If you decide to Gogh, be prepared for decent visuals, a hefty debit charge, and a pun or two at the Beyond Van Gogh projection room at Albuquerque’s Sawmill District.
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—Pastoral landscapes of the Dutch countryside transition to self-portraits featuring work by the so-called painting maestro of his time. Floor projections often feel like an early-aughts pop-up rave. A lithe and out-of-context song, sort of like a non-chiptune soundtrack for The Legend of Zelda, punctuates the imagery with orchestral dramatization before transitioning to wine-and-cheese-by-the-fireplace, brass-muted trumpet jazz.
“I feel like we’re being brainwashed into becoming little van Goghs,” says my immersive +1 friend at Beyond Van Gogh.
That’s part of the point of the sensory-overloaded, 30,000-square-foot volcano of everything Vincent van Gogh, one of several recent “immersive” art experiences that have posted up in the Southwest. The simulated installation, which takes place six days a week through May 1, 2022 in Albuquerque (heads-up: it’s not cheap), sets out to spotlight, celebrate, and educate visitors about the artist from the Netherlands.
Somewhere in between the not-quite-there-yet projection mapping, the Miles Davis Plays for Lovers-style Jacuzzi jazz accompaniment, and the Gogh puns (but nearly not enough in my opinion), there’s a flashy “art” show that actually isn’t too cringe despite my initial surplus of skepticism.
The Albuquerque version of the worldwide exhibition is housed in an annex building catawampus from Sawmill Market and near the same parking lot as Mama’s Minerals. The experience opens, following a short intro from a greeter, with a darkened room that feels like a haunted airport security congregation. Here, we sheep-march through a slow-moving and cramped queue to learn about the artist.
The text, composed in the Queen’s English (“colour” instead of “color”) as well as Spanish, seems to be printed on stretched fabric that has been affixed to (and buckling in some instances) more than twenty in-your-face lightboxes. I honestly can’t retain much of the information due to the anxiety I feel from the snaking and jam-packed line behind me. And unless I’m missing something, there’s nothing about his sister-in-law Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, who helped promote van Gogh—without her, there would likely be a no-Gogh on Vincent van Gogh, immersive or otherwise.
Eventually and thankfully, we follow the “Gogh this way” signage out of the cramped quarters and into the main course, a three-dimensional video extravaganza that runs on a loop for approximately thirty-five minutes. More than 300 of van Gogh’s artworks, projected on the walls and floor, are supposed to wrap you in a wool blankie. Along with the indoctrination that my friend mentions, the visitor is meant to feel like they’re actually part of a van Gogh painting.
Promotional materials for Beyond Van Gogh tout the more than four trillion content pixels that are supposed to allow the viewer to become one with van Gogh’s artworks. I’m no expert in projection mapping but the technology, at times, seems equivalent to running Windows ’95 in a 2022 environment. In the exhibition, van Gogh’s dramatic color palette—various yellows, Prussian blue, emerald green, lead white—often lacks pop. It’s like his landscapes, still lifes, and self-portraits (which are my favorite part of the show, and include pieces I had never seen) were left out in the New Mexico high desert sun for multiple years.
I will say—and my friend agrees—that when the visuals hit, they indeed slay, but it was a few-and-far-between experience. By the end, I’m neither exhilarated nor bummed, but instead feeling a good solid average, like when I’m home after a swift and efficient trip to the grocery store. But that’s because I was privileged to receive press tickets.
The price tag for Beyond Van Gogh ranges from $23.99 for a child to $73.99 that includes “priority access to the exhibit and a Beyond Van Gogh merchandise package.” It’s just shy of $152, including fees and taxes, for two adults and two children purchasing general admission.
This is nothing new for the immersive art world. The cheapest ticket for Immersive Frida Kahlo in one city is $40 while the price tag for House of Eternal Return, Meow Wolf’s flagship installation in Santa Fe, has also bloated to $40 for general admission.
Instead of blowing a bunch of dough on an hour-long experience, why not instead pay for a yearly family membership to another cultural organization, such as a museum or a botanical garden? The membership could help support the local creative economy, ranging from cultural workers to artists, rather than an out-of-town production.
And why van Gogh and why Albuquerque? Unlike Frida Kahlo—who has been made “immersive” in cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Toronto—the long-gone European artist, not counting the mainstream mass appeal, seems off-brand for New Mexico. (Beyond Van Gogh has made numerous appearances in the Southwest, including Scottsdale, Arizona, Denver, and parts of Texas.)
I don’t quite get it, but it started getting hard to think straight after noticing that the Jacuzzi jazz had been replaced by a modern and generic three-chord progression. I didn’t know van Gogh painted The Starry Night along to Explosions in the Sky or whatever.
It’s cool though. I had a good time at the exhibition. But I don’t need to Gogh again.
Beyond Van Gogh is scheduled to run through May 1, 2022 at the Immersive Pavilion at Sawmill District, 1820 Bellamah Avenue NW in Albuquerque.
Update 5/7/2022: Beyond Van Gogh in Albuquerque will be closed through May 24, 2022 and then will extend/reopen through June 26, 2022.
Update 4/27/2022: Beyond Van Gogh in Albuquerque has been extended through May 30, 2022.