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Immersive Van Gogh exhibits paint a new way of experiencing art


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Vincent van Gogh, he is the quintessential art world phenomenon, both for his art and life story.

But now he's everywhere in a new way, the center of a boom in what are called immersive art experiences.

Jeffrey Brown immersed himself in Seattle, before the Omicron surge, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Blossoms waving in the wind, sunflowers falling all around, a starry night, the likes of which you have never seen.

John Zaller, President, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience: For us, what this immersive experience is, it's from the minute you walk in to the minute you leave that you're fully enveloped in the spirit of van Gogh.

Jeffrey Brown: John Zaller is executive producer of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, a van Gogh, he says, for our age.

John Zaller: We're doing what van Gogh might have done if he had the technology that we have today. We're using his works to create the next version of his works by adding the motion, adding the animation, adding the energy to bring the life to his work that is already there.

Jeffrey Brown: We met Zaller in Seattle, one of 10 cities now hosting his company's exhibition. But even that is just a small part of the immersive boom in nearly 40 cities in the U.S.

In addition to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, there's the Immersive Van Gogh, Beyond Van Gogh, Van Gogh Alive, and Imagine Van Gogh. Some cities, including Seattle, even have competing exhibits.

It's a bit confusing, but, like the artist himself, very popular. Zaller's company estimates about 50 percent of its audience has never set foot in a museum before coming to see this van Gogh.

John Zaller: He is such a public figure. He is kind of like a rock star or a brand name in the art world. It's incredibly emotive, and people can connect with it. It doesn't necessarily require an art degree to approach and engage with a van Gogh, a van Gogh painting.

Jeffrey Brown: In one sense, it's nothing new. From "Lust For Life" in 1956 and a slew of other films, books, and exhibitions, the fascination has continued, the art, with its vibrant colors and textures, the drama of van Gogh's life and early death.

Now, in immersive experiences like this one, guests come face to face with a giant 3-D bust of the artist himself, move past projections of his most famous works, and put on headsets and take a virtual reality walk through the countryside he painted.

You can personally enter van Gogh's bedroom in Arles, and sit as long as you want in front of 30-foot walls of moving images, with mood music.

Actor: I put my heart and soul into my work, and I lost my mind in the process.

Jeffrey Brown: And lines from van Gogh's letters, recited by an actor.

You can also color your own masterpiece, which is where we met Joseph and Kaiden Aksama, happily here on an anniversary date.

Joseph Aksama, Exhibit Visitor: I think there's no beating seeing the actual paintings in person, but seeing them come to life like this is definitely something I have never seen before and absolutely something that I would do again.

Kaiden Aksama, Exhibit Visitor: I think it really enhances the experience, to see what art looks like in another way like that, animated, and it's just...

Joseph Aksama: Truly, fully immersive.

Jeffrey Brown: But, remember, these are digital representations. There are no actual artworks here.

So just what is this experience?

We asked University of Washington Professor Marek Wieczorek to take a look.

Marek Wieczorek, University of Washington: I was curious. I must say, as an art historian, I might have had a slight bias, you know, thinking, OK, I teach van Gogh in the classroom.

How is this immersive experience going to compete with what I do? I really enjoyed going, because what I saw was people who enjoyed themselves. And, ultimately, I think that's what any experience with art is about.

On the other hand, there were a lot of things where, as an art historian, I thought, OK, this is not right. Are we really getting the experience of Vincent van Gogh? If we look at Starry Night on the museum of modern art Web site and compare it to the video you see in the exhibition, it's like two different paintings.

Jeffrey Brown: Wieczorek, a modern art scholar who happens to be Dutch, just like van Gogh, wants us to see both what this is and what it's not.

Marek Wieczorek: It is cool. But when you stand in front of a van Gogh painting, the light doesn't have to come from that light box, but from the color, the optical mixing of complementary colors.

In thinking about what is lost in translation in this exhibition, the light box effect, which is what makes light come at you in an over -- overall almost overwhelming way, the scale, the materiality, but especially the optical mixing.

Jeffrey Brown: Compare, for example, a photo shown of a painting sold at auction and the projected version of it nearby. The colors, he points out, are completely different, The texture of the brush strokes lost. It may be very cool, indeed, but it's not what van Gogh created.

Marek Wieczorek: It's like, wow, what is this? It's fireworks.

I would say van Gogh's work, in itself, is fireworks. What you lose in this exhibition, in a way, what is taken away from you by being presented an image of van Gogh that is not van Gogh is the essence of your participation. In a way, you're robbed.

Jeffrey Brown: But neither the professor nor we want to spoil an experience people like Johanna Fagen and Constance Trollan, veteran museum-goers and van Gogh aficionados, clearly enjoyed.

This isn't going to change you going to museums?

Constance Trollan, Exhibit Visitor: No. No. No.

Johanna Fagen, Exhibit Visitor: No. No, no, no. We will always go to museums. We're museum-goers.

Constance Trollan: We will -- yes.

We will always go to the museums, but it is different to be here and to sit in one of those projections. It's a much different experience.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's an experience that's only growing, with more artists being brought into the act all the time.

John Zaller's company is producing exhibits with new artists.

John Zaller: There's an expectation on the part of the public for these more immersive experiences. And that's going to drive -- that's going to continue to grow.

I mean, we -- you look around at other things that are happening with virtual reality experiences and augmented reality. Everything is -- every level of experience is being elevated or more is being added onto it. So, I think it will continue.

Jeffrey Brown: And if this isn't for you, or you prefer a curated, digital experience at home, Marek Wieczorek recommends museum Web sites that capture in fine detail masterworks by van Gogh and other artists.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Seattle.

Judy Woodruff: Either way, it is fascinating.

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