Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at the Old Stable Yard
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is organised by the Brussels-based company Exhibition Hub. Their production began in 2017 and has so far been seen by 900,000 visitors in eight cities. This summer it comes to London, at the Old Stable Yard of the Old Truman Brewery in east London.
Most will know the heartbreaking “headlines” of Vincent Van Gogh’s life – his 37 years blighted by alcoholism and mental illness, the fact that he cut off his own ear, his suicide by shooting himself. This is a chance to get to know more intimately the work that has brought such joy to people, rather than dwelling on the myths created from one man’s terrible pain.
The first room has reproductions of the artist’s work, a film examining his painting Starry Night and a projection that builds into his iconic work, Sunflowers, on a giant vase. Downstairs there is a room for grown-up colouring in with stencils of his work – a fairly unimaginative way to be creative.
Then one comes to the virtual reality part: headsets donned, viewers are brought into a 360-degree impression of the painter’s bedroom in Arles. Like a waking dream, the experience swoops down the stairs and out into the fields, taking the audience on a journey through the sights and sounds that made the artist. One advances through the fields, past a stamping shire horse and loose chickens into a forest where the plants have an uncannily realistic, waxy sheen to their leaves. Then there’s a town on the sea, accordion music drifting on the air, stars dotting the sky. The cutting-edge technology is exhilarating; you may hear awed exclamations and they might be coming from you.
One steps through heavy curtains into the main part of the show, a three storey-high space with moving projections of the work on the walls and floor, and “stars” on the ceiling. There are scattered deck chairs from which to absorb the experience; a classical soundtrack to the projections animates the art all around. It is magical.
To signify his descent into madness, the room darkens, rain falls, lightning cracks and visitors hear a quote from Van Gogh: “ I gave my heart and soul to my work and in the process I lost my mind.” It’s surprisingly moving.
It seems a little odd that none of his original work is on show here, as that would obviously bring a deeper understanding. Another possible flaw is that, with its pleasing visuals, the show will be a draw for people wanting to be seen there without seeing what’s there. The ostentatious vanity of people posing all through the show might mar the enjoyment for real art fans.
However, it is a novel, well thought-out tribute to a terribly tortured life. It makes beauty from chaos. One almost hopes that, somewhere in the starry night he rendered so magically, Vincent might be watching with a smile.
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is on at the Old Stable Yard from July 2021. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.
Watch a preview of the experience here: