The original Immersive Van Gogh exhibit is coming to Detroit October 21 to an as-yet-undisclosed location.
BY JAMIE LUDWIG
UPDATE, 10/23/21: Organizers of Immersive Van Gogh have announced that the exhibit has been postponed until 2022. We will update this post with information as it becomes available.
Remember the scene in Mary Poppins when the magical nanny and her friend jump into a side-walk-chalk drawing to go on an animated adventure within the picture? Starting this month, Detroiters can do something similar — except they’ll be stepping inside the works of Vincent van Gogh.
Debuting on Oct. 21 in an as-yet-unknown venue, “Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Detroit” is a multi-sensory exhibition that invites attendees to enter the artist’s world via 500,000 cubic feet of projections of his works. The art pieces on display, which include Sunflowers (painted in 1888) and The Starry Night (1889) are customized specifically for the building’s architecture: They cover every bit of space from ceiling to floor, and everything in between — even guests wearing light-colored clothing.
Images from the works bloom and shape-shift throughout a looping 35-minute video that imagines what may have been flickering through the painter’s mind during the last minutes of his life (Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890 at age 37). “The context of the show is that these are Massimiliano’s thoughts on what might have flashed before Van Gogh’s eyes in the moments before he died,” says Corey Ross, the exhibit’s Toronto-based co-producer, referring to Massimiliano Siccardi, an Italian installation artist who conceived and designed the exhibit.
“It sits as this nexus of … art exhibiting mixed with filmmaking. It has this theatricality in the way that the public walks through it and has this experience of moving through the space, room by room.”
The exhibit is the work of Lighthouse Immersive, a Canadian production company that brought it to North America in 2020. (It debuted in Paris in early 2019.) It’s become a top-selling art event — more than 3 million tickets have been sold for the North American shows to date — a feat made more extraordinary because it’s running during a global pandemic.
The show also features music by Italian pianist and composer Luca Longobardi, whose compositions (along with carefully curated song selections from artists including Edith Piaf and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) enhance every exhilarating and tear-jerking emotion of Van Gogh’s work.
“Van Gogh’s genius is evident in every brush stroke, in every dab of paint, in every choice of color,” says Rochelle Riley, director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit. “The work literally moves you to tears.” Guests are invited to stay and relax — the film takes new dimensions, literally and figuratively, when experienced from different spaces within the venue.
The massive installations, which are open or in development in nearly 20 U.S. cities and Toronto, take months of logistical planning and painstaking work to come to fruition, all of which has been made more complicated by the pandemic — for instance, Siccardi must plan his projections virtually from Italy using video and photos of the spaces rather than visiting them in person. “There’s an adaptation for every building that’s completely unique,” Ross says. Due to the logistics involved with such an intense undertaking, each location is kept secret until close to the opening date. (Ticket holders will receive an email with the venue name and location once it’s made public.)
What is known, though, is that the space will feature design work by creative director David Korins, who has created stage sets for Elton John and Lady Gaga, and earned a Tony nomination for his work on Broadway’s Hamilton. “That takes everything up another level,” Ross says. “Not only will you experience the incredible projections, you’ll also experience what it’s like to walk through a set that has been created for you by the designer of Hamilton.”
When “Immersive Van Gogh” opens in Detroit, it will be the city’s third recent and planned Van Gogh exhibition. “Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience” was on display at TCF Center this past summer and “Van Gogh in America” will debut at the Detroit Institute of Arts in October 2022. (As for why the city is a hotspot for exhibits honoring the artist, Riley says it’s simple: “Detroit is the ideal place for every exhibit and experience in art, because we have one of the greatest creative workforces and arts communities in the world.”)
Of the two digital art programs, Ross, unsurprisingly, says “Immersive Van Gogh” is a cut above the rest. “At the end of the day when you’re going to experience art, it’s a matter of who created it — and we have Massimiliano, who is the foremost creator in the world of these pieces,” he says. “It’s not simply the process of projecting Van Gogh onto the wall that makes [the exhibit] spectacular. It’s Massimiliano’s perspective and his talent as an animator and an artist that makes it incredible.”