Immersing Yourself in Van Gogh

Imagine living inside the bold colors, textures, and images of a Van Gogh painting – music swelling as the lush visuals move around you. It can be experienced rather than imagined, by going to the Immersive Van Gogh Experience in NYC through September 6 (tickets are limited and it seems to be sold out the last weekend, so act quickly), and in cities all over the United States and Canada over the next year. I went to the exhibit on the East River here in Manhattan recently, and some of my tips about visiting will be specific to the NYC exhibit while others are more general and should apply to other locations.

The NYC experience is at Pier 36 on the East River, closest to Montgomery Street and South Street on the Lower East Side, between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. The 75,000 square foot interior space was designed by Broadway set designer David Korins (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen), a collaboration unique to New York.

Tickets can be – and should be – purchased in advance, and prices range from $39.99-$69.99 depending on the day of the week and the time of day. Masks are required, and the numbers are limited to keep the experience uncrowded as well as covid-safe.

Before entering the immersive area, there is a reminder of the basic facts of Vincent Van Gogh’s life – his production, lack of success during his lifetime, and posthumous spectacular fame. When MoMA first reopened last year, it was eerily uncrowded, and I posted a selfie of myself in front of his “Starry Night” in part because you normally can’t get ever close enough to see it properly.

The first two rooms in the New York exhibit are smaller, and feature mirrored pieces designed by Korins to refract the larger projections on the walls and let you catch glimpses of yourself caught in the visuals. I noticed that many people got to the first room or two and stopped, and those rooms were more crowded as a result. My first tip would be that when you first enter, walk through the entire exhibit and see everything briefly before settling down to one spot. Also, visuals and music are on an about a 30 minute loop, so try to figure out where you are in the loop (if you see images from the asylum at Arles, with those crows of foreboding, you are near the end). Ideally you would see the entire “show” in one space, and in NYC the best space is the third gallery, which is enormous and has seating.

The third gallery in NYC also has an elevated platform, but my own personal experience was that being there felt less immersive that being on the floor. And what is the experience like? To me, I kept being reminded of an experience at the Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (no longer offered, sadly) called “Sonic Vision.” That show featured music from Radiohead, Moby, and others, and the music at Immersive Van Gogh is mainly original music by creator Luca Longobardi, but ranges from Thom Yorke and Edith Piaf to Handel and Mussorgsky (see the Spotify playlist here).The somewhat overwhelming experience of being immersed in visuals with music is trippy – I used to say that going to Sonic Vision allowed me to go on a psychedelic trip safely without having to take drugs. There is an element of that here – but with somewhat of a storyline to the experience, and the knowledge of what Van Gogh’s life was like, there was an emotional depth to it as well. You can stay as long as you would like, but I would suggest you need at least an hour – the time you figure out the space before another loop of the experience begins, the entire (about 30 minute) presentation, and time to go back and take photos or see things you might have missed in the first walk through. You can go back and forth between the galleries.

There is an extensive gift shop as you exit, and not just Van Gogh related (not sure why “I’m glad you are as weird as me” candles were included), before you exit and find yourself right on the East River on Pier 36, walking along the back of the building to get back to reality. The real world is discernibly less vivid – but Van Gogh lived in the real world and was able to create gorgeous hyper-reality with his imagination, so the exhibit serves as a reminder to dream in color. I have no idea what Vincent himself would think of this exhibit, and I did wonder that a few times while there, but what would life be indeed, if we had the courage – as he did – to attempt anything?

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