The Virtual Arena: The Immersive Gallery: Painting with Light

The application of XR into the attraction, amusement and entertainment landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – embracing “Artainment” while evaluating the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and its unique technology.

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Image credit: KWP

We have covered the application of immersive technology in the arts in this column over the last few years. We have seen opera represented in virtual reality, and have also experienced Immersive Theater, but we can now add a new aspect to this list – that of the “Immersive Gallery”. Along with new openings in US cities, London became the latest city to open the ‘Van Gogh Exhibit: The Immersive Experience’ and we were lucky enough to get to tour this compelling event.

Immersive gallery experiences have gathered momentum in popularity in recent years, and this adaptation offers a blend of the latest digital display and immersive technologies, in a pop-up exhibition that is capable of being taken on the road. Having toured since 2017, the Van Gogh immersive exhibit has captivated over 5,000,000 visitors across America and Europe. But, unlike most touring exhibitions, digital XR immersion is at its heart.

The Van Gogh London Exhibit: The Immersive Experience has been brought to the UK capital by entertainment producer Exhibition Hub together with Fever, one of the leading entertainment discovery platforms. Plunging audiences into a digital art exhibition of the work and life of Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest artistic geniuses of the 19th century. But rather than a stayed and tired art gallery exhibit, the exhibition uses the latest projection, VR and MR elements to create an immersive experience.

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Image credit: KWP

“Experiential” is a term that is growing in usage regarding the deployment of immersive technology – the means for the guest to be captivated within the digital world, be that using headsets, or immersive projection platforms. The Van Gogh exhibit employs all these elements and more while staying true to the artistic power of his work. The exhibition is split into three key elements, housed in the unassuming (but appropriate) 19th-century stable buildings opposite Old Spitalfields Market.

The first element of the exhibition is a gallery section – along with re-creations of the original artwork from the master, the digital theatre presents details of Van Gogh’s life and influences to help gain knowledge of what shaped his work. The vibrancy of these artworks is also represented with a Projection Mapped recreation of his famous works adding a three-dimensional element to understanding the composition of his genius.

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Image credit: KWP

Moving through this space, guests that are prepared to dive deeper are offered the opportunity to experience the world of the artist in VR. An area comprising several Meta Quest 2 headsets have been installed in a special area of the exhibition, where users traverse through a virtual period re-creation of the real-world settings, from the South of France that inspired the artist to create some of his most famous works. The narrated experience is passive but allows the guest to be part of the environment, walking alongside the artist.

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Image credit: KWP

The final aspect of the exhibition is one that is most talked about – that of the giant hall with the latest 360’ projection technology, painting all four walls with images of the most famous paintings. Rather than just projecting them, the space has been developed so that the audience feels like they are placed within each artwork, their vision saturated with the colour and vibrancy of the paintings. Deckchairs were laid out for guests to sit back and let the imagery wash over them. 

Overall, the organizers present the exhibition as a 60-to-75-minute experience, with many of the guests relaxing in the Immersive Hall, captivated by the artwork that surrounded them, smartphones out to try and capture the experience to share with family and friends on social media. This was the best example of how immersive technology can accentuate an experience – along with the fact that many of the digitally re-created artworks would never be able to be assessable to an audience in real life, so adding another level to the exhibition.

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Image credit: KWP

What some have dubbed “Artainment”, this exhibition allowed XR technology to bring the wonders of Van Gogh to a new audience. Turning the “digital into physical”, this XR approach offers a new interpretation of the gallery experience, a future that is being applied to many other artists’ works.

The next instalment of The Virtual Arena will look at the impact of the VR and MR on the current US amusement scene is reported on, with the latest trends on display at the 2022 Amusement Expo International.