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Beyond Van Gogh: Starry Nights, Sunflowers and Immersive Madness

At the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit in Miami, viewers are led through a maze of a digital projector framed like a painting timeline of Van Gogh’s life punctuated with quotes from him and his brother. 50,000 square feet with more than 300 of Vincent Van Gogh's iconic artworks are sketched out in a series of paintings that come to life in unexpected ways.

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Miami is ready to be home to three enormous immersive installation exhibits, the high-tech way for art to be seen and sold repeatedly without customer buyers actually owning it. The first to open is Beyond Van Gogh, next up is Superblue, then the competing exhibit Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.

In the age of cyber art and NFT’s and selfies, digital art in the cloud rules. In the real world, most people have probably never seen an actual Van Gogh. They are not generally large paintings but have been lovingly cared for since the late 1800s, first by Van Gogh’s art dealer brother Theo, then by Theo’s widow Jo Van Gogh. Jo held on to hundreds of paintings and thousands of letters after her husband’s early death at 33 from what was politely called “general paresis of the insane” but was actually gonorrhea.

Vincent died from a gunshot wound to his stomach, which may or may not have been self-inflicted, after years of abuse that included eating lead-based paint, frequenting diseased prostitutes, and famously cutting off his ear after a fight with Paul Gauguin.

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Now Vinny has been all cleaned up for the high-tech digital world in a traveling installation by world-renowned audiovisual designers, created by French-Canadian Creative Director Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio.

The Beyond Van Gogh exhibit starts at the entrance with a lobby filled with faux fur walls and puffy fabric clouds. Stepping inside the darkened space, viewers are led through a maze of a digital projected framed like a painting timeline of Van Gogh’s life punctuated with quotes from him and his brother. To accommodate Miami they are reproduced in Spanish as well.

Beyond that lies the ginormous 50,000 square foot main room, where more than 300 of Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic artworks are sketched out in a series of paintings that come to life in unexpected ways. The projection film covers the walls and floor, with swirling, morphing, blooming, winking art.

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Paintings of his town create an entire village, cafes appear, while the beloved flower paintings blossom in front of your eyes, then prop up salon-style along the walls. A series of self-portraits looms large, with a knowing stare. Van Gogh’s dreams, thoughts, and words drive the experience as a narrative. Masterpieces freed from frames, come alive, appear and disappear.

A highlight is how Starry Night was created, with a deep cerulean blue slowly brightened by golden stars like comets, then the Black Cypress tree grows into focus as the landscape comes together in a celestial explosion. A continually playing soundtrack oozes from speakers, an oboe instrumental version of Don McLean’s song Starry, Starry Night wafts in the air.

Successful long-time Miami artist Carlos Betancourt, who works in digital art, sculpture, and installations, was at opening night.

Beyond Van Gogh: Starry Nights, Sunflowers and Immersive Madness
Carlos Betancourt at Beyond Van Gogh (Photo Sandra Schulman)

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“These types of art experiences tend to be quite fragile,” he said after seeing the exhibit. “Yet if done well and for the love of art they can be transformative. Otherwise, they can easily translate into just a cash transaction/trap and reveal their disconnect from the art they so pretend to care about…and of course, artists can pick up on that easily.  Again, if done with sincerity and passion to the artist, craft, and artwork itself, the repercussions can be rewarding and even inspiring. Overall, exposing people in general to the history, mysteries, poetry, and possibilities of art can only be a good thing”.

The whole gorgeous show lasts about an hour, then you are ushered out the far door and into the gift shop, where Van Gogh imagery tote bags, mugs, posters, t-shirts, and other swag becomes something you can actually take home. Walking out into the skyscraper canyon construction hell of downtown Miami is sobering, though the gift of a bouquet of actual sunflowers was a sweet parting. They have sold over 100,000 tickets in the global run.

The competing Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience will open in May and promises virtual reality headsets that walk you through a day in his life along with projections. It’s 60-75 minutes long with additional larger-than-life galleries diving into Van Gogh’s life, artistic technique, and influence using large-scale video mapping technology.

Why there are two Van Goghs here at once may or may not be a coincidence, each is different, though the installation projection basis is the same. There are other artists this could work with – Salvador Dali, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe – but something about the lyrical, thick paint images of Van Gogh and his true visionary insanity resonate through the ages.

The two exhibits have been touring Europe and North America and have been seen on TV, particularly Emily in Paris, which stars musician Phil Collins’ daughter Lily Collins.

So poor Vincent, beset by madness, rejection, criticism, and disease, has become the biggest traveling art show in the world. One wonders what he would think if he stepped out of the spirit world and into this reality show. He would probably think he was crazier than ever. Beyond indeed.

Online at: vangoghmiami.com

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Editor’s note: If you would like to visit, Beyond Van Gogh is at Ice Palace Studios, 1400 N Miami Ave, Miami, 33136. The show runs from April 15 to July 11, 2021. Prices vary and start at $29, Wednesday through Sunday. The visit will take around one hour.

Beyond Van Gogh: Starry Nights, Sunflowers and Immersive Madness

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