As the opening date for “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” approached last month and information about the show at a “secret Philadelphia location” was still nowhere to be found, people who’d purchased tickets when the event was announced in March started to worry they’d been bamboozled.
I was one of those people.
My concerns only grew when my colleague reported a day before the show’s slated Aug. 12 start date that the opening would be delayed due to “COVID-19 restrictions on global transportation logistics” and that the “secret Philadelphia location” was actually the Tower Theater in Upper Darby.
Obviously, the folks from Exhibition Hub and Fever who put on the show aren’t aware of how seriously we take our county boundaries in Southeast Pa.
As I began seeing people on social media call the show the Fyre Festival of traveling exhibits, I started to believe the only experience I was going to get out of this would be eating a cheese sandwich on a traffic island on 69th Street.
I’m happy to report I was wrong.
By the time I purchased two tickets for a total of $99 in March, the earliest available date for the show was Sept. 5. That turned out to be just two days after the exhibit actually opened (those who had tickets for earlier dates were able to reschedule).
Let me start by saying I’m not an art critic. Or a critic of any kind. Perhaps that’s because some may call my taste for all things kitschy questionable. Themed restaurants? I once took a detour on a cross-country trip to go to the Space Aliens Grill & Bar in Bismarck, N.D. Campy entertainment? I own the Naked Gun trilogy and the Mr. Bean box set. Nerdy fashion? You better believe I’ve got a Princess Leia sweatshirt with buns on the hoodie.
That being said, I didn’t enter the exhibit a total novice. Three years ago, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and was moved to tears by how his personal story was presented, and left awestruck by seeing paintings like The Bedroom and Wheatfield With Crows in person.
At the end of the museum in Amsterdam there’s an immersive experience called “Van Gogh’s Dreams,” in which you walk through fields of glass sunflowers and darkened rooms filled with disembodied voices. Afterward, I turned to my cousin and said, “I want more of that.”
That’s how I ended up at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Well, that and the fact that at the time I bought the tickets I hadn’t been anywhere in a year and needed something to look forward to.
The show at the Tower requires timed tickets and despite arriving early, my fiancé and I had to wait in a line for about 10 minutes after our scheduled time because the exhibit rooms were at capacity.
Two of the more unusual announcements made by a gregarious staffer overseeing the line were that the bar was open and “When you see the boats, don’t stand up because the floor will become an optical illusion and some people find it disorienting.”
“Now, I’m getting excited,” I said to my significant other.
When you enter the show, a sign tells you the experience is structured in three parts, but as we experienced it there seemed to be only two: a museum-like exhibit and the immersive experience.
Inside the museum, timelines and plaques tell a CliffsNotes version of Vincent van Gogh’s life, touching on his relationship with his brother and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, as well as the influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh’s work. The literature is straightforward and evokes no emotion, but even more underwhelming are the reproductions of his paintings that appeared to be printed on canvases. Here, it’s evident how the color and texture of the paint in Van Gogh’s works are truly essential to experiencing them.
The museum portion isn’t a total bust, though. A life-size 3D model of Van Gogh’s painting The Bedroom allows visitors to step inside and get photos (which are permitted throughout the experience), and moving images projected over two 3D sculptures (one of Van Gogh’s head and the other of a vase with flowers) are also worth a view.
As you walk through the exhibit and up and down ramps lined with quotes from Van Gogh, the floors squeak loudly beneath your feet. It’s hard to tell where you may be inside the Tower, but at one point, we looked up and we recognized we were underneath the balcony.
“It’s a really ingenious use of space,” my fiancé said.
The true immersive experience begins at the end of the virtual museum, when you open a pair of thick curtains and step inside a massive hall built out of four enormous screens set up on the Tower’s stage.
The experience runs on a 40-minute loop, so you can enter at any time and stay as long as you want. Benches are dotted around the room, but the way to really take in the 360-degree show is by lying on the floor with your head propped up on giant beanbag pillows (I know, the germaphobe in me was hesitant too, but I survived).
From watching Van Gogh’s paintings come alive and off their canvases in a virtual gallery (his Two Crabs painting becomes many crabs at one point, crawling over the walls and along the floor) to being enveloped in a field of sunflowers which rise weightless into the sky, the visual experience is quite simply, breathtaking.
Accompanied by a moving orchestral soundtrack interspersed with quotes from Van Gogh, visitors are taken on a journey that’s equal parts unnervingly eerie and strikingly beautiful, much like the way we’re led to believe Van Gogh experienced the world because of his struggles with mental illness.
While everyone I’ve spoken with has a different favorite part, for me, when the room turned into Starry Night Over the Rhône and the floor appeared to become water, I felt I could live in that moment forever.
After exiting the immersive experience, visitors have a chance to sit down and color a Van Gogh painting or pay $5 to take a VR headset tour of a day in Van Gogh’s life in Arles, France (we passed because the line was too long).
In total, we spent about 90 minutes at the exhibit. While parts of the experience were visually fantastical, as someone who openly weeps whenever she hears Don McLean’s song “Vincent,” I found the show lacked the emotional resonance that draws so many to Van Gogh’s story.
“Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at the Tower Theater runs through Nov. 28. Tickets, which begin at $34.90 for adults (before fees), are available online.