To Research the 5 Senses, I Visited the “Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit”

Gretchen at the Van Gogh Exhibit

One of my favorite things about working on my book about the five senses is that so many enjoyable activities count as “research.” Flavor University? Yes! Sound bath? Absolutely. Cheese-tasting class? Sure.

On my most recent assignment, I took myself to Pier 36 here in New York City to go to the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit.

My rule: if it’s billed as “immersive,” I try to go.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.

I walked into three huge interconnected rooms which displayed the same giant moving images of Van Gogh’s work, repeated; images were projected onto the floor as well. The ceilings remained dark, but visible and unadorned (which did detract from the immersiveness of the experience).

The rooms were full of people sitting on the floor, on cushions, or walking around. Each room had large silvered shapes which reflected the walls in an interesting way.

For a few minutes, I looked out from the second-story viewing platform—from that vantage point, the images on the floor had a much greater impact.

During the show, I recognized many of Van Gogh’s most famous works: Starry Night (probably Van Gogh’s most famous painting), Sunflowers, The Bedroom, The Potato Eaters, Irises, and several of his self-portraits (including one which showed his bandaged ear—I think perhaps that image was shown reversed).

Of course, olive trees, so closely associated with Van Gogh, made an appearance. Also his famous signature.

I also saw appearances of my own two favorite paintings by Van Gogh, “Almond Blossoms” and “Flowering Plum Tree.”

The images were in motion. The flames of his painted candles burned, the wings of insects flickered, clouds and water moved, birds flew, flowers blossomed, paintings burst into view and faded.

The part of the show that I found most beautiful, ironically, was when the images didn’t show Van Gogh’s paintings, but showed grass, from ground level; it was beautiful.

Music played throughout—for instance, Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regretted rien,” Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Thom Yorke’s “Dawn Chorus,” and several pieces by Luca Longobardi.

I was surprised that the exhibit had no text, no chronology, no narration, and no explanation—not even a perfunctory “Life of Vincent Van Gogh” plaque as we waited to show our tickets. We looked at projections, we listened to music.

Also, because of the way the images were spliced, animated, and repeated, for the most part, viewers didn’t get a sense of the composition of a particular painting. We saw sunflowers, but not the painting Sunflowers.

It was a very thought-provoking and unconventional way to engage with an artist’s work.

After watching the projections from beginning to end, I exited through the enormous gift shop. Posters, mugs, plates, yoga mats, iron-on patches, books, key chains, candles, water bottles, all decorated with Van Gogh’s work.

Plus there was a snack shop and some “Chromesthesia Booths” that I couldn’t quite figure out.

In writing about making my daily visits to the Met as part of my research into the five senses, I write about the gift shop. I used to wonder: Does a plate printed with Almond Blossoms trivialize that masterpiece? Did a Van Gogh knitted key-chain insult the artist’s dignity?

My own view is: no. Material desires have a spiritual aspect, and the gift shop is an expressions of the human desire to touch, to hold, to buy. When we see something we admire, we want to hold it, or take a photo of it, and show it to others.

When I left the exhibit, once outside I had beautiful view of water and bridge—and far in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. I’m always happy to glimpse the Statue of Liberty (if you want to hear a three-minute “A Little Happier” episode where I talk about that, it’s here.)

I’m always happy to experience an experiment meant to gladden the senses. I’m glad I went.

Have you been to any interesting immersive experiences? A few years ago, I went to Color Factory—also a lot of fun. I read about the “Madcap Motel” in Los Angeles, and am intrigued to visit the next time I’m in L.A.

Recommendations welcome! Especially for any experience in the New York City area.

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