When I visited the Van Gogh and Klimt immersive shows last holidays in New York City, I was reminded of the first time I had watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians years ago: extravagant, addictive tackiness, simplified plot lines, an expression of cultural gluttony for ready-made consumption. Do we really need one more episode, one more show like this?
And yet, there’s a new offering in the overhyped and overpriced immersive art world. Here comes the Mona Lisa, or rather The Mona Lisa Immersive Exhibition which the Grand Palais Immersif and Louvre Museum will jointly launch on March 10 at Marseilles’ Palais de la Bourse.
The organizers tease about “rediscovering” an “icon,” a “truly universal image” as if the artwork and Leonardo da Vinci weren’t already household names. The show’s trailer clearly introduces the artwork’s status, as an “art superstar,” contributing to the skewed view of equating “good art” with moneymaking. In doing so, it consolidates structural inequalities, rather than doing something to meaningfully level the playing field.
The only surprise perhaps is that the Mona Lisa experience hasn’t come sooner given the extent to which the Louvre Museum expansively brands itself and its collection around the figure of the 16th-century enigmatic smile, exploiting its image on the institution’s official social media accounts and various merchandising. It also features on the oversized panels leading to the Denon wing under its glass pyramid and made its own distinguished appearance in Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “Apeshit” music video as a token of capitalist success. One only needs to follow signposts to be guided to the long queue of selfie-stick bearers who wait for their few seconds of immortality in front of the painting’s bullet-proof glass.
The “Mona Lisa,” together with the “Venus of Milo,” (150–125 BCE) “Victory of Samothrace” (200–190 BCE) and a handful of other Western art pieces are the jewels of the Louvre, which tourists and visitors on tight schedules privilege. What the loud “Mona Lisa” branding overshadows are the museum’s thousands of other artworks and artefacts in galleries without signposts or clear provenance and the long-overdue question of restitution and colonial-era justice for objects wrongfully acquired that contribute to the museum’s revenues.
Unfortunately, the painting’s fame comes at the cost of diversity and a missed opportunity for a broader audience to recognize the artistic value of, for instance, the complex “Portrait of Muhammad Shah Qadjar” (1837–1838) by Muhammad Hasan Afshar and other Islamic Arts portraits which aren’t even on display. Cultural domination persists when we forget to contest unequal power relations and their legacies.
If there’s NFT fatigue in the art world, what to say about immersive art ennui that perpetuates the deja-vu distortion of granting value to the same few art jewels? This kind of entertainment and indulgence in hyper-commercialization mean that our appreciation of an artwork is no longer an intimate experience but one that is manufactured, replicated and homogenized. It’s time to challenge structures and systems.