Arts / Galleries

Van Gogh Show Lets You Jump Into the Paintings — Lost in a World of Art

Houston and Dallas Get a Different Look at the Masterpieces

BY // 09.25.21

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, the latest blockbuster artainment show — where art and live entertainment experiences merge — is making waves in Texas. One of several immersive Van Gogh shows currently circling the globe, this Exhibition Hub and Fever production uses digital projection technology to surround visitors with the immortal art of Vincent Van Gogh. 

Invited to get an early look at the Houston show, I headed down to the MARQ*E Entertainment Center site with only a vague idea of what the experience would bring. (The Arlington venue opened a few weeks before Houston.) 

The exhibition doesn’t usher visitors directly into the giant, immersion room. It takes several galleries to get to and here’s where the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience most resembles its museum roots. The introduction gallery gives us a timeline of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and puts that life in a bit of perspective, as a failed artist in his own time, as a bridge all his own between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and his post death rise to become one of the most beloved and esteemed artists of all times. The gallery also separates itself from a museum experience in its use digital technology, projecting a selection of Van Gogh’s paintings onto two large sculptures: Van Gogh’s head and a vase.

The next gallery brings us into a few large-scale diorama of his paintings that visitors can step into. The exhibition even provides light camera icons on the floor to mark the best spots for Instagrammable photos.  

Though for some the whole show might be about documenting the experience for social media (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the second gallery also gives Van Gogh novices quality information about the artist’s process and influences. Full confession, I was the nerd taking photos of the wall text for further reading instead of lounging in the mockup of Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, France for the perfect selfie. 

Van Gogh Immersed in the 21st Century

Fully primed with art history, it was time for the headliner, the Immersive Room. 

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Entering the immense, rectangular space, I immediately felt swept up into the landscape, a kind of strange new world that merged Van Gogh art and cutting-edge animation. I roamed the rug and pillow strewn floor a bit before finding a seat on one of the many canvas lounge chairs. 

Settling down, I let the images and music wash over me. The Immersive Room has qualities of the familiar: viewing art at a museum, walking through nature and watching a movie in a cinema, while never feeling exactly like any one of those experiences. 

Van Gogh: Immersive Experience VG_(Antwerp)
The Van Gogh exhibition has stopped in cities around the world, including Antwerp.

Just as Van Gogh filtered sunflowers, meadows and night-scapes through his own vision and onto canvases, so the show’s creators and animators expand and morph Van Gogh’s visions through the 21st century animation and projection technology. Here we see Van Gogh’s paintings made mammoth across the walls as they move and dissolve into one another. 

Those who like their Van Gogh in actual paint, to scale and bound by museum frames might object to watching his crabs skitter around the room or his gestures of crows in flight suddenly multiple and swarm his landscapes as if directed by Hitchcock. But for those who always wanted to dive into his Starry Night cosmos, this is probably the closest you’ll get outside of the vastness of imagination. 

The immersive room does resemble a film in that the images, narrator and music offer a loose, 35-minute story of Van Gogh’s life and art, but one without a classic beginning, middle and end. 

Afterwards, when I spoke with Mario Lacampo, CEO of Exhibition Hub, who was in Houston for the exhibition’s opening, he explained that they intentionally wanted visitors to be able to come in at any point in the story.

“We wanted to tell the story of his life without it feeling chronological. So we chose moments,” Lacampo says. “I didn’t want a true beginning and end. I wanted this feeling of zen. The music is very zen. You can sit on a lawn chair or the floor and watch it once, watch it three times.

“I didn’t want a documentary. That’s not what it is.” 

The Immersive Room is hardly a chamber of silence, as a narrator speaks passages of Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, one of the few people who believed in his art throughout his life and into death. 

“That was the hardest part of the research because there’s over 700 letters,” Lacampo says. “But the letters are very helpful when you’re doing this kind of experience because he’s telling you what he’s thinking.” 

Many of the selections chosen give us further insight into how Van Gogh saw the world and art. The images and narrator are also accompanied by an original score that seems at once modern classical, cinematic and reflective of the artwork. 

Beyond Van Gogh

The exhibition doesn’t end with the immersive room. Kids will enjoy their own creative space for art making. Adults might find some childlike wonder in the final section of the exhibition, a virtual reality trip to Arles to explore the fields and streets that inspired Van Gogh. The VR experience does require a separate ticket, though it’s included in the VIP pass.

Note: These tickets are not cheap, ranging from $34.90 for the basic timed entry to $64.90 for VIP for adults (plus fees). Kids 4 to 12 can get in for around $20. Peak demand times may cost more.

Van Gogh: Immersive Experience
A animated murder of crows fly across Van Gogh’s landscapes. (Photo by Tarra Gaines)

Once I put the VR headgear on, I found myself in Van Gogh’s little painted room in Arles and then I was off, floating downstairs into the bright day to wander the countryside and then into town as night fell. Along the way, arrows point to reveal Van Gogh’s paintings inspired by the landscape.

“You can see some of the paintings that were inspired, but you live in this 3D realm which is Arles,” Lacampo later tells me. Describing the VR creation process, he adds, “We went to Arles and filmed the streets and the fields to get a feel and then we converted those digital and retouched them all to look like his paintings. It’s one world.” 

While the VR program wouldn’t allow me to stop for a very long, I could look behind, above and below to find a full virtual world with fun little touches like the odd cow or chicken passing by in the fields and a drunken reveler taking a nap in an alleyway.

I found the VR the most unique presentation and a highlight of the whole show, perhaps because it goes much further than recreating and projecting Van Gogh’s work. In this virtual reality experience, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience moves beyond projection into a different kind of technological art form.

Though the VR trip is certainly inspired by the works of Van Gogh, it becomes a separate creative achievement all its own. 

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience shows in Choctaw Stadium in North Texas and Houston’s MARQ*E Entertainment Center through the fall. 

Connecting the inspired with the extraordinary

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