Behind The Scenes At Immersive Van Gogh

Van Gogh self-portraits at Immersive Van Gogh Chicago. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)
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The excitement is building as the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit winds its way across North America. (See some previous reviews here and here.) We wanted to know more about the mechanics of this unique presentation, and the thought processes that go into transforming each exhibit venue into a unique experience. So we invited co-producer Corey Ross to sit down with us (remotely, of course) to chat about technique.

The North American tour is the brainchild of Ross’s company, Lighthouse Immersive. He speaks with us from Toronto, Ontario, site of the current installation. The exhibit space is located in what was formerly the printing press room at the Toronto Star Press Centre, a state-of-the-art printing facility when it opened in September 1992; a relic of better days when it closed in January of 2016.

A socially-distanced family circle. The circle was one of Van Gogh’s favorite shapes. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Ross describes Immersive Van Gogh creator, Massimiliano Siccardi, as “the Steven Spielberg of immersive installation art shows.” With a video art portfolio that spans 30 years, Massimiliano is already a massive hit in Europe. His process starts with choosing a building and a venue for the show. This alone requires much research and planning. Once the right building is found, Massimiliano video-maps all of its walls, floors, columns and pillars.

What is the purpose of that? Ross explains, “It all gets transformed into really beautiful organic images. The architecture both informs the art and is animated and transformed by the art.” It is a walk-through environment that literally envelopes the viewer. “It’s projected on every surface, including on you. You pass through the installation and pass through the art in a very unique and immersive way.”

As to Massimiliano’s inspiration for the juxtapositioning of imagery, Ross reveals that the thought process was, “Let’s try to imagine what would have flashed before Van Gogh’s eyes in the moments before he passed away. From that comes this visual stream of consciousness, informed by Van Gogh’s psychology. It’s really quite emotional. There are people who are just reduced to tears by seeing this, because it’s so strong.”

A sampling of Van Gogh’s irises, a subject which marked the beginning of his isolation in an asylum at Saint-Remy. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Understandably, it is a complex production, with visuals, animation and music throughout the entire space. Thirty miles of fiber optic cable, and hundreds of projectors, cast images over 500,000 cubic feet of surface. In addition, structural changes are necessary just to install the equipment safely. “We try to work with the space to make it as interesting as possible. Sometimes that involves putting in new walls or removing walls, or removing parts of the ceiling to get more height.”

In some instances, the chosen venue is not meant to be used for public space, much less gallery space. It might need to be converted with additions like washrooms and fire exits.  One would think that an industrial space would have checked those boxes already. But that is not the case. Where once there may have been wall-to-wall machinery and a handful of operators, there now needs to be safe and accessible space on a scale that allows dozens or hundred of people to pass through in a single day.

An immersive experience that envelops and the viewers with light and color. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

One cannot help noticing the delineated viewing area, i.e. the circles on the ground. Is that because of COVID-19? While Ross acknowledges this, he points out that the circle happens to be one of Van Gogh’s favorite shapes. It has become an integral part of the display. “The social distancing circles are projected right into the art that is on the floor. It’s pretty amazing how the circles echo the art that’s on the walls, and how it all works together.’

How does that affect the viewing experience? “When people come in, they step into one of the circles. Then they slowly move around the gallery and see the whole show from all sorts of different angles. Because when someone moves out of the circle in front of you, then you move to that circle, and on and on and on.”

The cypress tree is one of many recurring themes in Van Gogh’s art. Note the array of projectors hidden in the dark area on the ceiling. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

We wanted to close out this interview by giving Corey Ross an opportunity to put the technology aside and just talk about the exhibit. “[Immersive Van Gogh] sits at the crossroads of filmmaking, art exhibiting and sort of experiential entertainment. Those three themes, woven together, create the experience that you have when you come to this installation.”

“It’s a completely new way of encountering art. It’s like nothing you’ve seen before. And there’s no time like the present after coming through the last year that we’ve come through. You deserve to have this new experience. It’s time to get out and try something new. And that’s what this is.” 

A favorite subject of Van Gogh’s: sunflowers, deconstructed and reconstructed into the art space. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

We’re sold! How about you? For more information on the upcoming Phoenix exhibit, go to vangoghphx.com. For exhibition dates across the United States and Canada, and around the world, go to immersivevangogh.com, and then you can select from a list of cities for more info. Also preview some exciting future shows at the illusionarium.ca.

About Joe Gruberman 20 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.

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