Last week, on the morning we learned of our friend Steve’s death, we were on our way to Charlotte to see Immersive Van Gogh. Steve had turned 76 the week before, had been undergoing chemotherapy for the last 7 months, but his death was not expected.
Steve weighed the same at 76 as he did when he graduated from college – reed thin and nothing but muscle. He worked out at the gym several days a week and loved doing sets of pull-ups for appreciative audiences, (usually guys much younger than him), then asking onlookers how old they thought he was. They always guessed wrong. One of the last things he and his significant other Cyndi did right before COVID shut everything down, was zipline through the mountain canopy of the North Carolina mountains. They had plans to go again once restrictions were lifted.
As I read Cyndi’s text, our hearts felt as if they’d stopped, while cars continued to zip around us on I-77. We didn’t intend to turn around and see if we could do anything, because we knew there was nothing for us to do, but the excitement of driving the rest of the way into Charlotte for the exhibition was tempered.
Then I heard Steve’s nasally Midwest voice, his practical down-to-earth manner, and ever-present swagger say, Hey, I’m dead. You guys go on and have a great time. And so we went.
If you’re not familiar with Immersive Van Gogh, “Conceived by Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron . . . it’s a projected collage of some 200 paintings from the final two years of Van Gogh’s life, all accompanied by classical hits by St. Saens, Mozart, Bach, Delibes, and Satie.” The description doesn’t do it justice.
Picture this. You’re standing or sitting in a large, darkened, warehouse, (Charlotte’s exhibit is in an art space that was once an old Ford plant), with temporary walls at various angles creating open areas of various sizes. As music begins, a sun rises on several of the walls, continues moving around the room and sets on other walls.
Or you hear what sounds like crackling, and roots start growing all around you, then as the music changes, green leaves sprout and grow until Van Gogh’s beautiful purple irises fill all the walls.
The sound of utensils and plates clattering is background music, along with the classical music, when The Potato Eaters move into view.
The exhibit is a 36 minute loop of ever-changing canvases of some of Van Gogh’s more familiar works. From Irises the walls morph into Wheatfield with Crows; Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait appears as you’re watching the stars twinkle in Starry Night Over the Rhone. The Potato Eaters look as if they’re about to offer you a serving. I wish I could include a video – I took a couple – but they wouldn’t capture the experience for you.
It’s called immersive because you become part of the art. When the sunflowers bloom all around you, you’re in that field of sunflowers. With the silhouettes of those around you blackened against the vibrant colors, it’s like being in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Even the floor becomes part of the art so you’re literally in the painting. The floor of this particular converted art space is wooden blocks of different sizes. This added another dimension of texture as Van Gogh’s paint spread across the room. (the white circles are for social distancing)
When we arrived, one of the volunteers suggested we move around while we were in the exhibit because different spots give such different perspectives, and you see something from one that doesn’t stand out in another – even though the image projected is the same. Hubby and I sat or stood through 3 full plays of the exhibit, each time moving to a different area. We could have stayed longer it was so mesmerizing and beautiful, and the volunteer was right. Little details that show up in one area are entirely missed in another. We were filled with awe at not only the art itself, but the technology that brought the art to life in an unusual way.
The last images included shooting stars in Starry Night Over the Rhone which felt like being in a laser show. So even though in my head I knew this exhibit was all computer-generated, the experience was more than simply watching a movie. My lingering thought as I watched those stars shoot across the room was, one of those disappearing lights is our friend Steve.