Installation view of Van Gogh, Starry Night (® Culturespaces, photo by E. Spiller)

PARIS — Culturespaces’s Atelier des Lumières is a recently opened commercial cultural enterprise in Paris devoted to monumental digital art exhibits. I visited to see the 35-minute Van Gogh, Starry Night projection, directed by Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccardi. What I found in this gargantuan light and music spectacle is a nasty bit of metaphorical necrophilia. It degrades the work of the daring dead painter and his expressive, surface-rich paintings while simultaneously underusing the awesome powers of immersive digital technology by displaying on a colossal scale slightly animated high-resolution reproductions of Vincent van Gogh’s better-known paintings.

Installation view of Van Gogh, Starry Night (® Culturespaces, photo by E. Spiller)

Installation view of Van Gogh, Starry Night (® Culturespaces, photo by E. Spiller)

After entering the darkened space, along with a substantial crowd, I looked up and down and all around. I was engulfed in a gliding field of spectacularly colored kitsch: projected at an enormous scale onto the walls and floor van Gogh’s paintings, such as “Starry Night” (1888) and “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890), were ridiculously sliding around and morphing into each other. This gaudy digital presentation has the general effect of reducing the public to a complacent “wow” condition. The critical faculties involved in confronting and contemplating complex art are reduced here to a state of infantile passivity.

People stand or sit in the dark as kids race around this family-friendly environment, ignoring the grandiose eye-candy screensaver that swathes and speckles them in color — for this slightly animated, supposedly crowd-pleasing, utterly tasteless, techno-tacky vista covers the entire 3,300-square-meter surface area (almost 11,000 feet), from the floor to the 10-meter-high black ceiling, where the visual immersion ends. The loud accompanying soundtrack is a hodgepodge of familiar songs of various styles and eras, evoking pre-packaged emotions and suppressing conversation.

Installation view of Van Gogh, Starry Night (® Culturespaces, photo by E. Spiller)

This demeaning audiovisual spectacle is produced by 140 video projectors and a 3D spatialized sound system piloted by animation software that make van Gogh’s starry night stars twinkle and his black crows fly. Oh, “wow.” Culturespaces is not ceasing in producing such art travesties anytime soon. To the contrary, it opened a digital art center last year in South Korea on the Island of Jeju, called Bunker de Lumières, and Bordeaux is turning over an abandoned submarine base for similar usage, to be called Bassins de Lumières in 2020.

Culturespaces president Bruno Monnier seems very content with this crass disparagement of impressive paintings and his debasing of the potential of immersive digital art, pronouncing in the press kit that he is “convinced that people are increasingly learning about art through [these] immersive experiences and the emotions they generate.” Quelle horreur — as his Van Gogh, Starry Night installation principally conveys the depressing emotion of passive, if not jaded, indifference. While the monumental projections engulf the visitor in a light show of nice colors, the animated projections distort the proportions of the paintings and the animation implies that their quiet stillness is somehow insufficient. Culturespaces’s morphing animations destroy the still quality of painted images. On the other hand, a real time, a-life generative digital immersion is far more emotional and compelling that the distorted color reproductions cast large on these walls. Van Gogh, Starry Night is a futile attempt to bring the element of time into an art form that is strongest when presenting still and quiet timelessness.

Installation view of Van Gogh, Starry Night (® Culturespaces, photo by E. Spiller)

Installation view of Van Gogh, Starry Night (® Culturespaces, photo by E. Spiller)

This is one of the greatest banalizations of painting I have ever seen, matched only by van Gogh kitchen hand towels now being sold around town. Monnier’s projected “future of the dissemination of art among future generations” is a formula for killing it. His commercial cultural company is killing the goose that laid the golden art egg, and I deplore what they are doing. Van Gogh, Starry Night is not only a ridiculous bastardization of beloved paintings, but a disgrace to quality immersive digital art: a detestable double feat of degradation.

Van Gogh, Starry Night continues at Atelier des Lumières (38 Rue Saint Maur, Paris, France) through December 31.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...

10 replies on “A Tacky Tech Take on Vincent van Gogh”

  1. Have always enjoyed your work!
    Atelier des Lumieres looks tortuous enough without dragging Van Gogh’s work into it.

  2. Hear, hear. Was just there and all I could think was that it felt like a big sales pitch for the gift shop – as the quality of reproduction and appropriateness of display vessel were equivalent to objects of said shop. And yet it’s a license to print money – sold out crowds for this the 2nd show following Klimt (I can only imagine). I did feel the Floating World was more compelling for the quality of the reproduction and it was more imaginative than simply activated crows. Of course couldn’t help wondering what they’ll do now that it seems fairly clear it was not his “swan song”

  3. WOW, indeed. Wow, what a display of snobbery, as if art can only be enjoyed the way Mr. Netchvatal deems appropriate. It’s attitudes like this–not inventive ways to bring art to more people–that turns people off.

  4. I have to disagree with this article and all the comments to date. This exhibit enables folks who cannot, or who would not, go to a museum to see the original pieces. It enables you to look intimately at each separate brushstroke. It beckons you to look deeply into Van Gogh’s eyes. It ignites all the senses. It bonds a diverse, multinational community in a shared, positive experience; something that is sorely lacking in today’s politically charged environments. We may not share the same language and customs, but we can share art. This exhibit entices me to see the original pieces when I can. I say keep these types of exhibits coming. They are a balm for our troubled world.

  5. There are certainly no rules about how people can or cannot appreciate art. I do think it’s attitudes like this that prevent some people from fully appreciating art or even seeking it out in the first place. It’s hard to let go when there are always so-called art snobs ready to condemn someone else’s taste or viewing habits. I’m curious, what “real time, a-life generative digital immersion” would you suggest to keep new audiences interested in the arts? I can only imagine some kind of VR experience, which sounds, by my definition and likely yours, far tackier than projection-mapping.

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