Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Belfast, Arts Review

By Conor O’Neill

It’s only had more than five million visitors worldwide; it’s one of CNN’s top 12 immersive tourist attractions on the planet, and just in time for Christmas and well into the new year. it’s on show in Belfast. What a better festive treat for the whole family than Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.

Situated smack bang on the Carlisle Circus roundabout, in the old Memorial Church, a trip to this art installation is sure to be a fun and enlightening outing for anyone interested in the arts and creativity.

But I’m not in the employ of the tourist board, nor I am I writing to sell tickets. I’m simply here to describe to you, as best I can, as to what to expect if you plan to visit this world-enhancing, global tourist attraction. Van Gogh, the name alone brings to mind all sorts of images: from the madman who shot himself in the stomach that led to his agonising death to the erratic artist who cut off his own ear and gave it to a prostitute. It’s the stuff of legend and Van Gogh has become a byword in the popular imagination of what an artist should or shouldn’t be. Immortalised in Don McClean’s Starry, Starry Night, everyone and his or her dog seems to have an opinion on the man.

What the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience does in a brilliant fashion is look past popular opinion and focuses on the art as well as offering clarity on the facts. I’ve read a few small books on the man, before the exhibition I could rattle off a few titles of his work but what this expo does best is present his work to a modern way. and as described, it focuses on the immersive. This simply couldn’t be done 20 years ago; the technology wasn’t capable of delivering art montage via 2-D on such a scale, or a visual 3-D that’s so visually brilliant it truly is moving.

The cavernous Memorial Church is a perfect setting for this – dare I call it? – show. With its central location and the sheer scale of this old building, the event organisers have found the venue for the artist who was, before art consumed him, a travelling pastor with a zealous preaching style.

The entrance feels like a secret: a segment of the billboard surrounding the old church with imagery suggesting what’s inside is simply pulled open and up the steps we go and into the exhibition. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable but once past that point you’re more or less own your own to jump from piece-to-piece magpie style, or if you prefer, work through it in a cohesive, chronological manner. From 1885’s The Potato Eaters right up until his last known painting, Tree Roots (1890) all aspects of the 37-year-old artist’s life and art appear to be covered.

There is a white 3-D bust of the man with every-changing images thrown upon it to a room where kids and adults alike can doodle away, to the towering 2-D immersive room in which over two stories montages of the artist’s work flicker to life as the viewer relaxes back on deck chairs and marvel at the visuals above.

There’s a mock-up of Van Gogh simple bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles, the viewer can read of his explosive relationship with fellow artist Paul Gaugin, and we learn of his love for Japanese prints. Dotted here and there are quotes from the man himself, some of an artistic nature, others full of the realisation that art would consume him: “I put my heart and soul into the work and have lost my mind in the process.” being one such line of self-awareness.

With over 200 recreations of his art, either oil on canvas copies or those featured in the montages and immersive experiences, it’s easy to lose an hour and a half engrossed in the work and the – the suggested time is 75 minutes – but the highlight of the exhibition for me was the 3-D experience. Be warned though, this is not suggested for those with light-induced epilepsy or some other neurological disorders. For the majority it’s perfectly safe, and for an extra fiver well worth the money.

Obviously I couldn’t take notes when hooked up to the 3-D headpiece but it takes the viewer on a trip, through the art of Van Gogh from fields of wheat to starry night, into night cafes, through olive groves, over hills and every detail is in beautiful three dimensions. At the start it can be quite unsettling, especially if you move your head around too fast or sweep from the path below you to the sky above, but once you get settled into the ride it really is a relaxing trip through a fantastical world with everything so crisp and the desire to reach out and touch is almost overwhelming. Be careful too, it’s more than easy to make involuntary noises as new sights are revealed, thankfully the images are matched with audio which ranges from laughter from the cafe to children’s giggles in the wheat fields to the chirping of birds as the path meanders its way through the French countryside.

I’m writing myself into booking another trip – this time without notepad – in the new year. Little wonder Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience was awarded USA Today’s best immersive experience in 2021.

There are family deals and conciliations for the elderly and those with disabilities.

For booking information visit: https://vangoghexpo.com/belfast/

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