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Drowning in ‘Immersive’ Van Gogh

Whatever the digital experience, it has little to do with art, history, or anything other than spectacle.

In "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at the Strand Theatre, visitors are invited to step into more than 300 of Van Gogh's sketches and drawings.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

First things first: For an art critic, trying to talk about “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” one of many traveling digital roadshows about the artist’s work, is a predictable and tedious task. And besides, “The Immersive Experience” is already predictable and tedious enough all on its own.

So let’s state the obvious: “The Immersive Experience” is about Vincent Van Gogh in only the most tangential of ways. It separates the viewer from the artist’s work with an intense digital buffer. As for presenting the artist himself, it basically offers a diluted, digestible, animated version of his Wikipedia page. Things get easier, and maybe less tedious, when you accept that “The Immersive Experience” has little to do with art, and everything to do with spectacle, running on the vapors that a famous name can provide. If an art exhibition is an apple, then “The Immersive Experience” is less an orange than a big fruit salad left to wither in the cooler, with way too much cantaloupe. And man, I hate cantaloupe.


Anyway, the quick primer on “The Immersive Experience” is that it’s one of several digital spectacles bouncing around the globe conceived to profit from the inexhaustible appeal of the famously tortured Dutch painter, and one of two slated for Boston this year alone. Van Gogh’s works are scattered through the great museums of the world — four on view this very minute at the Museum of Fine Arts — but who has time for that? “Immersive” Van Gogh digitally mainlines dozens of works in bits and pieces, complete with a heroic John Williams-esque soundtrack in digital surround (think: “Jurassic Park”). Van Gogh works pull down tens of millions at auction (as a helpful info panel here tells you, in some detail), but being a good century or more out of copyright, their reproductions are free and fair game. And here we are.

"Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at the Strand Theatre.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“The Immersive Experience” is geared toward its central feature: the quivering digital kaleidoscope fit into Dorchester’s Strand Theatre, complete with “Starry Night”-print lawn chairs (did I see those at Ikea?) and plush rugs for lounging. Everything else is thin expositional padding, like a walk-in children’s picture book: A few informational panels, a life-size diorama of the artist’s bedroom, and far too many sad, mercilessly spotlit inkjet-on-canvas reproductions of famous works that confirm the gross futility of such things. (For one of the most painterly painters of all time, whose surfaces were ridged deep with impasto and brushstroke like a relief map, it’s past pointless — it’s dumb.)


So, dispensing with any notion that this has anything to do with art, let’s also dispense with the idea of what I’m doing as art criticism, shall we? “The Immersive Experience” has as much to do with art as Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks” did with hockey: a cartoon version, mostly for children. I’m thinking about this as a movie review — art history as IMAX, complete with 3-D (just you wait). As that, “The Immersive Experience” fails, and deeply.

"Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at the Strand Theatre.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Kicked back in one of those chairs, I sat through the full 35-minute loop of its titular immersion. Oddities aside — What’s with the two levels of gothic colonnades on all sides? Why are the paintings wedged inside them? Is it a cheap clip-art template? — I was struck by the outright hokiness of the whole affair. Platitudinal quotes intoned by a gravel-voiced narrator, cherry-picked from the artist at his most cliched — “There is nothing more truly artistic than loving people”; “Success is sometimes the result of a whole series of failures” — wafted repeatedly, the only narration you’ll hear.


This is purely a matter of taste, but I’m sure I never wanted to see an entire grid of Van Gogh’s self-portraits — those colonnades again! — dissolve into a cascade of pixels, or watch swarms of digital fireflies and snowflakes fleck and twirl across the surface of his landscapes. There are moments of potential visual pleasure, when the colonnades vanish and big swaths of the artist’s landscapes appear huge and in extreme close-up. But the software developers can’t leave well enough alone: The incessant gyrating — the sky in “Starry Night,” is a slow, constant tornado; the golden fields of another piece are ruined by a thick-brushstroked horse and cart digitally animated to bobble through the wheat, like a child’s toy — makes the whole thing hectic and distracted. The point of painting is that it’s a still, constructed image, with material painstakingly applied by hand. But never mind that. “The Immersive Experience” doesn’t care if you want to just look. It insists you be entertained.

Taking in the virtual reality of "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at the Strand Theatre.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Digital trickery aside, the show assumes itself to be more interesting than its subject, and in so doing commits its ultimate sin: of being boring. Never mind its lack of timeline (here, I correct myself: It’s art history as IMAX movie, minus the history) or even biography; those things don’t seem to matter much at all. It might have saved itself with something like a narrative. Instead, it’s a story-less digital image salad. Technology is both a terrible and wonderful thing, but never more terrible than when it serves itself more than its subject. Much of “Immersive” Van Gogh seems to exist simply because it can.


Just like any movie review, a one-star rating (yes, one; keep going) won’t stop hordes of ticket buyers from thronging its doors, which is what I expect will happen here (October is already sold out). Scant evidence at the press preview Tuesday morning — one couple in a languid embrace, de-clenching now and then to take selfies, or film themselves in faux-profound contemplation, aswim in the Van Gogh-y digital stew — nonetheless confirmed as much. This is one of those things that is less about actually being there than having a social media feed full-up with digital evidence that says you were; and with that as the goal, I’m sure it’ll end up an unqualified success.

One last thought. I’d be remiss not to mention the best thing about “The Immersive Experience,” a dubious honor, but wait: On the way out, you’ll encounter a virtual reality experience that lets you stroll the fields and forests of Arles, in Provence, where the artist spent his happiest days and produced his most memorable work.


While the uncanny valley is yet to be effectively bridged — waving fields of flowers seem plucked from a child’s Lego set; wheat fields have the glassy visual presence of a stand of long yellow hot dogs — something emerges here. You, as Van Gogh, stroll down a cobblestone path, arriving now and again at picture frames floating in the air, which fill in with proper images of his paintings from those very spots. Importantly, he’s telling you a story of each one as you move: bona fide narrative, linking art to place to experience.

If I didn’t already feel nauseated — VR headsets always make me queasy — I would have been happy to finish the journey. The VR piece is one small victory in a field of shimmering defeat, with technology finally serving the story and the artist. It’s the kind of thing bona fide museums might want as a complementary piece alongside the actual art. Struggling as most do with technology, they might consider a rescue mission. It’s the one thing here that deserves another look.


At Strand Theatre, 543 Columbia Road, through Jan. 30. www.vangoghexpo.com/boston

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.