Imagine Van Gogh: Take the leap

iPhone photo of the installation Imagine Van Gogh

Is it trippy? Yes it is. (Photo by me. They let you take videos too.)

Go. But take earplugs. ***

I was happy for hours after seeing Imagine Van Gogh.

To experience the piece, you enter a huge room — in Vancouver, it’s at the Convention Centre — in which the towering walls and, somehow it seems, the floor, are rear-projection surfaces. Creators Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron cover every inch of those planes with details from over 200 paintings that Van Gogh created in the last two years of his life. 

The details are magnified thousands of times so the brushstrokes are huge. Sometimes, a whole wall, sometimes every image in the room will slowly scroll down. In one sequence, we’re looking at a painting of a town’s lights reflected in water at night. The horizon starts relatively high, then drops, revealing more and more starlight.

If you’re into colour, imagine this: the violet and beige lines of haystacks in a snowy field; the red dots of poppies in a spring-green meadow. Van Gogh was a dedicated collector of Japanese woodblock prints; in one of the briefest but most gorgeous passages in Imagine Van Gogh, every surface in the room fills with white almond blossoms against an aquamarine background.

By the time I left, I was so visually aroused that, when I was pulling out of the Convention Centre’s parking lot and saw a shiny grey car in front of a white and charcoal building, I thought, “Oh my god. That’s fantastic.” That’s absurd, I know but, at the same time, it was fantastic. Seeing is wonderful.

That said, I wish more of the images in Imagine Van Gogh were more saturated in terms of colour. Maybe the show is using too many projectors — there are 42 of them — and there’s a problem with spill. Beats me.

And that’s a minor annoyance compared to the soundscape, which is a greatest-hits lists of classical music played LOUDLY. The technique isn’t entirely ineffective: within about five minutes’ of entering the exhibit, I was tearing up because of the emotional intensity. But that moment of elevation was short-lived. The music in Imagine Van Gogh insists on imposing a series of pre-determined emotional responses on the viewer and it wasn’t long before I started to strongly resent it. I noticed another viewer walking around with her fingers in her ears, so I tried that, but it didn’t really work and I got tired of holding my arms up.

If you go, you might —seriously — want to take along earplugs or a noise-cancelling headset. It’s a good idea to have a soundscape. It would be a better idea to have one that’s more sophisticated and less bullying.

One more thing before I go. As you approch the exhibit, you pass by a series of information panels. From them, I learned that the story of Van Gogh’s mental illness is more complicated than his image as the prototypical tortured artist would have us believe. In a letter to his brother Theo he spoke in positive terms about his stay in the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He wrote that his experience there taught him that mental illness is a disease, much like physical illness. His tone is practical. That’s a progressive position for the late nineteenth century and I was glad to hear a measure of equanimity in the artist’s voice.

IMAGINE VAN GOGH Created by Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron. Produced by Pascal Bernardin Encore Productions, Fimalac Entertainment, Tandem Expositions, and Paquin Entertainment Group. At the Vancouver Convention Center. Experienced Saturday, March 20. Tickets available until August 29.

*** I heard from other folks that the volume of the music wasn’t so bad, so I checked with publicist Marnie Wilson, who replied, “It is being turned down some Colin. Thanks for the comments about it.” So yay! Maybe you won’t have to plug your ears!


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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