Van Gogh in a New Light

The post-Impressionist painter’s work is the subject of a high-tech “360-degree light and sound” exhibit in West Sacramento.
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van gogh experience
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

The global phenomenon of van Gogh immersive exhibits is like a fastmoving wildfire, with productions popping up everywhere from Boston to Beijing. When Sacramento joined the party this summer with the unveiling of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” some locals cheered, while others who fought Bay Area traffic to catch a similar show in San Francisco last year probably wished they’d waited.

Sacramento’s foray into the IMAX-like world of immersive art signals what seems to be a new era for our region, or at least a growing trend. Already waiting in the wings behind the current exhibit, which at the time of this writing was selling tickets into December, is extravaganza number two, “Beyond Van Gogh,” produced by a different company and scheduled to open in November. Ironically, the competing exhibits are both located in West Sacramento, a veritable stone’s throw from one another.

guests experiencing the van gogh
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

Why Vincent van Gogh, why Sacramento, why now? According to John Zaller of Exhibition Hub, the company behind the current exhibit, part of the impetus was to remedy the problem of Sacramento being treated like Cinderella, the last one to go to the ball.

“The Sacramento market is, I think, underserved when it comes to these types of experiences,” says Zaller, executive producer of Exhibition Hub’s U.S. shows. “I wanted to change that, to bring something rich and vibrant and cultural here.” From a business standpoint, Zaller adds, Sacramento made sense. “You’ve got sophisticated residents, you’re right in the heart of Northern California, you’ve got incredible draw—very central and very accessible.”

OK. But why is van Gogh everybody’s go-to?

van gogh's paintings
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

“Van Gogh is kind of a rock star in the art world,” says Zaller, and it’s undeniably true: The Dutch post-Impressionist’s iconic paintings (think “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers”) and turbulent life story, often unfortunately reduced to “the guy who cut off his ear,” are practically part of our collective DNA.

Van Gogh’s huge body of work—incredibly, he produced more than 2,000 paintings, drawings and sketches before his death at age 37—embraces a “literal, pictorial style” that gives it mass appeal, says Zaller.

“As you get into the work and how he created it—how he painted the swirls in the sky, or how he was trying to bring a countryside to life—the more compelling it becomes,” he says. By adding motion to van Gogh’s works through the use of high-tech wizardry, Zaller explains, viewers get a tangible sense of the artist’s technique, and even his state of mind.

guests sitting at a table
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

Described by promoters as a “360-degree light and sound spectacular,” the exhibit uses such cutting-edge technology as advanced 4K resolution projection mapping (nerd alert!), which for most of us really just means a lot of oohing and aahing. Its self-described crown jewel is the 10,000-square-foot immersive gallery where some 400 of van Gogh’s works come to life on a 35-minute loop, the giant animated images stretching across walls and dancing on the floor, one gorgeous Technicolor dream after another. Reclining chairs are placed around the room for those who want to sit back and enjoy the show. A classical-meets-Zen score, interspersed with narration and van Gogh quotes, adds to the vibe and enhances understanding of Vincent the person.

So what’s the experience like? For me, it was kind of a kaleidoscopic, Alice in Wonderland like trip, enthralling throughout. I liked the use of multiple galleries and the mix of education and entertainment, tradition and technology. I loved that families with kids and people of all ages were there, taking it all in. The larger-than-life digital displays were dazzling, and the virtual reality feature, in which you wear a headset and float through van Gogh’s world, was simply awe-inspiring. (Don’t miss it, even though it costs an extra $5.)

guest using the vr
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

As a layperson (my art “education” is limited to frequent frolics through the big museums in New York, where I lived for 13 years), I suspect my reaction may be typical of the masses, which is, after all, the target market for these exhibits. But how does it look to members of the art world, who are likely to be more discerning?

family enjoying the van gogh experience
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

In brief, they don’t all love it. For some, capitalizing on a dead artist’s work for big profit especially an artist like van Gogh, who struggled with poverty (his main benefactor was his brother Theo, to whom he famously wrote hundreds of letters)—is a bit cringe-worthy.

van gogh's starry night experience
Photo courtesy of Exhibition Hub Fever

That’s how Ianna Frisby, a local artist and adjunct professor at Sacramento City College and Sierra College, sees it. But when I invited her along for a spin through the exhibit, she also discovered some things she liked.

Ianna Frisby
Ianna Frisby

Here are some highlights from our Q&A.

What did you think of the exhibit? What worked for you and what didn’t?
I really appreciated the context that was provided at the beginning of the exhibit, so that you’re not just walking directly into the immersion room. It gave a nice overview of van Gogh’s life and the people around him, and it talked about his mental illness, his various series, and color chemistry—things they did not have to mention. For me, it meant that there is something for someone who is educated in art to hang onto.

But there were other aspects of the exhibit that were distracting for me—things I got stuck  on, like the fire extinguisher on the wall of the sunflower “mirror” room, the pyramid structure in the middle of the immersion room, and the wires on the ceiling. I wanted to get immersed in the van Gogh life and story, but I kept getting stuck in the technical details, the craft of it. I think the video itself [in the immersion room] had some clever moments, like the way the shutting of the Japanese screen doors interacted with the walls. The self-portrait segment, I think, was really the best—where you had to get up to see everything in the round.

Before we went in, I was concerned about the possible flattening of van Gogh’s character and the experience turning into this thing that’s this visual delight—yet that was the best part, the visual delight. It was just hard for me to get sucked in because I notice everything and couldn’t ignore things like the ceiling wires and the pyramid.

You seemed to enjoy the visual reality feature and the drawing room, where visitors can do a little art of their own with a van Gogh coloring sheet or on a blank sheet of paper.
I thought that was great. Because those things happen at the end, it’s almost like there’s a bell curve to the experience. You get to the coloring interactive room and you’re able to kind of process. I also liked that they took it a step further. It could have just been coloring and be done with it, but they also offered the opportunity to put your work up [on a wall] and display it, just like van Gogh’s, so it evokes a sense of projection, which gives a feeling of validation and elevates the experience.

And then the VR I thought was really cool. The people looked pretty rubbery and I’m not sure how much we needed them in there, but I still thought it was really well done. There was a moment where it looked like we were busting through a canvas.

You take issue with the capitalistic nature of immersive exhibits. As an artist, what else concerns you?
When we talk about looking at a piece of art, especially modern art, it asks viewers to bring their own imagination to it. So this approach could be looked at as being kind of lazy. It’s like van Gogh coming to you, instead of you and your imagination coming to van Gogh. They’re doing it all for ya, right? You’re immersed in this bath of van Gogh. It’s a passive experience. The production is active, but we’re not. Kids who see it may think it’s better than the original [van Gogh], and that’s my concern.

If van Gogh were alive today, what do you think he would say about this exhibit?
Since he’d be coming out of a different time period, he can’t have any context. He can’t know about the internet; he can’t know about the commodification of images.

I can also say he was interested in sharing his paintings with the world. And in that way, it’s very successful. I think he would be amazed by that.


“VAN GOGH: THE IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE” is located at 31 15th St. in West Sacramento. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit vangoghexpo.com/sacramento.