What to expect at at the Van Gogh Immersive Experience in Los Angeles
The room is filled with birdsong. And then the chirping fades, overwhelmed by the sound of drums building. In the dimness of the space, my eyes follow trails of brown paint that snake up the walls, forming tree trunks that extend and transform into sword-shaped leaves. Distorted, grainy percussion emanates from a deep and alternate realm. Then, among the green, violet flowers emerge. One after the other, they take over the entire space, casting a purple glow on the faces of visitors. The music heightens, then disappears, replaced by wistful strings. There’s an eerie calm. I watch intently, seized by an emotional intensity that keeps swelling and releasing, over and over.
This is not a figment of my imagination; It’s not a fever dream, even though it feels like one. And that’s exactly what you should expect from Van Gogh Immersive Experience, a series of connected spaces boasting 500,000 cubic feet of projections that wholly submerge you into many of Van Gogh’s works. Here, inside the Lighthouse Artspace building in Los Angeles, you can see every brush stroke of Van Gogh’s Irises — a work he painted in the garden of an asylum on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he was retreated after mutilating his ear — in microscopic detail. I’d seen and stared at Irises many, many times at The Getty Center. But I’d never seen it quite like this, on such a large scale.
Swaying trees, floating clouds and undulating landscapes bring Van Gogh’s paintings to life, allowing visitors to experience them in a way that’s new and unexpected.
When Irises makes way for The Fields, one of many paintings Van Gogh made of the expansive, wide-open fields near Auvers-sur-Oise. The sky is dark and ominous, as though minutes away from heavy rainfall. It’s juxtaposed against the bright, vivid palette Van Gogh was known for. But something doesn’t quite sit right, perhaps because of his disquieting use of perspective and the unusual size of the poppies, drawn with looseness and little care for the correct application of depth.
Van Gogh painted this shortly after being discharged from the asylum and moving to Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to his brother, Theo. In this small French commune, Van Gogh attacked his art with barely a pause, wandering through the endless fields and completing more than 100 pieces in just two months. “Auvers is very beautiful,” he wrote to his Theo. He seemed to have found solace there. But weeks after painting The Fields, Van Gogh took his own life.
I can feel its uneasiness, even more as the soft notes of Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 In G Major (recomposed by Luca Longobardi, who dreamed up a breathtaking soundtrack for the experience) play in the background. The Fields changes again, over and over. It’s almost too easy to get lost in the colors, in the music, in the way they come together on this visual journey through Van Gogh’s work — and subsequently, life.
Even though I’m surrounded by people, I feel a magnetic pull toward the visuals unfolding in front of me. Near the end of the show, the music heightens in a dramatic crescendo and bursts of color explode like fireworks on the walls. Then, torrents of blue run like blood through veins. They spiral, twist and turn onto themselves, forming the clouds of Starry Night. “Looking at the stars always makes me dream,” Van Gogh once said, “Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.”
If this quote is any indication, there’s always been a certain sadness about Van Gogh. The Dutch-painter struggled with mental health issues. He’d go through bouts of depression and anxiety, sometimes wrestling with agoraphobia and hallucinations. His anxieties and fears often reflected in his work. And although Van Gogh produced many, many artworks — more than 2,000, to be more specific — he only sold one during his lifetime. He became more popular in death than he had ever been in life.
A lot of what we know about Van Gogh — his mood, thoughts and the inner workings of his mind — stems from his oeuvres. That, and of course, from the hundreds of letters he wrote to Theo throughout their friendship. Personally, I’ve always had an interest in Van Gogh as a person just as much as I found him fascinating as an artist. I’ve watched Loving Vincent, an animated biographical film made by a team of 125 artists who worked on close to 65,000 frames as oil paintings on canvas. I’ve stood in front of his works, examining his every choice of color, stroke and style. But again, this was different. Not better by default, just different and new.
And that’s the reason these immersive experiences, which began almost a decade ago in Europe, are becoming so popular. So hyped up in fact, that I had a lot of skepticism going in. For those who are already familiar with the artist, the show will definitely bring something new to the table, perhaps a new way of looking at familiar paintings. For those who don’t know Van Gogh, the experience will be an in-depth look at an artist as more than just a man known for cutting his ear off. It’s a fantastic spectacle either way, one I can’t wait to see again. So, if you want to get to know Vincent Van Gogh better, here’s what to expect at the Van Gogh Immersive Experience.
There are a few different kinds of passes available
Basically, there are four kinds of options available (well, five, if you’re counting the discounted pass for children ages 6 to 16). The most basic ($39.99) gives you a fixed timed admission. If you spring for this kind of ticket, I suggest arriving just a little earlier than your time since there’s typically a line you’ll have to wait in. The Basic Flex ($54.99) affords you the flexibility to arrive two hours earlier or later than your admission time. Same with the Premium ($59.99) and VIP Flex ($99.99). On top of admission flexibility, with the Premium Flex ticket, you can snag a limited edition poster and Van Gogh cushion (rental). The only added benefits to the VIP Flex tickets are a VIP souvenir laminate and priority access, meaning you don’t have to wait in line. (Although, to be honest, when I was there, the line only lasted a grand total of 15-20 minutes.)
There are four (ish) connected space/rooms
The exhibition is situated inside the Lighthouse Artspace in Los Angeles. Once you get past the foyer and security check, you’ll walk into a neon entrance tunnel. On the other side, there’s a “waiting area” where there’s a little more light for you to snap pictures (it’s very difficult to take any inside) and trade in your tokens (if you bought the ticket for them) for a cushion you can sit on. You’ll have to wait in line again here, but it won’t be for long. Once in, you’ll find yourself in a large room. You can watch the show there, or in the adjacent space, where you can settle into one of the many social-distancing circles, and sit on the available chairs or your cushion.
You’ll have to dress for comfort
If you want to dress up, by all means, do. But I’ve found that keeping it casual in a pair of jeans worked best for me. You’re going to be sitting a lot, most likely on the floor. It’s a show, after all, so you want to make sure you’ll be able to soak it all in — in comfort.
It can get loud
As I mentioned, the show is set to a score, and the music does get loud. Personally, it never exceeded a level that bothered me. It does a good job to drown out sounds like footsteps of folks walking room to room, light chatter and any other kind of noise. But if you’re sensitive to loud noises, it might be worth bringing a set of headphones or ear plugs.
You can download the Lighthouse Immersive app for added interactivity
Remember that “waiting area” I talked about? Well, if you download the Lighthouse Immersive app, you’ll be treated to all sorts of reading material. Like, for example, a history of Van Gogh films, an insightful Q&A with Massimiliano Siccardi, creator of the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, and so much more about the artist himself. While you wait, you can also scan a QR code that’ll allow you to “write” to Van Gogh and your own personalized letter from him.