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Go/don’t go to ‘Immersive Van Gogh’? That depends

This is art as entertainment, experience, distraction and relaxation. An escape from the daily news and the events of the past year and a half.

image of museumgoer sitting in gallery looking at large format van gogh reproduction
In the galleries at Immersive Van Gogh
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

In 2006, we went to Chicago to see “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the Field Museum. This highly anticipated show was traveling to several cities to raise money for the restoration of monuments in Egypt. Tickets cost a lot for the time – $25 – but almost 200,000 sold before the show opened.

We remember the long lines, a film narrated by Omar Sharif, soaring, boring music, and never getting close enough to see anything clearly. We remember shuffling through several crowded galleries, exiting with a sense of relief and saying “Let’s go to Andy’s for jazz!” It felt more like a spectacle than an exhibition. We didn’t love it.

Today’s spectacle show doesn’t include ancient artifacts or even real artworks. It’s all about projections. Floor-to-ceiling, state-of-the-art projections, paired with a playlist of mood-setting music. You enter the space and you’re surrounded. Enveloped. Immersed.

This is art as entertainment, experience, distraction and relaxation. An escape from the daily news and the events of the past year and a half. And it’s happening now at 1515 Central Ave. NE, a 1920s-era industrial building renamed Lighthouse Minneapolis, where “Immersive Van Gogh” will remain through Oct. 31 or longer, depending on how popular it is. The same show is currently running or about to open in more than 20 cities across the United States. It has already been extended in several.

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We started hearing in mid-April that “Immersive Van Gogh” would come to Minneapolis this summer and were immediately annoyed. The producers’ practice is to announce when the show will open, but not where. Instead, press releases hint at a “secret location to be determined.” That might be OK in Phoenix, Columbus or Orlando, to randomly pick a few cities that aren’t Minneapolis, but it wasn’t OK here, where the Derek Chauvin trial was taking place. The first release we received was dated April 19, and the verdict in the Chauvin trial was announced April 20. For a company that has made efforts to establish local connections, that was a gaffe.

The “secret location” was touted as “adding to the intrigue” of the exhibit, but it mostly made people mad, especially those who were interested in the show but unwilling to set foot in Minneapolis.

The location was revealed in June, and at least (went the Facebook chatter) it wasn’t downtown. Siting it in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District was a good move and gave Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey something to point to and praise during Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

photo of mayor frey and dignitaries speaking at gallery opening
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Mayor Jacob Frey with the show’s producers and other dignitaries after the ribbon-cutting.
So – how is the show? It takes place in two large rooms, one bigger than the other, with high, open ceilings painted black. The floors are concrete. (You’re allowed to bring a cushion. If you buy a VIP ticket, you’ll be given one to keep. If you buy a premium ticket, you can borrow one. Otherwise you can rent one. Sigh.) Simple two-person benches are scattered throughout both rooms, which also contain a few three-sided mirrored pillars that reflect whatever is happening on the walls and in the room. Try not to walk into those.

The smaller room seems more manageable. In the larger room, projections are also shown on the floor, and so much happening at once might be overwhelming for some people.

The same 40-minute digital film shows in both rooms simultaneously, on a continuous loop. You can enter and exit at any time and stay as long as you want. The producers suggest you sit through the whole thing at least twice.

The film is constantly in motion. Parts appear, dissolve, are illuminated and fade. Bits are animated. A train moves across a bridge. Candles flicker. Blossoms blow across the sky. Irises bloom. Windmills turn.

image from inside immersive van gogh gallery
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
It starts with flies – really, flies, the kind you swat. It ends with shooting stars and images of the artist. If you want to know why flies, and why everything else you see on the walls around you, download the free Lighthouse Immersive app. On it is a track called “Visiting with Vincent.” What might otherwise seem like a random, trippy collection of images is, in fact, a thoughtful story developed by Italian film producer and creative director Massimiliano Siccardi and writer Richard Ouzounian. If you know the story, whether you listen during the show or before, the film makes more sense. Otherwise it can look like someone just threw images at the walls.

The images are drawn from dozens of paintings. Some are instantly recognizable: “Sunflowers,” “The Bedroom in Arles,” “Irises,” “The Starry Night.” Others you probably won’t know unless you have studied the artist and his work. None are labeled or identified in the film.

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The film is accompanied by music by composer Luca Longobardi, and if you like it, you can listen again on a Spotify playlist. Some you might recognize: versions of selections from Handel and Mozart, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Edith Piaf singing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” moments from Mussorgsky-Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The point is to create an emotional experience, an escape. Before the ribbon cutting, producer Svetlana Dvoretsky said that the show “speaks to your emotions on such a high level that you just have no choice but to be carried away with it. … It depends on how open you are, but we’ve seen so many different emotions. People laugh, people cry, meditate … We’ve had quite a few engagements” – people proposing during the show – “which is very exciting.”

Well, you do have a choice, and “it depends on how open you are” is a little judgy, but there’s nothing wrong with responding to beauty with laughter or tears or, why not, asking someone to marry you.

Frey called the show “the perfect place to come to rejuvenate here in Minneapolis” after a rough year. Amen to that.

We were skeptical going in (blame King Tut at the Field Museum), but we saw the faces of the people around us, and we heard them exclaiming over the show, and we watched them take a bench or pick a spot on the floor and stay there. “Immersive Van Gogh” is a hit in many cities and on its way to being a hit here. Also, someone had to turn a warehouse into the Lighthouse, and there are many people at the show who welcome you, guide you, make sure you’re wearing your mask (masks are required), answer your questions, and are happy to sell you stuff in the gift shop. Aka jobs.

image of mural with stone arch bridge painted in vaguely van gogh-like style
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
If you go, don’t just breeze by the art in the lobby. In addition to the “Starry Night”/Stone Arch Bridge mash-up, there’s a Robert Indiana-inspired GOGH sculpture, and three interesting works by Bay Area scenic designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke, including a palette knife impasto sculpture. Frey mentioned that a mural would soon be painted on the outside of the building – by local artists?

If you go, it will cost you. Ticket prices range from $29.99 (kids 6-16) to $99.99 (VIP). Prices differ from day to day and hour to hour.

Which brings us to a modest proposal. Art museums have been hit hard during the pandemic. There’s a real, genuine, framed-and-on-the-wall Van Gogh in gallery 355 at Mia. “Olive Trees” is one of the paintings featured in the “Immersive Van Gogh” film. You can see it for free during the museum’s open hours (currently Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) and make a donation or become a member. (Mia also owns a Van Gogh drawing and etching. Neither is on display at the present, though now seems like a good time to pull them out of storage.)

Minnesota has a second Van Gogh available for public viewing. “The Beach at Scheveningen” is on display at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. It’s open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. General admission is $9.