Special to Writing Dailey’s Organized Rambling!
An art-lover’s cumulative reflection on Beyond Van Gogh Sarasota.
The sunshine state of Florida has been in the news quite a bit as of late for reasons prompting some to boycott the low-hanging region of our country. Nevertheless, I ventured south earlier this month for my own healthy set of reasons: blue skies, poolside reading, and Van Gogh.
You see, it had been a solid eight years since I’d taken a spring break trip. And living in Michigan, where sunshine and Vitamin D are limited for about half of the year, I needed to get away to hotter climes, regardless of the other Ds: Disney, DeSantis, and Don’t Say Gay. Moreover, my personal D-is-for-depression required a change of scenery. So, with family eager to host, feed, and chauffeur me about, I fought through the limited visibility of an April snowstorm to successfully abandon my car at the Pellston Regional Airport and head to the big D of Detroit before alighting to Fort Myers.
I apologize for all of the Ds. Allow me to get back on track.
Prior to my arrival, my aunt asked me if I would want to see Beyond Van Gogh Sarasota with her and my 16-year-old cousin while I was visiting. Now, being the planner and art-lover I am, I purchased a ticket weeks before to attend Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience in Grand Rapids this summer. However, my cousin really wanted to experience the Experience with me, and with her being one of my favorite people, I said heck yes to the outing.
The phrase “immersive experience” always gets people hyped, as in 3D movies or virtual theme park attractions. I haven’t viewed many 3D films, and theme parks aren’t really my jam, but this was a truly phenomenal experience.
Upon entering the Starry Night Pavilion at University Town Center in Sarasota, I didn’t know what to expect, and I liked that. The three of us walked in and found ourselves on a winding path that was to bring attendees into the art immersion. The lane zigged back and forth, like an airport’s TSA cattle chute, taking us through backlit exhibition copy that provided historical information, background details, quotes, and touching excerpts from letters exchanged between the brothers, Vincent and Theo.
As one who minored in art history and fell in love with art at an early age, I was disappointed as some people raced through the reading portion, pushing past me, my aunt, and my cousin as if the experience was a race in which someone had to get to the end first. But the others who spent time poring over the verbiage brought a smile to my face–especially the little old lady moseying through with her walker. She stopped at each illuminated panel and read about Van Gogh, his life, struggles, and artistic journey–I tip my cliché artist’s beret to you, madame.
Once the prerequisite education concluded, we passed into an expansive room with a tall, tall ceiling, giant walls, and several large pillars. I’m not good at estimating, so suffice to say that every surface was big. With the projected exhibition on repeat, we entered in medias res as Van Gogh’s paintings were being created before our eyes. Sketches of trees, buildings, streetscapes, and human figures were forming, followed by the addition of color. By entering the inner sanctum of the Starry Night Pavilion, we had become part of Van Gogh’s world and his extensive portfolio.
Completely surrounded by artwork projected on all walls and pillar sides, we watched as the Impressionist works came to life, spilling down the surfaces and scrawling across the floor, seemingly pulling you into the works. Portraits blinked and winked at viewers, water waved and shimmered, florals crawled like wending vines down the walls and over to your feet, ensnaring you, just like tendrils controlled by DC villainess Poison Ivy (I’d share a video of the florals, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.).
Many attendees experienced the exhibit predominantly through their phone screens, recording videos and taking photos–both of which were allowed, sans flash–but I feel they kind of missed the essence of the immersion. It was like my visit to the Sistine Chapel in 2007, where photographs were prohibited. And still, frantic tourists filmed and photographed Michelangelo’s masterpiece without concern for the artwork or the rules. I just looked and soaked up what I could of the artist’s indescribable fresco work (I was probably also afraid of the devoted Vatican police.). It felt as if everyone was more interested in proving their experience than reveling at the moment.
While within the pavilion, I took a handful of photos and a couple of videos to show people who I knew wouldn’t be able to see it for themselves. But for the most part, I walked, stood, and even sat on the floor criss-cross-applesauce to absorb the unique presentation before me.
Further strengthening this artistic adventure was an original musical score, displays of quotes and additional letter excerpts, and readings in English and French. The tagline for Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, “Have you ever dreamt of stepping into a painting?” is accurate, but I’d take it a step further: “Have you ever dreamt of stepping into the mind of Van Gogh?”
Yes, the 360-degree projections, music, voiceovers, and historical details do put you directly into the paintings. Yet, with all of the lights, living paintings, dozens upon dozens of people talking and moving about, and the auditory aspects, it felt, at times, like you didn’t know where to look. Overwhelming is the wrong word–it was all-encompassing in a positive way. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the multifaceted sensory experience was reminiscent of what it might have felt like inside Van Gogh’s head. We all know he suffered from mental illness and struggled with his health, sadly passing away at the age of 37 before people had truly begun to understand and admire his creative vision.
This exhibit has been traveling around the world since 2017, showcasing 300 works so all may become better acquainted with Van Gogh. I feel lucky to have seen Beyond Van Gogh Sarasota while on vacation with two people who appreciated it as I did. And yes, I will be using my ticket this summer to become part of the art once again.
The Grand Rapids exhibit site has not yet been revealed, aside from hinting that it’ll be in a “central location.” I’ll leave you to speculate. I hope anyone interested and able shares in this cultural, informative, and beautifully crafted experience. It’s worth your time. I’ve been there, done that, and I’m already gearing up for Van Gogh—Round Two!
Coming up next:
Monday, May 16: The glamorous life of a writer