Even downstairs at the entrance you can hear the sound spilling out of the main hall. Closer and closer, up the stairs to the first cocktail bar, the volume gets louder and louder. We stand in line for drinks and peer in through the door. Everyone in the hall is arrayed in social-distancing circles, their masked faces softly aglow with drifts of colored light, listening to the worst. soundtrack. in. the. world. The space is acoustically merciless – a concrete box that used to be an auto dealership – but even so, the astonishingly seamless visuals and uneven, caustically brassy audio seem to have come from two entirely different productions/budget categories. The songs aim in the general direction of some blunt and simple idea of culture or tortured artistry or Frenchness – Edith Piaf blares into the cement vault while a projection of a painted sun whirls across the sky like a cancan dancer. Avec mes souvenirs j’ai allumé le feu.
Immersive Van Gogh – the pocketbook-squeezing global art/entertainment phenomenon that you may have seen on the side of a bus near you – turns Vincent Van Gogh’s more-or-less flat paintings into 360-degree projections by copying and pasting elements in them and stretching the background to fit. The painting The Night Cafe – peaceful and lonely, lit by warm light that somehow seems to exclude the viewer – expands into a hotel ballroom, with ranks of tables stretching back to far distant walls. Vincent’s humble bedroom becomes a presidential suite. Then the shapes subtly detach and slide past each other, like shapes do if you take acid and stare at the wallpaper. There’s a lysergic sense of precariousness, too – a creeping feeling that the warmth of the cafe lamp is not as robust as it seems, like all it would take is a misplaced word and we would all be having a Bad Trip.
The show makes heavy use of the self-portraits: thirty haunted reproachful Vincents stare at you, a hundred surly intense Vincents, a million piercing stares. They have found a candle in one of the paintings and transposed it onto Vincent’s hat – he floats in the darkness, multiplied, looking like a crazy person, because who else would put a candle on a straw hat (never mind that he never did)? A little drawing of a fly slides around, its buzzing overwhelming the soundtrack in the universal student-film shorthand for a descent into madness. Red light drips down the walls – really. I wish I were kidding.
IVG cannot leave well enough alone. The movement that already exists in the paintings is tediously literalized, with writhing cypresses and writhing olive trees, writhing wheatfields and writhing beards. The irises are coming to get you – they leave their cool bed and approach with menace. The whirling stars, lord, so many stars! And if three cypress trees in a golden field are perfect, then eighteen cypress trees must be even better! This math is as spurious as everything else in the show, but a shimmering panorama of one of the wheatfields did afford me one little moment of transcendence – one moment of feeling paradoxically embraced by the vast space of a Van Gogh painting, bathed in golden light, submerged in the French summer of 1889. Then something else happened and it was all gone. The pace of the thing is antithetical to contemplation, like a timed tour in which every group is hustled past the sights so that the next group can come in on schedule. (This is not, strictly logistically, true – the show is on a perpetual loop, and even the cheapest ticket entitles one to enter at any point and stay as long as one likes. I dare you.)
The audacious, relentless marketing seems at times almost to be making fun of poor Vincent – his terrible lifetime sales figures are written on the wall, somewhere between the ticket counter and the first cocktail bar. What a sap! He couldn’t even sell a Van Gogh! Why didn’t he just take out some bus ads? There are at least five different production companies running Immersive Van Gogh shows, in 40 US cities, plus more overseas – it’s a gold rush, a free-for-all, apparently made possible by his work’s all being in the public domain. The phenomenon has been received in certain quarters as a strong argument in favor of perpetual copyright.
And I hated it! But I’m glad I went. That same week, I saw a show of art and artifacts from the volcanic entombment of Pompeii, which has fascinated me ever since I was a little ghoul. It was impeccable, and yet I haven’t thought about the Pompeii show even 10% as much as I’ve thought of Immersive Van Gogh.
The central thesis of modern art culture – Duchamp has a lot to answer for – is “you might be a sucker.” Be careful of earnestness and feelings – someone might be making fun of you! See these two splattery canvases? Which one was painted by a genius, and which one was painted by a monkey? Which one is a deathless masterpiece, and which one is a dropcloth? Artsy rich people love those smirking stories about how some poor person who has to work as a custodian threw away some expensive piece of installation art because they didn’t understand it was art. Right wing rich people love to mock them right back for fetishizing pieces of trash instead of paintings of Jesus. Somewhere in the mess, The Market and its cultural arbiters are deciding what is important and worth your investment. Quietly in the corner sits the question, the only question: does it move you?
Here is what I think: Art is not a thing. Art is not anything. Art is not things at all. Art is a way of seeing. Art is a pair of goggles through which you can look at anything and say, what if someone made that… to talk to me? What if that was an attempt to communicate? How would I feel about it – this painting, that wall, the refrigerator, all these chairs? You can take your art goggles to the art museum, but you can also take them everywhere else. Pick something right now – stare at something near you, anything at all – and try to imagine it in the last art museum you were in, next to a little card on the wall. Really give it a good look. Can you read it as art? How do you feel about that?
Note: you don’t have to use the art goggles on something just because it’s in the art museum. You’re allowed to walk right on by anything that doesn’t move you. You’re also allowed to stop by the drinking fountain and consider this fascinating viewer-activated sculpture. (This is an old hobbyhorse of mine; I wish the Internet Archive had saved my white-hot indignation, on my former blog circa 2009, at the very idea of the Clyfford Still museum.)
If art is a financial investment, you might buy high and sell low – that is, you might be a sucker. If art is a password to a certain social class, you might say or enjoy the wrong thing and be laughed at by your peers – you might be a sucker. Anytime it matters what someone else thinks of what you think, the yawning chasm of potential suckerdom opens at your feet – don’t trip! But I’ll say it again and again, to anyone who might listen and everyone else too: anything that moves you is art. You are the only one who can decide to put the goggles on. You’re allowed to take them off whenever you want. I don’t have to like what you like, you don’t have to like what I like, but it is some snobby classist bullshit for anyone to say that you are a sucker if you are stirred in any way by Immersive Van Gogh. I have a degree in art, so I’m officially allowed to say this, and in fact it’s the only thing that I ever want to use my infinitely tiny hard-won art world authority for: Open the door. Open the door. Open the door. Let it all outside.
Speaking of outside! When you’re finished with the Immersive Van Gogh show, the exit is out the other side – you can’t go back the way you came. Plebes return their borrowed seat cushions. People with fancy tickets take their gift bags, rattlingly empty but awkwardly large to accommodate the rolled poster and fake sunflower and yours-to-keep seat cushion. (We got two cushions, and at first they seemed identical to each other, but later I noticed that one has black vinyl piping at the seams and a different grade of foam, which spun me off into many reveries about the international Immersive Van Gogh supply chain. The cushions are logo-branded and I use them all the time and I love watching people looking at them and deciding whether or not to mention it).
We went out past the gift shop, where the youthful staff were futzing with Starry Night umbrellas and, I wanted to think, making the sort of enduring friendships one makes at shitty jobs. The next door opened – surprise! – on the roof, where the cafe will sell you a French-ish ham sandwich. (What do Dutch people eat, anyway? Irrelevant.) I felt sheepish for suddenly appearing right next to someone’s table and they seemed to feel sheepish for having ordered food. We fled across the cafe and down the stairs.
When we finally emerged onto the immersive 360-degree cruddy sidewalk there was a guy gliding past on an electric scooter, wearing a Louis Vuitton logo sweater, carrying a Pomeranian tucked under his arm. “Van Gogh who gives a fuck-o,” he said, pleased, at about 3 miles per hour.
reading: Dani Shapiro on writing, Eric Pallant on sourdough, and if you haven’t had enough of IVG, especially if you clicked on that Bloomberg link above and need another perspective, the always-stellar Defector has got you
eating: Berkeley Bowl chocolate-chipotle almonds, birthday cake, and some honestly pretty terrible homemade ma po tofu (I’m not sure what happened)
listening to: the perpetually astonishing Neli Andreeva singing “Devoiko Mari Hubava,” slowed down to 50% in a vain hope of somehow understanding what she’s doing, which is sort of a junior version of cutting open the nightingale to see how it makes the song
looking at: Vincent Vincent Vincent cypress cypress cypress cypress cypress cypress
making: a pair of extremely practical floral-print jeans