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1 November, 2021

Van Gogh Alive galleries reinvented or fine art from the Instagram generation?

Vincent Van Gogh born 1853, died 1890, resurrected 2021?

Having toured the world and reported to have had over 7 million visitors across 65 countries, the Van Gogh Alive experience has made it to Brisbane’s Hamilton Northshore. Experience is an important word here and I can see why they used it. This is not an exhibition of Van Gogh’s work, more a captivating well-wrought impression of his work, but can it be enjoyed without irony?

When entering the impressive custom-built building that will house the experience in Brisbane for the next 2 months one’s eye is immediately drawn to large panel prints of Almond Blossoms (1890) suspended from the ceiling. As you begin to take in the room you’ll see a spotlit Lexus and an impressive 3D rendering of The Bedroom (1888) and some quotes from Van Gogh printed white on black in bold text adorning the walls. This holding area prior to the experience space also houses the cafe/bar and inevitable gift shop.

Next is the Interpretive Area, set like a traditional museum or gallery; lighted panels give some relatively brief information on some of his most famous works. The less you know about Van Gogh the more you will likely benefit from this although I think it likely that most will skip this as they will be hungry to head on into the main area. Moving on into an antechamber with mirrored walls, hanging fairy lights and The Starry Night (1889) ceiling, one’s anticipation starts to really build. This room is certainly fun and is exactly what I would expect for a production like this. If one was to be cynical one may believe that it was designed, like The Bedroom rendering, to be “Insta worthy”. Myself and my date both briefly believed that we were experiencing the first of the promised fragrances but decided what we could actually smell was new plastic probably from the fairy lights. At no point did either of us notice any fragrance that would have been intended to enhance our experience.

Scale was the first thing that struck me when entering the principal area. Huge canvas-style screens are set around the walls and used as partitions, similar canvases on the floor and popular classical music piped crystal clear through an engulfing sound system. It is worth noting that the playlist has been uploaded to Spotify so you can find it there should you desire. The experience is played on a loop of about 35 minutes. If you arrive half way through, which you almost certainly will, take some time to wander the room, let it soak into you, allow yourself to be immersed and look for a place to sit whether that be on a chair or the floor for when it loops back to the beginning then sit and watch it from beginning to end. Loosely biographical, Van Gogh’s art is projected all around you, some works in full, others are close up, snapshots if you will of pieces. Some have been altered, animated to bring them Alive. There are also Van Gogh quotes projected onto the massive canvas screens although while still white on black they are now presented in a cursive script that if one is not looking directly at them makes them particularly hard to read. If Van Gogh had Instagram is this what it would have looked like? The sample of his impressive body of work shown of course includes the most famous, but also a good representation of works for which he is less known. During the experience I was engrossed and taken along a wonderful journey, it was thoroughly enjoyable and I would recommend it. It is a seamless, impressive, extremely well produced highly commercialised exposition. Afterwards, though a certain uneasiness set in which I struggled to pin down.

The final part of the experience is the Immersive Sunflower Room and we are immediately back to appeasing the social media monster that now lives inside so many of us. A fairly small room made to feel much bigger with the use of mirrors. You are transported into a field of plastic sunflowers that I challenge you not to take a selfie in. A fitting ending to an enjoyable yet somewhat unsettling journey.

I wonder if a highly commercialised product that uses a not commercially successful (in his lifetime) artist’s work seemingly without irony is morally sound. I fear that the projections of work miss the nuance of intended scale and texture. I worry that the sponsors feature heavily both in the building and on the website, and yet the names of the artists, directors, writers, sound engineers and animators that made the whole thing come to life are absent and as unappreciated as Vincent himself was during his life.

Did I enjoy Van Gogh Alive? Yes, very much so. Will I go again before it wraps up? Almost certainly. Should you go? Yes without doubt, only the most snobby of art-loving purists are not going to enjoy this.

To steal from Banksy, don’t forget to exit through the gift shop.