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Van Gogh spectacle aims to move New Yorkers

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NEW YORK - As if bringing a massive artistic spectacle to a 75,000-square-foot event space on the East River during a pandemic was not already logistically nerve-racking, there was this additional issue on a preview night for "Immersive Van Gogh": The whole thing went kablooey.

As attendees shifted on their feet, glancing at frozen images of a Van Gogh painting that was supposed to be dancing with cinematic life on walls 24 feet high, a staff member walked onto the floor to offer apologies.

"This is a perfect opportunity to check out our retail space," he announced, as some people indeed wandered into the immense souvenir shop, filled with Van Gogh socks and Van Gogh key rings and Van Gogh umbrellas and Van Gogh eyeglass cases and Van Gogh sun hats and Van Gogh whiskey flasks and Van Gogh dog bowls.

The glitchy first night - power problems, a producer explained to disappointed guests, sent home with a rain check - was corrected by the following evening. But it seemed an unintended metaphor for the risks in this unabashedly commercial venture, equal parts art installation, self-guided theater and tourist attraction: Does the craze for paintings-in-motion, which began in Europe and is now spreading across North America, have the electricity to sustain itself for the long term?

The New York opening of "Immersive Van Gogh" may be the ultimate test. Productions of this exhibition have already opened in Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco. And they are not to be confused with competing entries popping up in this suddenly and bizarrely crowded niche, like "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience," which is scheduled to start in D.C. this summer. Or "Beyond Van Gogh, the Immersive Experience" in Miami.

New York's installation, which officially opened June 11 at Pier 36, is the largest version of "Immersive Van Gogh" so far: three times bigger than the one that Toronto-based producer Corey Ross and his partners unveiled in Chicago four months ago. Spread over three huge galleries, the production's centerpiece is a 35-minute film loop by video scenographer Massimiliano Siccardi, who creates video for choreographers, arts festivals and galas. His film - conveyed here by more than 150 projectors - incorporates 40 of Vincent Van Gogh's explosively colorful postimpressionist works. With a team of 30 in his studio in Italy, he has animated the paintings: streaks of steam waft in "The Potato Eaters," flowers bloom in "Almond Blossoms" and of course celestial objects pulsate radiantly in "Starry Night."

"What I want to do is simulate an emotion in the people," Siccardi said, with the help of an interpreter, by phone from Rome. "When I see a painting, I see it as moving. Then I want people to feel the same feelings that I am having."

"Immersive Van Gogh" customers take in the spectacle. MUST CREDIT: Nina Westervelt

Ross, whose prior producing credits include the widely performed theatrical parody "Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience," said in a separate phone interview that his first experience with animated Van Gogh was a show in France a few years ago. "When I flew over to Paris, I was pretty dubious about it," he said. He was surprised to discover that it had already sold 2 million tickets. "Only when you see it," he added, "do you understand it."

The intention here is not so much to try to understand Van Gogh or his work: A small vestibule contains a few cursory panels with basic biographical information. As Ross said, "Immersive Van Gogh" is not seeking to compete with a museum. It's entertainment, not edification. The customer base, Ross added, skews younger than for more conventional venues for fine art. "Mostly between 20 and 50 and not in my mind the traditional audience for Broadway or art galleries," he added.

Watching the paintings metamorphose, with familiar colors and images taking shape on the walls and floors, and Handel and Ravel and Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" piped in over the speaker system, I got the appeal. A certain hallucinogenic quality takes hold, especially if you can block out the spectators all around you with their arms raised, recording the film on their phones. The immersive aspect is pleasantly theatrical - Van Gogh in the round - but it's no more substantive than any special effect. The impression is not unlike that of an amusement park, or sitting through those scenes in Harry Potter movies, in which human figures in paintings are made to seem alive, changing their facial expressions or walking in and out of their frames. Like many such effects, the thrills are highly perishable.

As if to acknowledge the need to heighten the theatricality, Ross and company not only went bigger in scale in New York, they also went to Broadway, hiring the in-demand set designer David Korins ("Hamilton," "Dear Evan Hansen"). His assignment was to give to the bland, utilitarian Pier 36 space - before this a home to athletic events - more aesthetic interest.

"In my first conversation with Corey Ross, he said: 'Date night!' " Korins recalled, as he gave me a tour of the building several days before the opening. The notion of a romantic aspect to the experience has indeed been considered. On a viewing platform in the largest of the galleries, couples can reserve booths for $349.99 that include a box of chocolate and, according to the marketing material, "massage oil from L'Occitane." (Tickets for a regular viewing start at $39.99.)

One of David Korins

Korins's own contributions in the galleries run to the addition of huge metallic sculptures - spheres made of a metal and wood substrate with a mylar skin, and mirrored "icebergs." "I'd like it to be like exploring a magical forest," he said. In the souvenir area, he has installed a walk-in "Chromesthesia Booth" that Korins said incorporates "the top 10 colors from Van Gogh's palette." The illuminated vertical colored panels are activated by a visitor's presence. A few feet away is an interactive display, developed by the New York creative company THAT (Technology, Humans And Taste). With your cellphone, you are invited to compose a letter to Van Gogh. You quickly receive a response, via a program using words from Van Gogh's own writings. ("I hope you take some time to see the light shining on the Brooklyn Bridge. I am told the colors are incredible," mine said in part.)

Again and again, the creators of "Immersive Van Gogh" emphasized the claim the show wants to make on the emotions. "To be under an immersive 'Starry Night,' I can't think of anything more romantic," Ross said. It remains to be seen, though, how many New Yorkers fall in love.

Published : June 17, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Peter Marks