Editor’s Note: This is an expression by Danielle Levsky in response to Immersive Van Gogh Chicago in an Episodic Narrative form; it is followed by information about the work and process.
Immersive Van Gogh Chicago is not just an art exhibit; there are no placards that tell you which painting comes from which year and which city. Instead, it combines visual art, cinematography, music, and immersive theatre to create a flowing and transformative visual show.
As an audience member, you pass through Vincent Van Gogh’s largest works and key places in his life. You see the paintings in non-chronological order, and yet, they still paint a clear picture of the artist’s ongoing and pervasive struggles and wonders, nightmares and dreams.
Back in December, I finally made time to go to my yearly medical checkups. I had admittedly been avoiding them because of the pandemic. I figured that by putting it off as long as possible I would somehow reduce my risk of exposure.
Going through my doctor’s visits–the dentist, the gyno, the dermatologist–everything in my body seemed to be a little worse for wear. I figured this was as a result of the pandemic (and oh, fine, age), that it was normal. My visit to the optometrist proved to be a more terrifying encounter: my doctor found a hole in my retina. Trying to reduce my panic, she explained that all it would require was a routine, laser eye procedure to cauterize the hole. So it wouldn’t tear any further across my retina.
“If you start seeing floaters, what looks like small flies or gnats, give us a call immediately,” my doctor said to me.
It’s February and I’m wandering around the grandiose hall of the Lighthouse Art Space, wondering what three mirrored versions of the 2001 Space Odyssey monoliths were doing scattered through the room. My photographer talked of composition, of breaking up the room so it wouldn’t feel so small. I looked up at the tall ceiling, the expanse of the room that dipped into a labyrinth; who could feel small here?
The show does not begin at the start of Van Gogh’s life, but somewhere in the middle, where flies fly from wall to wall and he is swatting away at insects. For a moment, I panic, and then refocus; these were the insects that flew around him as he sat outside amongst the plants, swatting away and trying to convey what was in front of him.
I went to a retinal specialist on referral from my optometrist. The assistants to the doctor explained the procedure and dilated my eyes. I squinted at the lights around me, moving from room to room. The specialist repeated the process of the procedure, and then in I went.
What happened next I have tried my best to forget, but it always comes back in my dreams. A bright green light shining in and out of different corners of my eye. The jarring pain that came with each point of the laser. The moments when I could not see anything at all, except an oppressive white light. The specialist would tell me to keep looking left, but I wasn’t sure where “left” was anymore. When it was over, I just about ran out of that office, sobbing and worried I had somehow messed up my own eye because of my anxiety in the procedure.
The projections oscillated from one to another, color slowly building up across the canvas of the walls to reveal Van Gogh’s sunflowers–that memorable yellow. Brush strokes and detail and color would fade into darkness, momentary glitches of images would flash, and then, color would build up again and we’d be transported to the quiet and dark scenes of potato eaters in Nuenen, Netherlands. Then again the memories would fade like the reverse process of a polaroid camera, and then again we’d be transported to another point in Van Gogh’s life and artistic journey.
I walked through the rooms, past and through and sometimes into landscapes, still lifes, portraits of others, and self-portraits, all breathtaking and all swirling into one another. Olive trees and wheat fields moved toward and away from the audience like live creatures. The monoliths reflect parts of the walls back on themselves, allowing for audience members to stare into multiple depths of paintings at once. Multiple attendees muttered something about an acid trip.
I chuckled but looked at the walls in worry. What must have been going through this poor man’s mind as he looked, looked, and looked again to capture and recapture what he says, never fully satisfied with his mind or his art.
Getting home, I was instructed prior to the procedure to avoid screens and lights as much as I could help it for the rest of the afternoon and night. I called some friends and family, listened to them pity me over the phone for a few minutes, then lied about having to get going. Eventually, I ate some fruit, took a bath, and then listened to a few records I hadn’t touched in months. Self-soothing was accompanied by the very real realization and settling feeling that I would need to change my habits, my ways with how I treated my eyes.
I need to severely limit my screen time, I thought. And I need to spend more time looking into the distance. And get rid of these ridiculous overhead lights.
I blinked and stared at the tree outside my window, worried.
All while the paintings assembled and disassembled themselves across the wall, music played. Tears filled my eyes as “Non je regrette rien” by Edith Piaf filled the room, and I remembered, suddenly, years ago, being surrounded by my family on a warm summer day, slightly tipsy and singing Piaf’s words with abandon. I looked toward my mother and she had tears in her eyes.
“My girl,” she spoke in Russian tenderly.
The exhibit’s walls continued to grow and shrink across a beautiful landscape of yellows and greens and greys and blues, each painted element emerging from the consciousness of the artist.
“I dream my painting and I paint my dream,” Van Gogh once said.
Shifting my eyes from wall to wall, I felt caught somewhere in between.
Immersive Van Gogh does just what it promises for its audience; you are dropped into and around the presence of his works, like Les mangeurs de pommes de terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885), La nuit étoilée (Starry Night, 1889), Les tournesols (Sunflowers, 1888), and La chambre à coucher (The Bedroom, 1889), and more.
Designed and conceived by Massimiliano Siccardi (animation/direction) and Luca Longobardi (soundtrack), this team of pioneers in the immersive digital art experience realm gathered a team of artists, cinematographers, music, immersive theatre artists, and more to work on producing this exhibit through technical manipulation and projected images over the course of 30 years. Now, it tours the world in its final culmination.
Immersive Van Gogh performances occur now through September 6 at Lighthouse Art Space at Germania Club, 108 West Germania Place. More information and tickets can be found through their website at vangoghchicago.com
Danielle Levsky (she/her/hers) is the Theater Editor of Scapi Magazine. She is a feminist, Jew, poet, essayist, performance artist, and instructional designer. In addition to her work at Scapi, she has covered community news, arts reviews, lifestyle editorials, and cultural events for several publications. Between February 2018-2019, she completed a fellowship where she wrote a collection of community-engaged essays about her identity and heritage. She also writes typewriter poems on demand with Poems While You Wait. Follow her on her poetry Instagram to read some works in progress.