Opinion //

Van Gogh Alive – and probably turning in his grave

What does an art exhibition look like without the art?

Photo: TimeOut.

Do you like attending galleries, but are sick of all the art? Bored of exhibition rooms that you can’t use for Instagram backdrops? Tired of having to look at artworks rather than through the viewfinder of your iPhone? Well, a new breed of installation art is emerging just for you. “Faux-art” exhibitions involve large-scale visual spectacles that capitalise on the growing synergy of social media and installation art. But instead of combining genuine artistic endeavour with incidental social media suitability, faux-art exhibitions go one step further by excluding the art altogether. 

Take Van Gogh Alive — Sydney’s newest and glossiest multi-sensory exhibition. Observant attendees may notice that no artist is credited with its production. This is simply because there is no art involved. Instead, the exhibition is a glorified slideshow hastily assembled by an international corporation exploiting Van Gogh’s name for maximum profits. 

Hosted by Grande Exhibitions, a subsidiary of Grande Experiences, Van Gogh Alive projects high-quality images of Van Gogh’s paintings on gigantic floor to ceiling screens in a continuous, looping reel of about 45 minutes. The screens are assembled in a rectangular room-like format that is completely devoid of creativity and fails to invite interaction or exploration like installations such as Tokyo’s TeamLab Planets. The slideshow vaguely chronicles Van Gogh’s life and is accompanied by enlarged images of his most notable quotes that the creators probably got from Goodreads. All this occurs in a darkened warehouse space with classical music playing over loudspeakers. In the absence of original works, Grande Experiences’ only artistic input consists of minor digital alterations in the projected paintings. This manifests in wave-like animations in the sky, water and wheat of Starry Night, Starry Night Over the Rhône and Wheatfield With Crows respectively — animations that could be made in a couple of hours by an 11-year-old with access to YouTube and a free trial of Adobe Creative Cloud. 

But the nail in the coffin has to be the ending credits. Seconds after Van Gogh’s suicide is tactfully portrayed by a gunshot sound effect, your eyes are assaulted by a GRANDE EXHIBITIONS logo on a white screen. This is followed by an obnoxious television advertisement for its other worldwide installations including PLANET SHARK: PREDATOR OR PREY and ALICE — A WONDERLAND ADVENTURE, firmly placing the exhibition in the same artistic category as a tacky cinema experience at a theme park.  

Despite an absence of creativity and taste, Grande Experiences will make far more from Van Gogh’s work than Van Gogh ever did himself. Indeed, Grande Experiences’ website boasts more than 17 million visitors in 145 cities — a gross contrast to Van Gogh’s lifelong struggle to sell paintings to anyone other than his own brother. So, instead of lining the pockets of corporate parasites, save yourself $30 by setting up your own DIY Grande Experience in five easy steps. First, set Spotify’s ‘Classical Essentials Playlist’ to shuffle on your laptop. Second, turn off the lights and close the blinds in your chosen room. Third, open up a web browser so you can see two windows at once. Fourth, load up “Van Gogh Art” on Google Images in one window and “Van Gogh Quotes” on Goodreads in the other. Finally, invite strangers over to pose in front of the laptop and block your view of the artworks. Muy Grande! Enjoy!

Crucial to its economic viability, Van Gogh Alive is perfect for individuals who can’t view art without telling their Instagram followers that they have, in fact, viewed art. Attendees pose for photos in front of projected works that, by the time the photo is taken, they won’t be able to observe due to the progression of the slideshow. But at least they can chuck it on their story, right? 

Undoubtedly, Grande Experiences are exploiting the rising popularity of Instagram-friendly exhibitions. But it is important to note that Van Gogh Alive is a distinctly shit one. Artists such as Yayoi Kusama, James Turrell, Ai Wei Wei and Olafur Eliasson produce original, groundbreaking art that also happens to look good on your feed. Hence, it is vital that we are able to differentiate between genuine installation art and faceless corporate money-grabs. If not, there may be significant ramifications for installation art itself. For if international conglomerates like Grande Experiences become the norm, could they displace independent artists and potentially inhibit the rise of future creators? Could installation art become another victim of social media vanity, ruthless capitalist industry and undiscerning consumers? 

In fairness, Van Gogh Alive is actually an okay experience. Its potential to instil an appreciation of art in youth and the broader public holds value. And there’s something quietly beautiful about watching giant, moving masterpieces alongside strangers, wordlessly connecting in your shared admiration. Yet the reality that this belies is ugly. Van Gogh’s art wasn’t made to be projected on a screen, or to boost the profit margins of an international company. While I’m hesitant to declare parameters constraining the definition of art, a clear line must be drawn between independent artistic projects and soulless events like Van Gogh Alive. These corporate exhibitions threaten the very essence of installation art, and it’s up to us to know the difference. 

Perhaps ironically, one of the quotes projected in Van Gogh Alive reads as follows: “In the end, we shall have had enough of cynicism, skepticism and humbug, and we shall want to live more musically.” In this case, however, I think it’s possible that Van Gogh would agree with me. There is nothing musical about a rich corporation getting richer by exploiting art that is not their own. In this case — for the sake of art — cynicism, skepticism and humbug might just be warranted.

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