- Bezachin Jifar
THE EXHIBIT IS NOT A GOGH
Updated: Nov 27, 2021
So, last week, I went to see the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in San Francisco and boy did it give me 'All The Feels!' As per usual, let's get the disclaimers out of the way: If you have not yet gone to see it then do respect yourself and read no further please. If you have seen it and do not want to risk the possibility of my opinionated feelings ruining your experience, PUHLEASE stop reading cause you know what? I'm not gonna lie, there's a good chance you're not gonna like how it made me feel.
And to those empathetic few who can afford to host contradictory thoughts, permit me a few moments to share my conflicting emotions.
So, the short version is I liked it for the first 10 minutes. The long version is that I was no longer "immersed" or even impressed after I realized there was no intention or direction behind the whole exhibit. The wow factor left as quickly as it came and I sat there watching the same thing on repeat but in different iterations.
It was a DC movie in the world of Marvel; It forwent specifics for an overall generic mood, trying to elicit (perhaps intentionally?) some sort of "refined nostalgia" or maybe even nostalgia for the "refined?", as if "What do you common folk know about Art?" was the whole shhtick.
Instead of MAKING A CHOICE!
Why digitally alter famous paintings if not to say something important? Why risk creating a sideshow that could easily be mistaken for a live wallpaper choreographed to music if not to communicate with its audience something crucial?
Or is this just a blatant money grab to capitalize on the fact that Art is subjective and therefore the perfect cover to do "something" and "say" or "not say" anything?
I mean if the expensive tickets are any indication, it looks like the public prefers to be pandered to as opposed to being "preached" or "challenged."
My issue is not that the public likes to pay to feel smart without having to be called "Dumbass!" My issue is why settle for smart when you could make people feel "Genius!"?
How? By not being freaking SAFE!!!!
For starters, it's not really immersive if anyone can look up and see very expensive and powerful projectors in plain sight. First rule of Immersion: don't show me how it works. It defeats the purpose.
And if the makers of this exhibit had the "courage" to digitally manipulate famous works of Art (I won't be using the word 'Masterpiece' for reasons that will later become clear & from which you should steer clear if racial dialogue is not your cup of dimensional existence) then I'm sure they can summon the capital to, at least, attempt the following:
The entire ceiling should have been the "sky" of THE EXHIBIT either via back projections or daisy chain LCDs!
The floor should have been made up of very comfy, very fluffy materials littered with colorful ottomans, & giant faux-furry bean bags likesmall hills across a meadow to make up the living landscape straight out of a Van Gogh painting like the one the public would have appreciated to get lost in instead of being punished to sit on a cold hard floor if folks happened to not want to pay for a cushion.
Speaking of Capitalism, & not to throw its competitive "virtues" at you but, the tiered pricing the exhibit offers - Basic Timed, Premium Flex, & VIP Flex - doesn't necessarily scream "Priority to the Art" (or the Artist for that matter). Nor does paying more necessarily translate into the exhibit "truly illuminating the mind of the genius" as the exhibit's About page appears to claim on its website.
And last by not least, the exhibit should have been installed in a giant warehouse with a high ceiling like a former artillery hall that could comfortably host a circus. The fact that it's travel-friendly not only allows for a wider audience but it all but guarantees it thereby exposing the financial incentive behind the "artistic" decisions that (un)make the exhibit.
All I'm calling out is its failure to exhibit Van Gogh and the method in which it's claiming to do it. This exhibit is to an Immersive Experience what a pickpocket illusionist is to your wallet:
And for my next trick, for the right price (remember, it's tiered), I will agree to perform Art without Conscience! Phew, right? Yeah, kids, don't try this at home okay?!
Now, none of this remotely touches on the most excruciatingly conflicting part of my experience.
Before entering the actual space where the projection happens, there was a small flight of stairs at the halfway point of which was a TV displaying Van Gogh's abbreviated bio in a couple of slides.
Although it was clearly meant to provide context to those who don't know about him, like myself for instance (yes, I don't know nearly enough to be this reactionarily mad for or about him), I immediately felt like I was being primed before going in to venerate this man & his great works; The thought that literally went through my mind was 'It's 2021 and here I am paying to Euro-worship as if to cleanse my all too diverse cultural palette!'
Here's the thing, I am not technically against this Artist or his Art, or Art's veneration especially when the Art deserves it. The world is objectively a better place with as much passionate artists disrupting the status quo, or subverting it, as possible.
However, the fact that this exhibit can cash Van Gogh's cultural capital in the 21s century demonstrates what options the makers of this exhibit could have had at their disposal had not centuries of Eurocentric colonial choices, systematically or otherwise, shut out all non-European voices.
And that this, let's call it 'Colonial Programming', is no more glaringly apparent than in the very European soundscape which needn't have been European just because the Artist was. I'm not saying the music should have been "Modern" or whatever but non-European music could have achieved the same goal since Music is universal. That is assuming the goal wasn't lazily calling on years of adulation for Eurocentric creative works as the epitome of Fine Art. I'm surprised Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C Minor didn't make the cut. Because if there ever was music that is internationally recognizable as soon as it started it would have to be Beethoven's:
Ba da da daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.....
Da da da dummmmmmmmm!!
See, you just heard it in your head?
But I imagine part of the intent of this "exhibit", I'd argue, was to make "Fine Art" accessible to the masses around the world just enough that almost everyone can enjoy it but shrouding it enough in obscure artistic choices to ensure that the "Art" is finely out of reach. The ideal result being walking out with the satisfaction of having digested something "Refined" but without the crucial knowledge as to why it is refined. In the slight chance, that is, you uncover your mindless consumption is part of the exhibit. You are after all immersed in it, no?!
Because in the end, it's a win-win business model; the commodity is the "immersive" experience: "I was finally able to go to the Van Gogh thing, yay for me and being cultured!" But the product is what people feel about their experience: "Wow, I get why Van Gogh is awesome now! I mean I don't know why because I don't know Van Gogh but I really liked what they did, that was cool and interesting!" Who doesn't like fancy PowerPoints?
Not to complicate what's already too complicated but I'm also not unaware of the fact that I too am conditioned to revere what is to be respected as a great work of Art. And therefore I find myself feeling repeatedly ashamed by my knee jerk reaction to seeing the digital manipulation as a violation of what I have been programmed to believe is a masterpiece - a piece that must always belong to Master.
This complexity is further muddied by the problem that the Art in-and-of itself could very well be a genuine piece of artistic feat that deserves due consideration.
But I don't think it is not lost on anyone why I have to make a conscious effort - as an antidote to my conditioned reaction - to view the way the artists behind this exhibit interacted with Van Gogh's work as a piece of Art in-and-of itself - as unimaginative as it sadly is. Why couldn't my knee-jerk reaction have been to say "Hey, about darn time someone animated Van Gogh's paintings, I can't wait to see this" instead of thinking the whole time:
The fudge are they thinking violating this man's vision?
In what world does making a willy-nilly interpretation of an Artist's paintings by choosing to animate an already MOVING WORK OF ART way before computers could even dream of manipulating pixels, could be an exhibition of the Artist's works?
This is just objectively, empirically, emphatically NOT what this is!!
Isn't this just an exhibition of a pseudo-interpretation of a known Art at the cost of the Artist at an arguably fraudulent price tag?
And why am I glad it isn't being done to an African Artist?
Wait I'm glad?
Eh? Spiraling worms in Starry Night?!
What in the actual what?
Just as a refresher, it's true most people enjoyed the show and that's great. I'm in no way prescribing guilt to those who enjoyed it. Nor will I ever desire to at all. I say Get yours, do you!
In fact, I'll be the first to admit that I wouldn't mind seeing a non-immersive commercial version of this "exhibit" saturating the world not unlike the way the early days of ringtones did our lives by reducing music - both old & new - essentially to truncated afterthoughts. As horrible as that episode was though, Music survived. Because Music will outlive technological fads just as Art always does.
So, I'm thinking malls, restaurants, stadiums, subway tunnels, small mom & pop outfits, businesses around the world subscribing, for $9.99 a month or so, to watch works of Dali melt on their walls or Bernini's statues pining between agony & ecstasy or Tekle's iconic subjects.... ummm... looking regal? Stoic?
Yes, even just to site as an example, I do not know what makes one of my country's renowned Artist's works refined. Or at least studied it long enough to form my own opinion. No, worse. Much worse. I haven't been told to study it as a genius work of Art - be it Euro-influenced or not.
And, trust me, I'm only sharing this out of shame and not some cheap desire to prove what is already painfully obvious to everyone who struggles with unlearning self-negating programming.
But as much as I would have loved to see Afework Tekle and many other non-Europeans being celebrated as Masters of their own, Art, in museums around the world, I'm pretty certain that thoughtless interpretation of any artwork of any Artist in any medium without explicitly committing to no higher ideal than that of monetary gain would make me react the same way, regardless of the living-dead influence of colonial History.