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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rachel Connolly

So long ‘immersive Van Gogh’: we deserve better than this cynical and elitist approach to art

Visitors at an immersive exhibition of works by Vincent Van Gogh in Milan in June.
Visitors at an immersive exhibition of works by Vincent Van Gogh in Milan in June. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Repetition and familiarity are everywhere in our culture. From the commercial novels advertised entirely in terms of their similarity to popular titles from the previous year or two, to endless and proliferating film franchises, the selling point of so many things now is, in effect: this is a slightly (even very) worse version of something you’ve seen already. The “immersive art” concept offered by companies like Lighthouse Immersive is the purest form of this wearying trend, so recent news that Lighthouse has filed for bankruptcy feels like a faintly promising development.

Lighthouse Immersive puts on shows in which reproductions of work by household-name artists are blown up and projected on to the walls of galleries. Music is piped into the space to curate the mood, taking the place that imagination plays in a traditional exhibition. The idea is that these magnified projections encourage an audience to appreciate the finer details of certain famous paintings.

In its most popular show, the travelling Van Gogh immersive experience, some of the most celebrated works, such as Sunflowers, are magnified and cast over the walls. None of the original paintings are to be seen. You could, if the notion struck you, do this in your own house with a projector. Indeed, when I first read about the concept, I thought it sounded like the kind of “bored afternoon” entertainment dreamed up by a stoned teenager.

An experience like this which warps the scale and form of the reproductions, and so undermines creative decisions taken by the artist in making their work that it seems less about finding new ways to contextualise art, or bring it to new audiences, than about leaching as much money as possible out of the Van Gogh brand name.

Because there are no original paintings, production and insurance costs for this kind of show are relatively low. But ticket prices don’t reflect this. An adult ticket to the London experience is £18, and the company has decided to classify anyone over the age of 13 as an adult. There is a slightly cheaper family bundle, but because of the selective child classification, if two parents took two young teenagers it would still cost £72. Regardless, the concept did prove popular for a while. In its bankruptcy filings, the company claims to have sold more than 7m tickets to its events since it started running them in 2019. “Lighthouse sold out shows seven days a week and months in advance for almost an entire year,” it claims.

Lighthouse seems to owe some of its success to the fact it opened during the pandemic. When other galleries were forced to close, it was able to reconfigure one of its early exhibits in Toronto as a drive-in experience. Besides, we all developed strange – perhaps we can agree “low” – standards for what constituted entertainment during that time. I myself passed many weeks of the first lockdown sitting up until 2am or 3am, drinking red wine and watching about four episodes of The Sopranos a night (a fine show, but not under those viewing conditions). Then I would stumble into bed, have hours of graphic nightmares and rise for work at 9am, surprised to find myself in a constantly terrible mood.

Others were to be found engaged in equally dubious pursuits, such as baking misshapen loaves of bread, sampling questionable hairstyles or keeping dream diaries. Thankfully, though, that era is behind us. Lighthouse claims its audience began to drop off as Covid restrictions were relaxed and it had to compete with other forms of entertainment. “The form of art lost its novelty and patrons had other options,” the filing states. It will be scaling its operations back to offer shows in no more than five cities by the end of September, down from a total of about 20.

It’s heartening that people appear to have grown weary of this concept so quickly. In the best case, it could indicate a general fatigue with our culture full of “a worse version of something you’ve already seen” products, in which every big-budget film seems to be based on a toy, or more likely a remake of something based on a toy and the words Normal People seem to be used in the marketing copy of almost every new book.

Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, though. It may simply be that this experience would always have started to appear unappealing fairly quickly. It essentially offers a shortcut to the emotional response engendered by great art, hinged on the institutional validation of recognisable names. This was always a dubious promise, and an unnecessary one.

There can be a tendency to treat any derision of this kind of themepark-ification of art as intellectual snobbery or elitism. But I think the reverse is true. An imagination is free and everyone has one. Reading about art history and going to galleries regularly can be helpful to contextualise things, but nobody really needs a formal education to be moved by, or to appreciate art. The idea that Van Gogh’s work can’t be enjoyed without the aid of gizmos and contraptions – and an inflated cost – strikes me as the most cynical and elitist approach to art I can imagine.

• This article was amended on 10 August 2023 to remove text that may have suggested Disney had a role in the ownership of Lighthouse Immersive, which is not the case.

  • Rachel Connolly is a London-based journalist from Belfast

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