Review: Van Gogh Alive

Projected paint strokes come alive in this new immersive exhibition.

Van Gogh Alive has made it to Sydney, welcoming us back to physical art exhibitions in one great big kaleidoscopic sensory overload. You are invited to step into this 45 minute digital art exhibition — a symphony of sounds, smells and a dancing digital light display projecting images of Van Gogh’s oil masterpieces floor to ceiling and all around you. 

Once you make it past the metal sculptural sunflowers at the entrance of the Royal Hall of Industries, the first thing that is apparent is the careful planning of COVID precautions to keep everyone safe. Staggered ticket allocations, temperature checking, frequent cleaning and mandatory masks (bring your own in a Van Gogh-themed fabric for extra kudos from the exhibition marshalling staff).

In the lobby, you are gently guided down the path of Vincent’s life story through 1.5 metre-distanced steppingstone sunflower stickers on the ground. Letters exchanged between Vincent and his brother, Theo, allows you a glimpse into the painter’s great passions and fears that kept him awake in that slightly off-centre painted bedroom.

This is just the teaser trailer of the main event happening in the next room. The grand orchestral music echoes around the warehouse walls, inviting you to step inside.

You may have seen the pictures, but that doesn’t spoil the feeling – something like walking into a movie screen, or sticking your hand in front of the projector at the back row of a cinema – but to the greatest extreme.

The room is covered with floor-to-ceiling screens surrounding you with the stariest of nights. You fly through fields with steaming trains to the branches of almond blossoms and, of course, float amongst the petals of Vincent’s famous sunflowers.

The narrative is quite simplistic, following key moments of Vincent’s life in chronological order, marked by quotes from his letters. This is necessary to ground you in a time and place amidst all the movement of the projected paint strokes.

Van Gogh Alive brings even further multi-sensory layers to the experience, the most dominant of which being an epic musical soundtrack underscoring the visual journey, breaking from the traditional silent tip toeing around an echoey gallery room. .A subtler touch to the exhibition plays to the most underrated of the senses – smell. A unique blended scent is released in the space to evoke elements of the South of France – with top notes of cyprus, middle notes of lemon and bottom notes of sandalwood. It’s a fresh but not overpowering scent – and a pleasant surprise when you catch it!  While I’m no expert in this field, it added a whole new curation element unlike that of a typical exhibition, which I wonder if was only made possible when working with digital reproductions rather than fragile original oil paintings.

Yet, the most exciting element (for this digital art student, at least) is definitely the people-watching – in the least creepy way possible. Watching the way people interact with this new digital art exhibition is a fascinating display in and of itself.

Some sit, watching one screen only like they were at the cinema. Others move around the hall, looking up in bewilderment, trying to catch it all and not miss anything. And then there were those who came prepared, wearing white from head to toe, stepping into the paintings themselves – and taking a picture to share, or 100.

Now perhaps the gallery goer purist would start their complaints here, explaining that they aren’t “truly experiencing” the art, or they’re spoiling it by sharing pictures of the exhibition to others who aren’t present. But what if the digital moving into this new realm has opened up the gallery to a whole new way of experiencing art, just as the digital has opened up Van Gogh’s work to a whole new state of existence?

You just have to look around to see: the kids laying on the ground to see projections of blue irises, and the gallery goer in a wheelchair with his family accessing the multi-sensory sounds, smells and light displays and yes, even the avid Instagramer who is excitedly snapping selfies and sharing their cool illuminated outfits with friends. These are all new ways of watching, appreciating, learning and experiencing Van Gogh’s colours come alive.

“What colour is in a picture, enthusiasm is in life.” – Van Gogh

Van Gogh Alive is on now in Sydney until 20 December – tickets still available.

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