in, one show was about to end. So we took a seat in the middle of the room. When the show started again, it was cool seeing familiar images projected on huge walls. There were large columns of mirrors to enhance the immersive effect.
Let's start with what I liked. It was a good sensory experience to see familiar paintings and images on such a large canvas. The projections covered all four surrounding walls and, often, the floor. I can definitely understand what people mean when they say they feel "inside" a painting.
The images are choreographed to music, so it's an audible experience as well as a visual one. When Van Gogh's famous 1888 painting "Café Terrace at Night" appeared, the music playing was the French song "Je ne regrette rien." It was fun to walk around and get different perspectives on the images. Because they were animated, you could feel the mood change as, for example, the sun came up over golden wheat fields.
In the Chicago space, you could enjoy the exhibition from the large front room or you could walk through to other, smaller rooms. This lets you get a more intimate experience with the walls closer to you. JR and I watched a loop in the main room and another in a smaller room. Some people liked to sit on the floor in a corner and just look up; others liked to walk around; others liked to stand or sit in the middle. People were enjoying the space the way they wanted to.
And now for the bad. Let's start with the fact that this exhibition looks far better on Instagram than in real life. When you take photos, the images appear to shine off the walls. But in person, the images are washed out. They're like any other projection on a wall: they're just not bright and brilliant. But they do appear that way in your cell phone photos, so, as in so many ways, what appears in Instagram is a filtered version of reality.
Second, the loop was 35 minutes total. We got to the end and I said, "Was that really it?" The next thing I said was, "What was that?" There wasn't a story. There wasn't any logic. There was certainly no learning. There was music and images morphing into one another. But if you're listening and asking yourself the question, "What is this exactly?" Well, here's your answer: it isn't anything. It's just big images and music.
But now I need to tell you my real objection and that is the abject commercialism of the show. Those of you who've listened for a long time, you know that I don't mind if people make a dollar. If you play by the rules, and if you're not hurting anybody, I say, go for it. But the abject commercialism of this show turned me off . Maybe it's because I'm not used to experiencing art in such a commercial way. But let me tell you what I mean.
First of all, JR and I paid $94 for these two tickets. That included a $13 "convenience fee." That permitted us to enter at 6:30 pm on the dot. We could pay more for the flexibility to come two hours before or after. We could pay more to go on a weekend. We could pay more if we wanted to rent—not buy, rent—a plastic cushion to sit on during the show. We could pay more for access to an express entry line or pay even more to access the VIP line—not that anyone was waiting in any of these lines.
You could pay extra to have a special date night package where you sit in a semi-private balcony. You could pay for drinks on your way in; you could pay for drinks on your way out. We didn’t do any of that. The absolute cheapest way for two people to experience this 35-minute show was to pay $94.
None of that money went to Van Gogh's estate. None of it went to people who study the artist or preserve his works. Now contrast it to the cost of entering some of the best museums in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago costs $25. That's about half. They have 18 original Van Gogh paintings and thousands of works from all over the world, from almost every period of artistic history. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam costs 19 euros. The Museum of Modern Art, which has Starry Night in its collection, costs $25.
In any of these places, you can spend the full day. You can learn something new. You can get lost in the artwork. You can marvel at the skill. You can compare and contrast. You can wonder about the lives and the places being depicted. You can stare at one piece for half an hour, you skip over what doesn't interest you. Your money is supporting people who preserve this experience for future generations.
Or you could pay double, rent a cheap cushion, drink a cocktail, and watch an electronic version of something that's so much better in person.
See the real thing if you can
I didn't mean to make this so long, but I feel like I needed to get this off my chest. I'm not an art afficionado. I'm not an art lover, really. But after I saw this "immersive" Van Gogh show, I felt like I had to atone for my sins, so I went to a museum nearby that had a special exhibit of his paintings and those of artists that influenced him. And it just reminded me how real the real thing is and how cheap the "immersive" experience was.
Anyway, if you want an Instagrammable experience, absolutely go to one of these shows. But do also go to the real thing if you're ever in a city with a Van Gogh painting.