Van Gogh in the Metaverse

Van Gogh in the Metaverse

By Ralph Hoyte, 6th October 2022

So, for starters: is it ‘Van Goff’, or is it ‘Van Go’? My sources, well, my brother-in-law, actually, says the Dutch say ‘Van Go’. I checked it on Forvo and the Dutch seem, mostly, to be saying something in between. It sounds like ‘Van Hoch’, with a very guttural ‘H’ at the beginning. The Swedish, on the other hand, are very sure it’s pronounced ‘Van Gog’. And as for the Japanese…  

Hmm, jury out, then, or let’s just call him ‘Vince’.  

Initial impressions were ‘Wow, so many people of such a wide age range (from kids to families to Gen3) are actually interested enough in some 19th century Dutch painter to make the effort to come along to an exhibition solely devoted to him? Wow!’; and that it was very professionally put together. ‘Hmm – very high production values – budget in the millions? And they’re expecting to not only recoup on that but also pull in a profit? These guys are def real profis with some solid professional and financial back up!’  

Then: why Van Gogh? Let me fly-on-the-wall myself on their initial pitch: “we want to stage a major cultural event based around a cultural icon with worldwide pulling power to showcase 21st century media technologies and toe-dip whether there’s a viable financial model to build on for even more mega events going forward. I mean, just look at the Abba thing down at the purpose-built Arena where they’re running actual avatars of Abba! Way-to-go!” “So who’re you going to run?” “One: it has to be someone with that instant recognition factor; two: his/her/their life has to have a relatable social context so people can buy in to their lived experience; three: there has to be DRAMA and EXCITEMENT!” “The ‘tortured artist trope’ always goes down well, too…” “So, what, I mean who we got?” “Vincent Van Gogh – he ticks all the boxes!” “Did you say Van Goff or Van Go?” “Whatever – you give us the dosh, we tell’m how to pronounce it.”  

I enjoyed the inventiveness, the way they varied the offer, from informative traditional interpretation boards through simple projections onto a bust to the Japonisme mobile-inspired Japanese lady ‘of the floating world’ (Ukiyoe), all leading up to the grand finale, the aircraft-hanger- scale 3600 projection space. I did feel a bit sorry for Vince, quoted as writing, “I envy the Japanese the extreme sharpness that everything seems to have (…) they make a figure with a few confident strokes”. ‘Yes, the Japanese philosophy – no, the Japanese practice is to master your art, then throw it all away and just DO, whereupon it does itself. No need to be tortured about it. But in the West we are taught to separate out, to doubt… such a pity, really, to be always pulled away.  

I really liked some of the other of his quotes as well, so, cut the exhibition organisers some slack, he is a genuinely interesting painter, artist and individual whose self-knowledge of his own fate squeezed greatness out of him. For example: “What would life be, if we had no courage to attempt anything?”, or, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together”, or, “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it”, or, “Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”  

Anyway – the aircraft, no, the space shuttle hanger: it’s BIG! It’s full of people surrendering to The Experience: teenagers, parents, kids, all ages lounging on deck chairs or benches. The walls, though high, do not extend high enough to hide the supporting structure of girders, probably, well, certainly on purpose: you are being welcomed into a staging post for the new era and that’s what they look like in the movies, so that’s what it looks like here. The construction, the immediate impression, the hushed, enraptured audience evoke – I think back to where I’ve just been: medieval Girona in Catalonia and its cathedral, the way that has been constructed over the centuries to evoke exactly those sorts of associations and feelings – yes, it’s a cathedral and we’re being invited to join in a religious experience! The music swells in corroboration: The Beyond has been brought to earth! Feel The Power! Join the Believers! Abandon Thyself to the Numinous! All Hail The Greatness of Art!  

The extra-human scale of the paintings brought to life did have the desired effect, but after a while I began to feel, well, oppressed? Bombarded with bombasticity? I left to do the VR tour. Join the metaverse! The dis – what’s the word I’m looking for? Discongruity? Disjunction? Dislocation? Something ‘dis‘ anyway between what my brain was telling me was happening (that I was travelling through a cartoon landscape on a gyroscooter) and what my body was telling me (no, you’re not, you’re standing still in a shed!) caused severe nausea which lasted for the next day or so.  

I disgorged myself into ‘the real world’. “I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process,” says Vincent Van Gogh. Ah yes, the other interesting thing is that the explanation for the way he used colour is that he really did see colours differently: he had a visual ‘impairment’. So his weakness was his strength and his strength his weakness.  

So, in the context of Connecting Through Culture: does the Van Gogh exhibition provide us with a model for one way of connecting people in general and Gen3 in particular through culture? I’d say ‘yes’: it merges culture and hi-end tech to provide a truly immersive and educational experience for all ages. It takes ‘the Art’ out of the gallery or museum and makes it accessible to a wide demographic. Looking at how they’ve done that gives some valuable pointers for how to set up cultural and artistic experiences which we can borrow from. After all, they’ve spent millions on it, so we don’t ned to do that, we can just cadge a few tips for our smaller scale efforts.  

Maybe not quite so bombastic.  

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