At this point in my life, I have a knee-jerk suspicion of games, events, and attractions that bill themselves as “Experiences.” I think this is fair. Setting aside my low-grade, ambient cynicism (responsible for maybe 10 to 15 percent of my wariness), I’ve read too much DeLillo (another 25 percent) and seen far too many half-assed marketing campaigns for VR (60 percent, bare minimum) to be anything other than skeptical. “An Experience.” “The Experience.” You can almost hear the trademark, just as you can almost hear the accompanying rustle as Disney execs and AAA game publishers rub their bloodless hands together. The Experience™—only the ™ is silent the way the g in phlegm is silent. Or the b in subtle. Or the gh in van Gogh.

So I guess what I’m really trying to say is that it’s a good thing I discovered the title of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience after the fact.

Featuring the works of famed nineteenth-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is the collective name for a number of related art exhibits being held in major cities around the world. My wife and I attended one at the Lighthouse ArtSpace in Chicago’s Old Town. It was remarkable. Indeed, whatever my ambivalence about Experiences as an exercise in branding, I want to be clear on this point: van Gogh: The Immersive Experience was, and is, stunning. It was, and is, pure spectacle.

The exhibit is a 35-minute film of digitized, often animated versions of van Gogh’s paintings, sequentially arranged, synchronized to a wordless soundtrack, and then projected … everywhere. The walls, the floor. People. Lighthouse ArtSpace’s gallery consists of three or four adjoining rooms, and in the ceiling, scarcely visible in the relative dark, nestle rows of projectors. All of them have been precisely calibrated to the dimensions of each room; all of them ensure that every square inch of the galley remains bathed in light. Supersized entries in van Gogh’s Sunflowers series, all warm, gold-foil glow, slip from one wall to the next. The Sower casts his seeds among the gallery’s guests. Fractured and partially reflected in the mirror sheets attached to periaktos stationed strategically around each room, The Starry Night weeps constellations onto the floor.

Because most, if not all, the paintings unfurl across several surfaces at once, the overall image is inevitably too large and too fragmented to observe in its totality. Sitting cross-legged with Jes against the gallery wall, I learned quickly that I had to concentrate my attention on one area of the gallery at a time if I wanted to observe anything specific. That, or I had to do what’s never come easily to me: let go. Stop my eyes from ping-ponging around the gallery, unfocus my gaze, and allow the whole thing to wash over me.

Afterward, Jes and I talked about what we’d seen. Or I should say rather that I talked, mostly—and talked with all the enthusiasm and tedious windbaggery of a recovering philosophy bro—while Jes, whose middle name is Forbearance, mostly listened. I pointed out how the exhibit reminds us that seeing is always mediated, and how that mediation plays out at multiple levels in the gallery. I noted how, for instance, you’d get radically different experiences (ExperiencesTM!) of van Gogh’s work depending on whether you chose to walk through the gallery or sit, and if you chose to sit, then in which room and where. I added, too, that the projectors compound this effect. They call attention to the work of seeing: first, by overwhelming you with too many, too-large images, and second, by creating visible—because irregular—“canvases” for the images to play out against: the molding on a wall, or the stripes on somebody’s t-shirt, or the uneven ripple of a mirror. I think I even said something about van Gogh’s being a “confrontation with the politics of seeing,” which, even if true, is nevertheless grounds for divorce in most states.

At the end of my screed, I mentioned maybe writing a blog post about the exhibit. Jes, who by then looked a little worse for wear, answered with a careful “Ah,” to which I replied, “Yes.” Then I paused. “Only,” I said, unaware of the irony, “I’m not sure how to keep it from crawling up its own butt.”

And to be honest, I’m still not sure how to do it. This essay began by poking fun at the for-profit transubstantiation of experience into Experience™. (In the name of the Dollar, the Broker, and the Holy Stakeholder, amen.) Now it ends by poking fun at my own attempts to intellectualize an Experience. But whether the same engine drives this impulse to laugh in both cases is, I think, an open question. In the latter case, do I laugh at myself out of a sense of earned or legitimate skepticism, or simply out of my own insecurity? It’s hard to say. The two can be difficult to parse, sometimes—difficult to corner, pick apart.

Then again, I suppose zeroing in isn’t always the solution. It’s not always a matter of focusing on a single emotion or gallery wall to the exclusion of all others. Sometimes you’ve no choice but to sit back and ride out the roil of color and sound.

5 Comments

  1. Chad Westra

    I was skeptical about this event too but now I’m intrigued! I’ve also been inundated with ads on my feed for classical music by candlelight experiences.

    By the way, if you’re interested in mediation, I highly recommend a neat little documentary on a famous Chinese scroll painting, called “A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China.” It’s available on the Criterion Channel, which has a free trial.

    Reply
    • Ben DeVries

      Definitely interested. Thanks for the rec, Chad. 🙂 I’ll add it to the list (and not least because Criterion itself has got a ton of great stuff, which more than justifies the price of admission).

      Reply
  2. Debra K Rienstra

    Great piece. Love the self-conscious over-theorizing-with-wink. It’s delightful. And so many great sentences.

    Reply
    • Ben DeVries

      This means a lot, coming from you, Deb. I still think a lot about your course in creative nonfiction. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    Ah, experience. The only way to truly level up. Seems like you did a bit of growing through the piece. What started in laughter ended with laughter, but with a nugget of truth. Sometimes all we get is that nugget and sometimes that’s all we need for a time. A fun read to be sure.

    Ever the scholar, indeed. Thanks for all your analyses, your critiques, and wisdom, but also your willingness to have fun and enjoy games and the playfulness writing allows.

    Reply

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