Is this the future of touring blockbuster art exhibitions? That’s the question that springs to mind strolling through the perplexing “multimedia exhibition experience” of “Van Gogh Alive” — which runs until April 23 at Dubai Design District, presenting precisely zero original works by the Dutch master often touted as the greatest painter of all time.
Instead, viewers inhabit an immersive space — walls, floor and ceiling alike dizzyingly splashed with swirling, cropped images of Van Gogh’s works, clumsily phased together like an early Windows screensaver. In total, 3,000 different images flicker from 40 projectors, revolving in a half-hour suite of biographical chapters, set to patronizing mood muzak and punctuated with tortured quotes drawn from the great artist’s letters.
The most haunting moments morph Van Gogh’s harrowed self-portraits eerily into one another — the same deadened, listless eyes glaring out at the viewer from all angles.
The tech has been on tour since 2011, with stops already clocked in 35 cities on four continents, and in places it feels tired.
When I caught “Van Gogh Alive” in Lisbon last summer, silhouetted figures practiced artful tai-chi poses in front of the churning mass of pictures. I presume they were paid to do so, but remain uncertain, as any reaction to this bewildering “experience” was welcome: Hardened gallery goers paced the space with a studied scowl, while families sprawled out on beanbags and at least three paying guests appeared to be taking a nap.
There is, of course, a wider argument to be had about art and appropriation. Fragmenting and gutting Van Gogh’s work and intent in this manner instinctively feels sacrilegious: Should those famous sunflowers really rustle in the digital breeze? Should that windmill actually be seen to turn?
Yet watching kids frolic merrily in front of those iconic images underlines how accessible “Van Gogh Alive” makes his art, while the narrative arc offers audiences either a welcome refresher on, or an introduction to, Van Gogh’s extraordinary talent.