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FEATURE | Inside Immersive Van Gogh

By Paula Citron on August 31, 2020

We take a deep dive into the fabulous Van Gogh Immersive exhibit in Toronto.

Immersive van Gogh
Immersive van Gogh (Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Immersive)

Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, Gogh by Car Preview (Drive-In), until Oct. 12; Timed Admission (Walk Thru), until Nov. 1. 1 Yonge St. Tickets available here

There are roughly 130 art museums in Paris, so in a city so richly served, why would two million people schlep to a former cast iron foundry in the 11th arrondissement to see a digital projection show?

To find out what all the fuss was about, Toronto impresario Svetlana Dvoretsky of Show One Productions visited L’Atelier des Lumières last year, and took in the exhibit called Van Gogh, Starry Night. She was profoundly moved by what she experienced, so much so, that she encouraged fellow Toronto producer Corey Ross of Starvox Entertainment to see the show, and he was hooked.

Together, they formed Lighthouse Immersive Inc. to be a space in Toronto for immersive art. This is a first for both of them. Dvoretsky is usually associated with opera, ballet and theatre, while Ross is into concert promotion and musical theatre, although he did move into new directions by presenting The Art of Banksy in 2018.

What Is Immersive Art?

When Dvoretsky tries to explain the Paris experience, she finds it difficult to find the words. “It’s a show that is based on science and technology,” she says, “but one that also combines visual and sound elements in perfect harmony that really gets under your skin. The exhibit takes you into the mind of Van Gogh, the creator. It’s a subjective look at how those masterpieces came about. Immersive art is a new and different form of art. It is not just interactive, but immersive. You live through Van Gogh’s creative genius with the artist himself.”

“You live through Van Gogh’s creative genius with the artist himself.”

For his part, Ross describes the new art form as, “a world of experiential entertainment”. In immersive art, the visitor moves through space. The architecture of the building itself becomes part of the art. By necessity, an immersive art space has to be cavernous, so that when the towering walls and floor are covered in the projected images, as are the visitors, it is a complete transformation of an industrial building. Says Ross, “Van Gogh’s paintings are deconstructed into elements. You see slabs of paint in terms of brushwork, texture and colour. His technique is heightened. Images envelop each other, and morph and change and blend and merge. The sheer size and scope make it an emotional experience. It is art that causes a unique type of participation in the viewer.”

Image courtesy of Van Gogh Immersive

In short, the creators of immersive art are themselves interpretive artists, which is reflected in how they have put the show together — particularly in how they have directed the light and motion. Custom-designed, space-specific projections animate the intricacies of Van Gogh’s paintings as elements are isolated, “like a DJ sampling music,” Ross opines. Light, sound and high definition digital projections are woven into a precise tapestry that has been described by one writer as, “psychedelic animation”. For the viewer, it is a totally personal and subjective experience as you make your journey through the space.

Getting The Show To Toronto

When Dvoretsky and Ross reached out to L’Atelier des Lumières about bringing Van Gogh, Starry Night to Toronto, the arts space would have nothing to do with them. Thus, the producers went in search of other immersive shows in places like London and Moscow, and what they found were knock-offs that ranged from mediocre to terrible.

“I hear you’ve been looking for artists for immersive art.”

Then one day, Ross’ phone rang. It was the manager of Massimiliano Siccardi, a leading light behind L’Atelier’s immersive shows as a creator, director and designer. “I hear you’ve been looking for artists for immersive art,” the manager said. It turns out that Siccardi was leaving L’Atelier, which had exercised heavy editorial control over creative work. To add to the good news, Siccardi was bringing with him composer Luca Longobardi and art director Vittorio Giudotti. The three Italians are considered pioneers in the field of immersive art.

Finding The Space

Ross had presented The Art of Banksy in a former ammunitions factory, so he understood industrial sites, particularly immersive art’s need for humongous ceiling height. For example, an immersive show in Milan that the Italians had worked on took place in a former factory that made electric trams, while Leipzig’s space was a former thermal power station. The Italians felt drawn to places that had some historic or iconic significance, or were important to a city.

Dvoretsky and Ross chose a site in the west end, where parts for the Avro Arrow had been manufactured. And then disaster struck. In December, 2019, the landlord was offered a long-term lease on half the building which severely diminished Lighthouse’s space. It was back to the drawing board. “The landlord really took advantage of us,” says Dvoretsky, with some degree of bitterness. It also cost them time.

It just so happened that Ross was driving by the Toronto Star building and remembered the huge annex where the printing presses had been. On a personal note, when I was freelancing at The Star, I witnessed the nightly ritual when the pressmen came out to the street on their break, wearing those funny hats that they made out of newspaper pages. The presses had been removed in 1992 when The Star moved its printing operation to a state of the art facility in Vaughan.

Since then the vast space had been used for occasional fundraisers and other special events. Their landlord this time was the real estate development firm Pinnacle International. To the producers, Pinnacle was manna from heaven, and the corporation bent over backwards to accommodate Lighthouse.

This meant that Siccardi and company had to readapt the Van Gogh exhibit to the new venue. A show that was supposed to open in December, was now slated for May. When it came to the equipment, in a time of plague, no place would rent or lease to an entertainment company, believing they would never open, and so the producers had to shell out megabucks to buy the projectors and sound system.

Immersive Van Gogh Toronto

Much to the surprise of Dvoretsky and Ross, Siccardi wanted to create a brand new show, which is why the Toronto exhibition is a world premiere. I reached Siccardi in Spain, specifically, in an Andalusian village of eight people. (“A good place for study and creation,” apparently.)

In the several Van Gogh exhibits that Siccardi had worked on previously, the producers had not wanted the artist’s madness and suicide to be included. Rather, the concentration had been on Van Gogh, the artist. Says Siccardi, “This time I wanted to focus on Van Gogh the man. His friend, Paul Gauguin, took Van Gogh to task for using too much colour, while complaining about the thickness of his brushstrokes. Nonetheless, Van Gogh’s life is embedded in the violence and intensity of those brushstrokes.”

Siccardi kindly provided me with a script, written jointly with Longobardi and Giudotti. The title is Vincent, the Genius of Madness, and in twelve brief chapters, the projections portray the artist’s progression from the joyful yellow of the sunflowers, to his stay at the asylum in Arles, to the moody meditation of the starry night.

Image courtesy of Van Gogh Immersive

Of course, visitors to the exhibit are not privy to this narrative. Rather, they experience the seamless sweep of the projections as a stream of consciousness. They are in the mind of the artist, caught up in both his creative genius, and his tortured soul. They are experiencing Van Gogh’s story through his art. Dvoretsky sees the Toronto show as being more cutting edge than the Paris exhibit, while Ross sees a much stronger narrative line.

Drive-In Van Gogh

When lockdown happened in March, the exhibit was effectively closed. Ross then came up with the drive-in idea. In consultation with their lawyer, it was determined that if you could drive-in to a Tim Horton’s, you could drive-in to the exhibit.

With Siccardi’s permission to use the same projections as the main gallery, the drive-in would keep Van Gogh Immersive open until walkers were allowed back in. Thus, the producers contacted Pinnacle to take on the entire space instead of just the one gallery they had contracted for the walk-ins. The second gallery had the loading dock ramp, and friends and family brought their cars so they could determine how many autos they could fit in. Tickets were advertised.

And then the Ontario government dealt a blow by announcing that drive-ins were now part of Stage 2, and so the drive-in idea was dead in the water. When Toronto was allowed to go to Stage 2, museums, art galleries and now drive-ins would be allowed to open, which is how both arms of the exhibit didn’t begin until July. Says Ross, “Even though visitors could now walk-in, we kept the drive-in component because so many tickets had been sold, and it continues to be really popular. We call the drive-in exhibit a preview, and give free tickets so that the car people can come back to experience the walk-in exhibit.”

And as a side note, initially Siccardi thought the drive-in idea was crazy, but upon further reflection, thought it was interesting because the experience would be different, particularly because the car seems to be moving. He has yet to try the drive-in.

The Creative Process

Siccardi was a dancer, choreographer and stage director before moving into immersive art. “For me,” he says, “there is a connection between dance and images. The images in the projections are dancing, and I choreograph them.” Most of the images in the exhibit come from four famous paintings: The Potato Eaters (1885), Sunflowers (1888), The Bedroom (1889) and The Starry Night (1889), but many other works were used as well, including Van Gogh’s many self-portraits.

The first step of creation was a production meeting which took place in Rome. “I told the team the narrative line,” Siccardi explains. “Through this world of words, I laid out the story. It was a motivational first meeting to get the team to feel what I was feeling.” Out of this meeting came the script written by Siccardi, Longobardi, and Giudotti.

To choose the images for the exhibit, Siccardi watched high resolution images of the paintings, while deciding which particular elements within the works were the most important to the artist. He also did a great deal of research into Van Gogh’s life, and was particularly influenced by Il mistero van Gogh by Costantino D’Orazio (2019). The book, which was in turn inspired by the diary of Van Gogh’s nephew, takes the revolutionary view that the artist was not a mad genius but a visionary ahead of his time. Says Siccardi, “Choosing the images by deconstructing the paintings is a combination of instinct on my part, and relevance to the artist.”

“My concept of immersive art is a silent movie without the explanation text.”

Siccardi sees himself as a director, much like a film director, and the projections like cinematography. The projections are specific to the space and surfaces. They are staged to the space. For example, the Toronto site has columns, and Siccardi had to direct the projections around them and deal with the visual fragmentation they caused. “The details are my actors,” he says. “I choose the images so I can ensure that the exhibit will conform to my vision.”

At the second production meeting, the group conceived the scenes in space, and Siccardi’s lovingly chosen images were given over to Giudotti’s graphic, digital and animation teams to create the projections. Siccardi then engaged in pixel mapping, deciding where on the walls each image will fall, and which camera would be used. Next came the floor images. States Siccardi, “Without the floor projections, there is no immersive experience, because those images are the ones that hit the spectator, where they see the images projected on themselves.”

The director cites the finale as an example of his vision coming first. “Usually, you want the ending to excite an emotional high in the spectator, accompanied by a musical crescendo, but I wanted the opposite — a meditation on the landscape. When the finale was finished, it wasn’t quite what I wanted, so I had to go back and redesign and rebuild the whole thing from scratch.”

While Siccardi concedes that without computer technology there would be no immersive art, he also insists that it remain behind the scenes. “The computer makes sure all the parts are working together, and that’s all,” he says. “I don’t want the spectator to think about technology. My concept of immersive art is a silent movie without the explanation text. We are writing a new work on Van Gogh, and the narrative is based only on the emotions that the audience feels. I hope this exhibit makes people want to see the real paintings.”

Image courtesy of Van Gogh Immersive
Image courtesy of Van Gogh Immersive

The Music

Composer/pianist Longobardi was reached in Rome. His relationship with Siccardi goes back ten years when he wrote music for the latter’s choreography. Just like Siccardi controls the images, Longobardi controls the music. He is, by admission, music supervisor, composer, pianist, recording and sound engineer, music editor, and in charge of something called audio restoration.

Longobardi says that his approach to this new art form is to first walk around the huge spaces that are the venues for immersive art, the spaces that he has to fill with sound. “Immersive art,” he says, “is the marriage between location, walls and floor. That’s what makes the magic happen. A transformation occurs because there is an emotional link to the physical place, and through projections and sound in that space, we are telling people what we think of the artist behind the art.”

His soundtracks are a mix of found music and his original compositions. The found music in Van Gogh Immersive is certainly eclectic to say the least, from classical composers Bach, Handel, Mussorgsky and Barber, to Theosophist guru Helena Blavatsky, iconic chanteuse Edith Piaf, Japanese actress/singer Meiko Kaji, Mexican electronica master Murcof, and Britishers, songwriter Guy Sigsworth and Thom Yorke from the rock band Radiohead. It should be noted that along with four original compositions, Longobardi also “recomposed” Handel and Barber, and converted a Bach cello suite to a piano version.

“Seeing the show is liberating, because you can express feelings you are keeping inside. I want the images and music to move hearts.”

Longobardi began to put the soundtrack together by first concentrating on the man behind the art. “Van Gogh,” he says, “is both a complicated and contemporary person, and as an artist, I can relate to that. The Paris production was a survey of his life and art, but this new exhibit is more psychological — what is going on in Van Gogh’s mind. For that reason, the music is not linear. The Paris version was mostly classical music, while for this new version, I wrote more original compositions to reflect Van Gogh’s contemporary persona. I also did research on Toronto culture and felt this city would appreciate a more complex soundtrack.”

According to Longobardi, there is a deep connection between the music and the images, and they are born together. His music supports the image. It is not just background. Like Siccardi, he wants people to feel what he feels in his personal experience with the music. Says Longobardi, “The speed of the animation differs from scene to scene and the music has to follow. For example, when the stars from The Starry Night fall to the ground, the audience needs the time to really see them, so the speed is slow, and so is the music. Massimiliano and I know by instinct how long sequences should be.”

The selection of music is so precise, that time is even spent on deciding which specific performer or conductor to choose when it comes to an extant recording. “It has to be the right interpretation,” says Longobardi. He also stresses that the soundtrack has to be one long continuous score, which means that a piece of music might be perfect for a sequence of images, but might not fit with the music that comes before or after. “I’m creating one huge symphony,” he points out. “Music editing for me is like composing.”

Longobardi sees putting together immersive art as putting together pieces of a puzzle. Elements of a painting are isolated and Siccardi directs them — up, down, right, left, back, front. It is a visual display of transitions, with the most minute detail being carefully scrutinized, all of which impacts on the music. Explains Longobardi, “How we present a particular element is very important, like deciding the physicality of how one sunflower should move. How fast, how slow? Or, how do we recreate the brushstroke that Van Gogh used in putting yellow on the canvas for sunflowers. We’re actually having to invent and reinvent animation techniques when we create these shows.”

For his final thought, Longobardi hopes that the immersive art experience makes Van Gogh present in the lives of the spectator. “Seeing the show is liberating,” he says, “because you can express feelings you are keeping inside. I want the images and music to move hearts.”

Immersive Van Gogh By The Numbers

The show is just 35 minutes long, but it is intense. The two galleries comprise 60,000 square feet of space, with the walls rising five storeys. There are 53 video projectors with 360 degrees of animated cells and 16 kilometres of fibre optic cable. There are 600,000 cubic feet of projections and 90 million pixels. This exhibit is, apparently, the largest video installation in the country.

There are 10 cars allowed per showing in the drive-in, and 200 people per hour are allowed at the walk-in. Circles are painted on the floor to ensure social distancing, and you can move to a circle when someone vacates it. Since the exhibit is on a loop, many people stay for a second or third go round. An exact count is made as people leave after a showing, and only that amount of new people are allowed to enter. Over 100,000 visitors have seen the show, with an average of 1500 people visiting the exhibit every day.

The lobby is a busy place. There is a Lavazza Café featuring specially made Van Gogh inspired eclairs, a classy gift shop, and a paint your own t-shirt by numbers station. A real cool idea is the Van Gogh yourself photo booth, where your picture is taken, and by the wizardry of technology, is turned into a Van Gogh masterpiece. There is also an early morning fitness class run by dancer/certified trainer Amy Walsh within the walk-in gallery.

It took many people to create the exhibition and mount it into the galleries, but only one computer technician is required to run it.

The Immersive Experience

I did both the drive-in and the walk-in, and they were quite different experiences. While the car was static, you felt it was moving up and down, which was a bizarre sensation, but your gaze was fixed on only what you could see. The walk-in gallery is quite beautiful because the columns are covered with mirrors that reflect the projections. Because you can walk around, you can see the exhibit from different vantage points, and each change of position presents a new visual delight.

What I found most illuminating was seeing the elements taken out of the paintings. For example, I didn’t know that that the sky in The Starry Night was made up of very small overlapping sections of thick blue paint. I had thought that Van Gogh had painted long blue streaks. As well, the people in The Potato Eaters are much more individualized when you see them supersized. I also had never noticed a swath of pink in a wheat field.

It filled my eyes to the point where various elements from the paintings floated through my thoughts for the next few days.

The animation is breathtaking — the sun bursting forth over the daffodils, water shimmering in moonlight, the plants growing from their roots upward. And then there is the seamless passage between the images. There is also a special treat — a small enclosed Mirror Room within the gallery where images are reflected and refracted to a dizzying degree.

There are two major impressions that I am taking away from the exhibit. The first is the savage, muscular energy of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. To see them made large and isolated from the whole is to see the passion in the art. The second is Van Gogh’s explosion of colour. It filled my eyes to the point where various elements from the paintings floated through my thoughts for the next few days.

End Notes

Dvoretsky and Ross have a third partner — Slava Zheleznyakov — who luckily owns a construction company, and who oversaw the renovations that had to be made to the galleries to bring them up to code.

Says Ross, “What are our next moves? Well, we hope to develop Canadian immersive art talent. We also would like to partner with other cities to mount exhibits, but we will never surrender control.”


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Paula Citron
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