Yesterday, I made the terrible decision to attend “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Terrible because I have become increasingly tired of digital mediation, an after-effect of almost three years being chained to my desk on Zoom during the pandemic. And a terrible decision because when I was young, I revered van Gogh with a devotion that only a half-Dutch teenaged melancholic nascent art lover could muster.
The experience was far worse than I feared: an upbeat (!) narration of van Gogh’s life and letters set to Muzak-inspired refrains of Don McLean’s “Vincent” and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” an insipid fascination with his madness, followed by pat moral lessons about art as a form of therapy. According to Fanny Curtat, art history consultant on the multimedia project: “There’s an interest and a curiosity for his life story that speaks to a lot of people…It also speaks to the power of his work…the healing qualities of art, of nature and the power of colours and beauty.”
One is tempted here, in good digital form, to simply respond, “lol.” To speak of the healing qualities of art, nature, colour and beauty, is to miss the mark profoundly when displaying an artist whose experience of life was so unremittingly bleak that he shot himself in Auvers after placing his easel against a haystack. While art and colour may have brought meaning to his life, it offered little by way of solace. It takes a very adept capitalist sleight of hand to turn his story into a lesson on “healing.”
Worse still were the frenetic transitions of images and their alterations. This was an immersive experience in which “participants” could observe the shifting waters of canals underfoot or watch the blinking eyes of van Gogh’s self-portraits. In turn, participants offered their own mediation of the experience: snapping selfies against the backdrop of ravens and sower, among sunflowers and starry nights, with the emaciated artist and the wounded man with a bandaged ear. These scenes were replicated no doubt in city after city like my own, which happened to take place in a darkened room of the Royal Bank of Canada Convention Centre in Winnipeg.
This “experience” is the work of artistic reproduction in the age of late capitalism par excellence. How curious that van Gogh branding is so commercially lucrative given the fact that he himself was destitute throughout his brief life. Indeed, these immersive experiences of van Gogh’s work (of which there are over forty in the US) sprang up rapidly during the pandemic, bolstered by the Netflix rom-com, Emily in Paris. Because the images are all in the public domain, the multimedia companies producing the immersive experiences are able to reproduce these images again and again, charging a steep fee for a strictly timed visit that lasts a little over an hour. At the end of the exhibit lies a strategically located gift shop where you can purchase novelty socks and ties with images of the artist and his work.
Van Gogh died at 37 of an infection two days after shooting himself in the chest. This was an artist whose last words to his brother were “the sadness will last forever.” The cannibalizing and commodifying of an artist such as this is one of the great achievements of late capitalism, where everything—even suffering, suicide, mental illness, and singular artistic achievement—can become a commodity.
Curiously scarce among the over 300 projected images were van Gogh’s depictions of peasants, prominent subjects of his early painting, to which he returned just before his death (“Peasants Lifting Potatoes”). Discussing the artist’s use of colour and form to underscore the peasants’ connection to the earth and the land, John Berger writes:
The fusion of the figures with the ground refers fiercely to the reciprocal exchange of energy that constitutes agriculture, and which explain, in the long term, why agricultural production cannot be submitted to purely economic law. It may also refer—by way of his own love and respect for peasants—to his own practice as a painter.
For van Gogh, the work of artistic creation was inherently material. It involved engagement with the corporality of persons, of places, of the natural world. In turn, art was physically demanding and its tools and media—the very physical effort of thick paint on canvas, the labouring after form, the manifestation of an image through sustained effort on canvas—sought to reflect the labour that was produced by peasants working through the rough and recalcitrant soil under a setting sun to provide sustenance. It is also a refraction of the work of God’s creation, groaning in travail toward a perfect end just on the horizon. How far this gruelling labour is from the projected image, the screen that can only produce more screens: the filtered selfie set to “Starry Night,” the canned reproduction of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” in a bank’s theatre where the sun never shines, and its rays never illuminate the faces of those who wait upon it here below.
Jane Barter is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at the University of Winnipeg.