Visitors wearing VR headsets at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience in Washington, D.C.
Visitors wear VR headsets at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In a windowless room in a warehouse that once housed a Big Lots discount store, melancholy classical music fills the air. A British voice actor with Gary Oldman intensity chimes in through the speakers. “But in this death nothing sad,” he declares, quoting a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother in 1889. “It takes place in broad daylight.”

Replicas of the Dutch artist’s paintings hang on black walls. From a distance, the brush strokes look real, but they fade into two-dimensionality as I draw closer. To my left, a young boy tugs at his mother’s clothes. “Is this a real painting?” he asks, pointing to a print of “Wheatfield with Crows.” She responds: “No.”

We’re attending Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, which set up shop on Rhode Island Avenue NE in August 2021. Belgian company Exhibition Hub and Spanish events group Fever are behind this “experience,” which should not be confused with Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience (supposedly en route to D.C.), Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition, Immersive Van Gogh, or Van Gogh Alive

Why so many? For one, there’s a low barrier of entry: The artist’s paintings are in the public domain, so anyone can theoretically set up an immersive Van Gogh show.

It’s not just Van Gogh—ticketed “immersive” experiences are everywhere. Currently in the D.C. area alone, one can visit Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience at the National Geographic Museum, Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies, a “multi-sensory immersive show” at ARTECHOUSE, and Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition, an “augmented reality immersion into history” at the National Building Museum. We’ve had the chance to immerse ourselves in exhibits based on Friends, The Office, and Bridgerton. Experiences have even branched out into the wild: Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience opens in a Leesburg forest this fall.

Journalists have suggested that immersive Van Gogh shows boomed after Emily of Emily in Paris visited one in the show’s first season. Whether the craze was Netflix-fueled or not, it certainly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere two years after the episode’s premiere. On the Wednesday morning in July when I visited Van Gogh, a steady stream of people wandered through the exhibit, which has extended its stay numerous times, now running through November. “Reception has been incredible,” Santiago Santamaría Solera, head of communications at Fever, tells me over email. 

The young boy who inquired about “Wheatfield with Crows” is a kindergartner named Grant. His mom, Haylee Cousins, is a pilot who lives in Fairfax. Van Gogh is their first immersive experience, she tells me, and they’re heading to a couple Smithsonian museums later that day.

“If I just took him to the Smithsonian, which we’re doing after this, I’m not sure it’ll mean a lot to him, because there’s just paintings,” she says. “He got a bunch of souvenirs from the [Van Gogh] gift shop already, gift shop magnets and posters, and he’ll be more well-rounded for that.”

The next day, I ask her over email how their visits to Smithsonian museums went, and how they compared to the immersive show.

“The immersive experience was second to none,” she writes back. “Where else can you get inside the artist’s work?”

By the time Cousins wrote the email, she’d already purchased tickets to Fever’s next immersive D.C. show: Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Immersive Experience, which opened on Aug. 19.

A visitor explores Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Though the boom in “immersive experience” branding is new, immersive art is not. Californian artist James Turrell, a pioneer of the 1960s light and space art movement, immerses those who view his work via colored lights, enclosed spaces, and towering structures. In 2012, art collective Random International made a splash with Rain Room, an enclosed space that poured rain everywhere except for where a human body was detected, allowing its visitors to stay dry. Yayoi Kusama’s trippy installation art became an international—and Instagram—sensation years before photos of immersive Van Gogh exhibits appeared on social media feeds.

D.C. should know: In 2017, the Hirshhorn Museum debuted Infinity Mirrors, which featured six of the Japanese artist’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” the first of which she built in 1965. Her mirrored-wall rooms are approximately 15 square feet in size, but when you stand in the center of one, it appears as though the room, and whatever enchanting display Kusama has created within it, stretches out infinitely in all directions. Kusama created the installations to communicate her deepest traumas, her innermost existential questions, and her most cherished memories. Unintentionally, the 93-year-old offline artist also created one of the most popular Instagram backdrops of the year.

Five years later, a selection of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms are back at the Hirshhorn as part of One With Eternity, which is on display through Nov. 27. Betsy Johnson, the assistant curator who organized the exhibition, admits that Instagram appeal is partially responsible for drawing crowds.

“These large-scale immersive installations are very of the moment,” Johnson says. “But they also are rooted in a very personal exploration of: How do you convey an experience to another human? And how do you understand these immersive experiences she was having by herself? She was using art to process these things that were happening across her vision and in her mind. And I think because of that, it makes her work rigorous in a way that sometimes other types of immersive art can be lacking.”

Sandro Kereselidze and Tatiana Pastukhova have also been in the immersive art game for some time. In 2009, the D.C.-based couple launched Art Soiree, a studio that nurtured artists working at the intersection of art and technology. Out of Art Soiree came ARTECHOUSE, a space dedicated to showcasing such artists. They opened their doors on Maryland Avenue SW in 2017, and have since expanded to New York City and Miami.

ARTECHOUSE often uses the word “immersive” when promoting their exhibits—including its annual spring show, PIXELBLOOM, and its latest, Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies—but Kereselidze cringes slightly when I ask him about the word’s recent proliferation. The couple, traveling in Europe at the time, chatted with me over Zoom.

“From our perspective, it’s not just immersive. We call it experiential art and innovative art,” Kereselidze says. “Right now, we are sitting in Greece, and we’re immersing ourselves in beautiful weather. Life is an immersive experience.”

It’s hard to deny that Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies shares aesthetics with Van Gogh. In its first room, projections of Vince Fraser’s Afrofuturist art—collages featuring gold chains, intricate masks, and a mural of George Floyd—swoosh across the walls and floors, sometimes across a visitor’s arms and legs. Beanbag chairs are scattered throughout, beckoning you to settle down in the middle of the display. At Van Gogh and its competitors, rooms with central seating and massive, flowing projections of painter’s works are a staple.

But according to Kereselidze, ARTECHOUSE has little in common with the Van Goghs of the world. “It’s very different technologies we’re talking about. It’s like having the iPhone and having a beeper,” he says, differentiating ARTECHOUSE’s sophisticated technology from the more run-of-the-mill projection capabilities of many Van Gogh experiences. “We as a platform, as a place, we’re building for the next generation of artists, the place where we can find the next Van Gogh.”

Van Gogh—and now Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—are not the only late artists to receive the immersive treatment. Gustav Klimt, Claude Monet, and Pablo Picasso have been the subjects of similar experiences. This trend of shows claiming to let visitors “step into” the paintings of great, deceased artists doesn’t sit quite right with art historian Kim Sajet, who has served as director of the National Portrait Gallery since 2013.

“What you’re getting is actually a very strange look into somebody who’s long dead,” Sajet says, speaking about Fever’s Van Gogh. “Is this really what Van Gogh would want to do today?”

Sitting in a dark room at Van Gogh and seeing the artist’s paintings blown up to a scale they were never intended to reach, their saturated, rich colors dulled by the nature of digital projections, their subjects swirling and gliding from wall to wall, I have my answer to Sajet’s question: Probably not.

Visitors explore Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience

When I arrive at Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Experience on its opening day, an employee wearing a tissue paper flower crown checks my tickets. Above her hang banners of papel picado, a Mexican folk art. Beaming, she informs me that her floral headband is available for purchase in the gift store. The smell of fresh paint is pungent.

Mexican Geniuses debuted in London earlier this year, and opened its Brentwood location, tucked between sprawling parking lots and warehouses, on Aug. 19. The show follows the Van Gogh formula: It begins with a few rooms featuring reproductions of Kahlo and Rivera paintings alongside biographical information. Next, you enter the projection room, which features 40 minutes of swirling paintings and dramatized narration. From there, those who paid extra for a VIP ticket are invited to don headsets and watch a 10-minute virtual reality film before exiting to the gift shop.

The first typo in the exhibit’s copy I find is in the second paragraph of its introductory text. The immersive exhibit, it reads, gives viewers a chance to “delve dichotomy of experience.” I infer the left out words and move on, but shortly after trip over another mistake. Below two side-by-side prints of Rivera paintings are essentially the same accompanying paragraphs, but one appears to have been more thoroughly edited. “In his works, the proletarian force of Mexico, of the United States, or of the Soviet Union holds the progress of the century on its shoulders,” reads one caption. “His work depicts the proletariat of Mexico, the United States, or the Soviet Union carrying the century’s progress on their shoulders,” states the next. 

In the room devoted to Kahlo is a more befuddling mistake. A series of paintings accompany paragraphs that highlight different aspects of her life, with headings like “The Accident” and “International Recognition”—except every heading is off by one. The section titled “Diego & Frida” describes Kahlo’s infamous bus accident, but was obviously meant to title the next paragraph, which lives under the heading “Mexican Identity.” Next to that paragraph is “Motherhood,” which titles a section about Kahlo incorporating her Mexican identity into her work. Then comes “International Recognition,” which describes her desire for motherhood and the pain her unsuccessful pregnancies caused her.

Careful copy editing could have prevented the errors that permeate Mexican Geniuses, but it doesn’t seem that Fever or their collaborator, the Mexican tech company Brain Hunter, cared to partake in that process. When people are willing to pay $44.90 per ticket—or $64.90 for VIP—to visit a typo-ridden exhibit, why bother? (A Fever representative said Solara was not available to comment on the exhibit’s mistakes in time for this story’s publication.)

I move into the projection room. The show kicks off with uncanny valley CGI renditions of Kahlo and Rivera, who speak in strong Mexican accents. Forty minutes of animation follow: In one sequence, Kahlo’s “The Wounded Deer”—in which she depicts herself as a stag bleeding from arrows to symbolize the chronic pain that marked her life—prances around the room, eclipsing the painting’s painful message with silliness. In another, dozens of hammers and sickles are incorporated into a warping collage that also features sprouting flowers. The powerful proletariat symbol, meant to represent Kahlo and Rivera’s staunch communist beliefs, loses its meaning when it becomes an aesthetically pleasing desktop screensaver.

Mexican Geniuses regards Kahlo and Rivera less as great artists and more as fascinating foreign caricatures. Nowhere is this clearer than in the virtual reality film that tops off the show, which is included in my VIP press pass. In a room decorated with Día de los Muertos sugar skulls and Topo Chicos, I sit down, strap a headset on, and proceed to watch the 10-minute animation. It follows two glowing bubbles, meant to represent Kahlo and Rivera in the afterlife, as they float around La Casa Azul and talk through the issues that tormented them on earth—Rivera’s infidelity, primarily. “Even on this final trip, the shadows of your other women are still haunting me,” Kahlo’s orb confesses. She gets over it, and the two bubbles agree that now that they’ve found peace, they are ready to cross over to the other side. Sugar skulls line the way, and a mariachi band plays them off with “Cielito Lindo.”

Topo Chicos and “Cielito Lindo” represent Kahlo and Rivera about as much as Coca-Cola and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” represent Georgia O’Keeffe. To reduce them to a few symbols of Mexico that are palatable to Westerners—papel picádo, sugar skulls, mariachi bands—is racist. It also softens the heavy blows of their work, which does a disservice to paying audiences. Kahlo and Rivera were, each in their own right, geniuses. Their being Mexican does not qualify that.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, but as I exit the show, I find myself wondering if Kahlo and Rivera are out there somewhere, rolling over in their graves.

A photo board at Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Experience Credit: Darrow Montgomery

There’s a compelling argument to be made in favor of immersive experiences that focus on great, deceased artists: They democratize art. The quiet halls and unspoken decorum of museums can be daunting, as Cathy Frankel, vice president of exhibitions and collections at the National Building Museum, notes: “Museums are intimidating places.” 

In 2022, immersive experiences can provide an approachable alternative to buttoned-up galleries and exhibitions, encouraging viewers to pull out their smartphones, rather than bury them. “I grew up going to museums,” Frankel says. “I was lucky that way. But a lot of people aren’t, and don’t feel comfortable.”

And it’s not just the perceived expectations of museums. These institutions have an egregious history of systemic colonialism, racism, and of whitewashing the art world. Though Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 sparked an institutional reckoning led by people of color, museums both here and across the country still have a long way to go. 

At the Building Museum’s Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition, rather than smartphones being discouraged, an electronic device is built into the experience. The show is a collaboration between French startup Histovery and the public establishment overseeing the restoration of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral following the 2019 fire that severely damaged it. Though the exhibit is marketed as an “immersion” into history, you won’t find the windowless rooms covered in projections typical of most immersive experiences. Instead, it exists primarily within an iPad-size tablet called a Histopad. Using one, visitors unlock numerous virtual reality and animated “rooms” by walking around an actual room and scanning QR-like codes.

Though modest in physical size, the exhibit is packed with information, covering in detail everything from the arduous process of building the Notre-Dame, to a minute-by-minute timeline of the fire’s development. I walked out of the show feeling exhausted, in the satisfying way I do after spending hours wandering through a museum.

Notre-Dame, which opened in April, is not the Building Museum’s first exhibit with immersive aspects, nor was it their first attempt to make their elegant venue more approachable. In 2015, The BEACH transformed the museum’s Great Hall into a massive ball pit visitors could literally dive into. Their summer programs have also included 2018’s Fun House and 2019’s Lawn, similar interactive installations that also brought whimsy to the space.

Around those years, a different wave of Instagrammable “experiences” cropped up: the Museums of Ice Cream and Color Factories of the world, which are still around, charging around $40 for entry to a few decked-out rooms to take pictures in. “Us museum people were like, ‘Those are not museums,’” Frankel says. “We had a lot of conversations about [the Building Museum’s summer programs]. Are they museum-worthy? And is that what we should be doing?”

Yes, Frankel and her colleagues decided: Programs like The BEACH are worthwhile endeavors, because, while they are entertaining, they also attempt to answer questions about how humans interact with built environments—the Building Museum’s specialty.

“Some of these other ones that have popped up that are commercial, they feel a little bit different to me,” Frankel says. “I’ve not been to Van Gogh or any of those—I sort of don’t like the idea of it, and they’re expensive. But from people I know that have gone who are museum people, [they say] you’re not learning anything about the artists or their process, which I think is sort of a lost opportunity. I like to think, in museums, we’re adding that extra element.”

Whether it’s a lost opportunity to learn more or to connect face-to-face with the art in question, loss is something museum folks are worried about. Sajet, the National Portrait Gallery’s director, has visited Fever’s Van Gogh. She perceived the experience to be operating from “this idea that, in fact, the original Van Gogh isn’t good enough anymore.” It made Sajet wonder: “What is it going to be like for the people that actually then go … to the National Gallery and see Van Gogh. Are you going to be super disappointed?”

An image of Vincent Van Gogh at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“We believe Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience absolutely supplements the traditional museum experience!” Solera tells me on behalf of Fever, responding to my question of whether the show pushes audiences toward museums or takes them away. The company’s “truly immersive, breathtaking experience” grants visitors “a brand-new closeness to and understanding of this genius and his work,” he explains.

The evidence is less clear: Last winter in Dallas, Fever sold 100,000 tickets to Van Gogh in about two months, they told the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow. Meanwhile, the Dallas Museum of Art, which had an exhibition of Van Gogh’s olive grove paintings on display nearby, told the Journal they expected about 300,000 visits for the entire year.

If it’s unclear whether immersive experiences help or compete with museums, it’s certainly clear that they’ve encouraged some museums to change up their offerings. This year, the Louvre Museum in Paris partnered with Grand Palais Immersif to bring Marseille audiences Mona Lisa: An Immersive Exhibition, which wrapped up its five-month run in August. Newfields, formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art, turned heads in 2021 when it removed its contemporary art floor to make room for its own immersive gallery: THE LUME Indianapolis, which they built in collaboration with Australian company Grande Experiences. Their first show? An immersive Van Gogh experience.

Here in D.C., the National Geographic Museum has partnered with Paquin Entertainment, the group behind Beyond Van Gogh, to develop Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience, which debuted in June and runs through February. Coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the show walks you through what’s known about the young pharaoh’s life, what Egyptians believed about the afterlife, how Tut’s tomb was discovered (with a critical eye toward colonialism’s hand in shaping that narrative), and how he became a global sensation—all without a single physical artifact from Ancient Egypt.

Beyond King Tut is brimming with information, primarily packed into paragraphs printed on its walls. It also contains flourishes typical of immersive experiences: A re-creation of Tut’s tomb sits in the center of a room, doubling as a screen that plays a narrated video on loop. On the walls around it, hieroglyphs are projected from floor to ceiling. A much larger space, which looks just like the projection rooms of Van Gogh and Mexican Geniuses, displays an abstract film that’s meant to evoke King Tut’s afterlife. As I sit on a soft cushion, cartoonish depictions of Ancient Egyptians stretch up the walls around me. I’m enjoying Beyond King Tut, but in this room, I struggle to decipher the purpose of the animations that envelop me.

Jade Womack, who runs the popular events guide newsletter Clockout DC, has visited almost every local immersive experience the two of us could recall. She found Beyond King Tut to be a particularly powerful template for museums striving for justice.

“The exhibit has no artifacts whatsoever, and that is pretty novel,” Womack says. “You’re like, wow, can projections and these immersive projection experiences create ways to experience other cultures without having to depend anymore on artifacts? With this big movement about returning artifacts to their country of origin, it’s a really neat way, I think, that immersive experiences are gonna go.”

Womack’s observation rings true: Despite the absence of artifacts, I walked out of Beyond King Tut feeling schooled in Tutankhamun’s life and the geopolitics surrounding his legacy, though I don’t think the “immersive” aspects of the exhibit had much to do with that. It rings even more true for my visit to Notre-Dame, which was the most transportative of all the immersive experiences I’ve been to (not a bad deal for $10). There, the exhibit’s technology had everything to do with the immersive feeling it gave me. Histovery’s HistoPad feels like a thoughtful answer to a question: How can we submerge people as deeply as possible into the history of cultural heritage sites?

The question Van Gogh and Mexican Geniuses seem to be answering is not how to bring audiences as close to great artists as possible, but how to take as much money from their pockets as possible. The accessibility argument is tempting—true, the majority of the U.S. population cannot afford a trip to Amsterdam or Mexico City, where they can visit museums dedicated to Van Gogh, Kahlo, and Rivera—but is hard to make in the face of tickets that start at $44.90, offered in a city that has a wealth of artworks on display for free. (The profits of both exhibits are invested back into Fever, Solera tells me, so that the company can “continue to democratize access to culture.”)

For those interested, a light and projection show may be worth a pricey ticket simply for entertainment’s sake. In the projection room at Mexican Geniuses, I watched a wide-eyed toddler stumble around, smiling giddly as bright flowers swept around him. At Aṣẹ, I met Doris and Nuco Mejilla, and their son, Andres. As we talked, their baby boy’s eyes darted around the room. His joy was infectious.

But certain immersive experiences should market themselves as what they are: pure entertainment. When they promise a “brand-new closeness to and understanding” of a great artist, they attempt to pass as something more.

In 2018, New York Times cultural critic (and City Paper alum) Amanda Hess wrote about the rise in Instagram-friendly “museums” and “factories” like the Museum of Ice Cream. “By classifying these places as experiences, their creators seem to imply that something happens there,” Hess writes. “But what? Most human experiences don’t have to announce themselves as such. They just do what they do.”

That’s true for the “immersive” classification, too. Life’s most immersive experiences don’t give you a heads up ahead of time. Chatting with me over Zoom, ARTECHOUSE’s founders weren’t on an “immersive vacation” to Greece. They were just in Greece, immersed. Even shopping at the Columbia Heights Target, as DCist’s Colleen Grablick jokes, can be a pretty immersive experience.

After visiting One With Eternity and chatting with its curator, I had a little time to kill before a haircut appointment, so I took the escalator up to revisit the Hirshhorn’s other major temporary exhibition: Laurie Anderson’s The Weather

A diversity of works spanning the artist’s 50-year career are on display, but I end up spending almost all of my time in one large installation room called “Four Talks.” It’s been painted black, but only to serve as a template for an overwhelming collection of scribbles and streams of consciousness, which cover the walls and floor as if they were pages from a notebook doodled in during class. The drawings and messages, all of them painted by Anderson in bright white, range from sinister to silly. Surrounded by them all, I feel a bit dizzy.

“When my father died we put him in the ground. When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down,” read capital letters that stretch across the seam of one wall. Below my sneakers, the words “un perro con miel en la nariz come todo lo que ve” (a dog with honey on its nose eats everything it sees) make me smile. Across the room is a painting of a rose. Next to it: “An artificial flower is just as good as a real one because it reminds you of the real flower.” The proposition makes me wonder what Anderson makes of the “immersive experience” trend.

Losing track of time, I squat down to the floor and run my finger along the white bump of a brushstroke. It feels soft, and fragile, and real.