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The room is dimly lit and filled with gentle music. On the walls are large, projected images of Vincent van Gogh’s many self-portraits. Sometimes they blink, eyes moving. Their colors stand out brightly in the darkness.
Then they ripple and shift, beginning to fade. The music swells, underlaid with the sound of rushing wind. Van Gogh’s landscapes sweep across the floors and walls, brush strokes moving as if painted by a giant hand. To patrons, it’s like walking on the canvas itself. They’re not simply viewing the art; they become part of it.
This is “Beyond Van Gogh,” the immersive art exhibit from French-Canadian Creative Director Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio.
Created over a six-month period, it fuses more than 300 of Van Gogh’s artworks (and over 4 trillion content pixels) with his own words and with a score that features musicians such as Miles Davis, Pat Metheny and Max Richter.
With more than 17 cities on its tour and an anticipated 1 million guests throughout 2021, it’s little wonder that the exhibit has been making a stir since it debuted in Miami this spring.
The stunningly unique display is in Salt Lake City from now through the end of November at Atmosphere Studios (326 W. 700 S.; note that the studio is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays). Tickets start at $25 for children and $37 for adults, and are available at vangoghsaltlake.com.
Executive Producer David Rosenfeld said Salt Lake City was among the first places his team chose for the “Beyond Van Gogh” tour because of the culture and market.
“We don’t go just anywhere,” he said.
Making Van Gogh move
Visitors first walk through the Introduction Hall, which features facts about Van Gogh’s life and excerpts from his letters to his brother.
They then go through the Waterfall Room, which is filled with splashes and dots of color that flow down the walls and intermittently form into one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits.
Finally, they enter the Immersive Experience Room, where most of the magic happens. Rosenfeld said over 40 projectors are pointed at the ceilings and walls. They’re carefully lined up on a grid system, he said, and have to be re-adjusted each day due to minor shifts caused by the air.
He said each projector is connected to a different server, and when they display their individual content and overlap with the other images, it creates the animated effect that “Beyond Van Gogh” is becoming famous for. The entire video is about 40 minutes long.
“You get chills. You don’t expect what you see, and you really do feel like you’ve been immersed inside these paintings,” Rosenfeld said.
He added that immersive art exhibits have been around for a few years, but the trend has recently blown up.
It’s a different way to experience artwork, he said, and a faster one — rather than spending hours in museums seeing each of Van Gogh’s works, patrons can see hundreds of his paintings in one exhibit.
It’s also more fun for kids, Rosenfeld said, who are less likely to become bored among the immersive display’s sounds and moving parts.
It’s COVID-19 friendly, too. Ticket sales are timed to control the amount of people in the exhibit, and the room is big enough for social distancing. Masks are highly recommended but not required.
Rosenfeld said while creating “Beyond Van Gogh,” his team focused on helping people see what Van Gogh saw when he painted.
This required the help of art historian Fanny Curtat, who served as the project’s art history consultant and was “instrumental” in making sure they stayed true to Van Gogh’s work as they digitally manipulated his paintings, he said.
Curtat said Van Gogh’s work already moves, so adding animation elements was really “pushing the envelope” with his paintings.
“Beyond Van Gogh” is designed to make the museum experience less intimidating, she said. In fact, people can come without any knowledge of Van Gogh whatsoever — the Introduction Hall will give them all the context they need.
The exhibit resonates with people, Curtat said, because it doesn’t challenge viewers; it’s simply there to bring joy and beauty.
It’s also about going beyond the darkness of Van Gogh’s legend, she said.
“We tend to remember only the ‘cutting ear’ incident, the struggling madness and the poverty,” Curtat said. “[But] when you look at his work… you don’t see darkness, you see his cure for it.”
That’s why she said Van Gogh’s work is more relevant now than ever. People are emerging from the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Curtat said, and Van Gogh’s work is evidence of the beauty that can be found during times of darkness — his famous “Starry Night,” for instance, was painted while he was locked in an asylum cell.
“[In Van Gogh], you have somebody who indeed struggled throughout his life, but transformed all of these hardships into masterpieces,” she said. “He transformed the world around him.”
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