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A tale of two immersive Van Gogh shows: Arlington’s is the one to see

VR and context make for a massive difference in the splashy traveling exhibitions.

Two of the countless immersive Van Gogh shows traveling the planet are camped out in North Texas for extended runs. One of them is really good; the other one, not so much.

The stark contrast emerges from how much context each provides, their artistic vision in fashioning something new from the Dutch painter’s palette and the level of technological prowess employed to pull off the feat.

Both use Van Gogh’s singular post-Impressionist paintings as source material, projecting and animating parts of the pieces across walls and floors in an attempt to dazzle if not overwhelm the viewer’s senses. The one that succeeds is both more subtle and more spectacular.

It builds drama as one walks through the exhibition, reaching its crescendo with a 360-degree virtual-reality excursion through Arles, the French city where Van Gogh made some of his most memorable work.

One of the exhibits is “Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit Dallas” at Lighthouse Dallas in the old Masonic Temple downtown.

The one to see is at newly named Choctaw Stadium in Arlington, better known as Globe Life Park, former home to the Texas Rangers. The vast complex doesn’t appear to have imposed any limits on the producers, who have carved out concourse space for “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Once inside, you could be anywhere.

So why not just go to the Dallas Museum of Art and see the real things at the “Van Gogh and the Olive Groves” show or visit the many museums around the world where his bold, colorful paintings are displayed?

A selection of Vincent Van Gogh's works are also on display at the Dallas Museum of Art in "Van Gogh and the Olive Groves," which runs through Feb. 6.
A selection of Vincent Van Gogh's works are also on display at the Dallas Museum of Art in "Van Gogh and the Olive Groves," which runs through Feb. 6.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

The most critical questions facing these immersive experiences are: Do they have any real connection to their inspiration? Are you going to learn anything about Van Gogh or see his mastery in a new light?

An educational journey

In Arlington, the answer is “yes,” because the exhibit takes the viewer on an educational journey that starts with a couple of rooms packed with information about Van Gogh’s life and work, alongside realistic renderings of many of his paintings. Dots get connected. You learn more about him than at even a typical museum exhibition, so the immersion is not just physical.

This introductory section also hints at what’s to come with a video bust of Van Gogh that constantly morphs into surprising designs and a brick-and-mortar re-creation of his iconic October 1888 work Bedroom in Arles, the perfect spot for a photo op.

By the time one enters the immersive space, you’ve already gained some perspective on what you’re about to see. That doesn’t mean you’ll be prepared for how well it’s done, especially if you’ve seen its clunky counterpart in downtown Dallas.

A physical re-creation of “The Bedroom” by Vincent Van Gogh at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington.
A physical re-creation of “The Bedroom” by Vincent Van Gogh at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington. (Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

The single immersion room is long and relatively narrow, with what seems like an impossibly high ceiling. These dimensions create the illusion that the images are skyscraper-tall. They surround you on all four sides and on the carpeted floor, though that last element is hardly noticeable.

Instead of a blank canvas for the animated projections, the still-video backdrops are of a period two-story building, cathedral-like, with columns that form flame-shaped arches. Early in the 35-minute reel, miniature depictions of Van Gogh works line the archways before the imagery begins to move and transform into animations with an impressive level of sophistication.

Somehow, his brushstrokes are clearly visible, no mean feat when relatively small images are being blown up onto giant walls. The distinctive brushstrokes, along with his use of color, is what made Van Gogh Van Gogh.

Telling quotes also pop up, and classical string music gently underscores the action. Together, the elements create an atmosphere you not only see but feel. That could’ve been enough for a fully satisfying experience.

The VR is worth it

But the show doesn’t stop there, if you opted for the VIP-level ticket. (Pro tip: Upgrade in person for $5 instead of paying an extra $20 in advance.)

After putting on a VR headset, you’ll find yourself in Van Gogh’s bright Arles bedroom, from which you descend a staircase and go through a door to the outside. It’s a “wow” moment, portending that this isn’t just a money-grabbing add-on but the most immersive part of the show.

Visitors sit for a virtual reality experience at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington.
Visitors sit for a virtual reality experience at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington. (Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)
Visitors watch projections of work by Vincent Van Gogh at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington.
Visitors watch projections of work by Vincent Van Gogh at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington. (Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

As you’re directed down a cobblestone street and through a field, you’re surrounded by nature and modest rural buildings rendered as if through Van Gogh’s painterly vision. Occasionally, a frame encloses a section of the landscape and then cleverly turns into a specific work of art.

At any time, you can look up at the sky — behind you, in any direction — and the integrity of the scenery remains unbroken. If you get too carried away trying to make your own adventure, helpful arrows point you back toward the trip the creators intended you to take.

This virtual Arles is the final piece of context. The viewer meanders as Van Gogh did, seeing through his eyes and mind.

The lesser exhibition

The problems with “Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit Dallas,” occupying the historic Masonic Temple downtown (renamed Lighthouse Dallas), start with the 80-year-old structure. It’s clear that it had to be accommodated rather than the other way around.

"Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Dallas," in the old Masonic Temple downtown, is the least impressive of the two traveling exhibitions.
"Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Dallas," in the old Masonic Temple downtown, is the least impressive of the two traveling exhibitions.(Manny Mendoza / Special Contributor)

The result is that the three contiguous rooms used for the same exact animated projections have doorways and other openings that create breaks in the imagery. The walls are shorter, making for a less pleasing scale. The projections appear to have less resolution, flattening Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, and they’re less imaginatively designed.

The animation is limited, mostly slow expansions that float across the walls. There’s also a recurring use of candles, sometimes positioned around the brim of Van Gogh’s hat in depictions of his self-portraits. Similar creative decisions make for a cheesy show, including treacly classical-cum-New Age music.

Multiple mediocre immersion rooms instead of a single breathtaking one and almost nothing about who Van Gogh was and what he accomplished? A more surefooted exhibition wouldn’t have made those mistakes. The proof is in Arlington.

Details

“Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” runs through Nov. 28 at Choctaw Stadium, 1090 Ballpark Way, Arlington. $34.90-$64.90 plus fees. vangoghexpo.com/dallas.

“Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Dallas” runs through Jan. 3 at Lighthouse Dallas, 507 S. Harwood St. $40-$70 plus fees. dallasvangogh.com.

The entrance to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington.
The entrance to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Choctaw Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Arlington. (Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Manuel Mendoza, Special Contributor. Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.

artslife@dallasnews.com
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