Educational videos? Art planetariums? Nightclub décor? What is immersive art?

Or is it useful to think of “Immersive Van Gogh” and “Immersive Frida Kahlo” as cinematic gift shops?

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

My experience at “Immersive Van Gogh” and “Immersive Frida Kahlo,” both presented by Lighthouse Immersive at SVN West in San Francisco, was anything but immersive. These types of experiences are a growing trend around the art world, luring thousands of visitors into funhouse-type spaces in which animated projections of paintings are set to music. They purport to celebrate the legacies of canonical artists, but do little more than capitalize off of their subjects’ lives and works without offering anything fulfilling in the way of an art experience.

I like both Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh just fine. But neither of them deserves the treatment they get in the “immersive” bastardizations of their work.

Both exhibitions stick to a similar template: patchwork, animated reproductions of paintings spliced with historical photographs set to musical soundtracks, progressing through a loosely chronological timeline of the artist’s life. Neither exhibition seems to know exactly what it wants to be. Are these educational videos? Art planetariums? Nightclub décor? This format succeeds only in putting me in these artist’s heads insofar as they were both notoriously tortured souls: I left both exhibitions depressed and alienated.

These exhibitions fly in the face of the art they sensationalize in many ways, not the least of which is in their disregard for the artist’s personal experiences: Kahlo was a staunch communist; Van Gogh toiled in obscure poverty. Because these are not artists whose lives and works celebrated capitalist modes of production, the whole affair feels lacking in a rounded understanding and presentation of its subject matter, and altogether absent of self-awareness. Sure, Kahlo’s and Van Gogh’s paintings have already been commodified ad nauseam, but that part of the artist’s legacies is absent from the exhibitions’ narratives. Instead, visitors must walk through a gift shop in order to leave, one stocked to the gills with socks, mugs, throw pillows and more art-themed memorabilia.

In a 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the German critic Walter Benjamin points out that “the work of art has always been reproducible,” from students copying masters to Greco-Roman bronze casting to photographic reproduction, “by anyone seeking to make money.” Benjamin’s essay is largely concerned with film, not gift shops, but it is useful to think of the immersive exhibitions in these terms. They constitute, for me, a kind of film, an extension of the IMAX theater, where a movie is projected wall-to-wall, or, in this case, wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall.

“A film,” Benjamin writes, “affords a kind of spectacle that was never before conceivable,” because “it portrays an event that can no longer be assigned to a single time nor place.” While this makes for a certain kind of magic in the case of cinema — the sense that a movie is happening while you watch it — the immersive shows, by a process of cinematic reproduction, rob paintings of their single most powerful feature: their specific location in time and space; the fact that they themselves exist as a kind of relic, that transport you back to when they were made.

“What shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura,” Benjamin writes, referring to the essence of the artwork relating to its physicality: The experience of beholding a singular object which is itself the product of time, place and human touch. Digital pictures or print reproductions of artworks are useful for disseminating access to art, but not as an art form in themselves.

Still, there are pros and cons to this dissemination of art: Art is no longer so sequestered, and more people gain access; often this is done in the name of capitalizing off the work of art, rather than in the name of a democratization of access to artworks. Such is the case with the “immersive” shows, which prove to be just another exploitative commodification of art, spectacularized as a means of distracting visitors from what is clearly a second-rate offense to the essential qualities of art.

Art, experienced directly, is always immersive, always total in its realness. The presence of an artwork is the mark of another being having existed: Even when they are gone, the mark they have made on reality remains. When I look at a Van Gogh or a Kahlo, I feel some connection to the painter, a correspondence that supersedes the distance of time and space and constitutes a total immersion. The artist finds a way inside me through their work.

The visuality of the immersive exhibitions I’ve attended actually inhibits direct engagement with the work. There is a reason gallery walls are blank: Their emptiness encourages an expansive reception of the singular work. The immersive shows create a space in which the work itself functions as its own special context, putting you inside a facsimile of the original through a distortion of the work’s physical and historical scale. Furthermore, both “Van Gogh” and “Kahlo” seem to encourage a mode of engagement which markedly removes visitors from the moment: Taking cellphone pictures and videos. It is no coincidence, I think, that these exhibitions actually look better in pictures.

There is an apt comparison to be drawn here between two famous caves: Lascaux in France marks the sight of the earliest known cave paintings; in Plato’s cave, humans watch a shadow play they mistake for reality. The setting in which art is viewed matters. The museum, gallery, city street or caves at Lascaux all contribute to the aura of the artwork they present, by contextualizing it in relation to other artworks and their surroundings. This is a dialogue in which the viewer’s position, too, is not incidental. A painting may be a record of another being’s thoughts, feelings and actions, but it achieves its final form in us, when we allow it entry through an extended engagement with its presence — and our own.

Max Blue is a San Francisco-based critic who writes about the visual arts and modern culture.

The “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibition, like much of immersive art, tends to look better in photographs. (Cheshire Isaacs)

The “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibition, like much of immersive art, tends to look better in photographs. (Cheshire Isaacs)

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