Why Did I Gogh?

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Immersive van Gogh at SVN West, San Francisco. (Cheshire Isaacs)

I am not the target audience for Immersive van Gogh, the roving digital installation of the post-Impressionist’s drawings and paintings, blown up and animated in a 38-minute-long, 360-degree projected light show. I am not the target audience for most things that brand themselves as “immersive,” claim to be “museums of” something, or promise to deliver unto me an “experience.” And yet, I keep subjecting myself to these newfangled fine-art-adjacent business endeavors.

Maybe I’m looking for a cure to my antipathy. Sometimes even when one isn’t personally moved, seeing others find joy in new environments brings about a kind of appreciation. That’s what happened to me at the Color Factory in 2017. I couldn’t begrudge others their pure glee in the yellow ball pit. Perhaps, I reasoned, the same vicarious feels would grab me within the walls of SVN West, a low-slung but cavernous building at the corner of South Van Ness and Market—the former site of Bill Graham’s Fillmore West concert hall.

But about halfway through my morning visit, sequestered in my own projected circle of light to maintain social distancing among the dispersed crowd, I inadvertently snorted out loud.

Besides the booming soundtrack, my nasal honk was the only noise in the room. Forgive me, dear reader, but I truly couldn’t help it. There was something far too serious about the swelling, melodramatic score and the way animated candles atop one of van Gogh’s self portraits were going out one by one. (This collaged image is apocryphal, by the way: a researcher at Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum confirms the artist did not place candles on his hat brim to paint Starry Night, as the internet likes to believe, but rather worked by gaslight.)

But one does not go (or, as the abundant puns in the installation’s interior signage would say, GOGH) to Immersive van Gogh for facts, or even a linear sense of the artist’s brief yet wildly productive career. One goes to feel his paintings, to be inside them, and to watch them come to life across four white walls. Practically, this aliveness often looks like the mushroom-induced scenes of wobbly nature in Ari Aster’s 2019 film Midsommar, an effect that’s particularly disturbing when applied to the now-giant faces of van Gogh’s portrait-sitters.

Immersive van Gogh at SVN West, San Francisco. (Cheshire Isaacs)

There’s also a lot of what I described in my notes as “watercolor ink-blot effect,” where sections of a painting spread into being from a single droplet. My crankiness asserting, I found this tactic particularly annoying, as van Gogh’s canvases are mostly thickly layered with oil paint, the application of which looks nothing like watercolor.


But here I’m betraying my devotion to the actual objects—and perhaps I’m being too precious? Museum exhibitions aren’t the only way to connect with art, and we all know there are barriers to entry, even when admission is free. Speaking of entry, tickets to Immersive van Gogh sell for $40–$100 depending on time of entry, day of the week and VIP level. The most expensive ticket lets you jump lines and gets you a poster, something called a “VIP souvenir laminate” and “a brand new van Gogh cushion (to keep instead of rent).”

Back to the issue of fidelity. Scale is weird in Immersive van Gogh, and mostly serves to overwhelm the senses. In the physical world, van Gogh’s paintings rarely exceed 40 inches on one side—their intensity comes, in part, from their concentration. Lost in the light show is any sense of composition within a set space. By spreading its spare furnishings across 300,000 cubic feet of projections, Immersive van Gogh destroys the weird, tight and almost claustrophobic perspective of The Bedroom, a purposeful arrangement inspired by the artist’s interest in Japanese prints. That same painting—in real life—is a fascinating case study in how van Gogh’s pigments have shifted in color over time; walls once purple are now a light blue.

Immersive van Gogh at SVN West, San Francisco. (Cheshire Isaacs)

Meanwhile, in Immersive van Gogh, colors are just more fodder for manipulation. Animated skies shift from daytime to nighttime hues, and dense collages of seemingly every flower van Gogh ever painted grow ever more saturated, turning up their intensity to almost painful levels.

The roughly half-hour program swings through various themes, but not in a way I’d identify as either coherent or consistent. It’s less of a “journey” than a series of rather jarring juxtapositions. The most extreme of which occurs when The Potato Eaters, a somber 1885 painting of a group of Dutch peasants, inexplicably gives way to the French singer Édith Piaf belting out her 1960 version of “Non, je ne regrette rien” over blazing yellow fields.

If those yellow fields elicited any feelings of glee in others, I honestly couldn’t detect them.

Immersive van Gogh is on view at SVN West in San Francisco through Sept. 6, 2021. Details here.