In the old Amoeba Music building, ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ rises

Little-known fact: There are no silk sunflowers available from bulk suppliers in North America right now, say the folks behind “Immersive Van Gogh.”

Why?

Tens of thousands of them adorn spaces inside “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibitions running in five cities across the U.S. and Canada. When it opens here on Saturday, the L.A. iteration will feature a sunflower-themed bar with a backdrop of yellow silk sunflowers, a favorite flower of Van Gogh’s to paint.

What does one order at a sunflower bar?

The Sunflower, of course, a signature beverage still in development.

I learned all of this on a recent hard-hat tour of the exhibition as it was being installed in the former Amoeba Music building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Adult general admission for the show, co-produced by Lighthouse Immersive and Impact Museums, starts at $39. It runs through January but may be extended.

The Van Gogh lounge and sunflower bar is just one aspect of the so-called “immersive, 360-degree experience.” Hommages to Van Gogh created by other artists will be installed throughout the lounge, adjacent to the show of video projections and music. One is a 10-foot-by-10-foot re-creation of a Van Gogh self-portrait from 1889 that hangs in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. An AI installation, “Letters to Vincent,” is programmed with digital scans of more than 1,000 letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. Visitors can ask Van Gogh questions on an app, and an AI persona of the artist will respond with a customized letter. Oh, and the gift shop — think fine china and Van Gogh socks.

Then there’s the 40-minute video installation itself, which plays on a loop, essentially 400 animated Van Gogh images configured into a moving mashup by Italian film producer and exhibition creator Massimiliano Siccardi, set to mostly original music by Italian composer Luca Longobardi. It features 64 projectors, 60,600 frames of video and 90 million pixels. The imagery fills 16,000 square feet of exhibition space, reflecting on the walls and floor and multiplying in mirrored sculptures throughout three galleries. Shadows and light bounce off of every surface, including visitors’ bodies and faces.

A sea of sunflowers in the “Immersive Van Gogh” show.

(Deborah Vankin / Los Angeles Times)

During the tour, as the mix of ethereal piano and electronic music swelled, the room became dappled with floating yellow sunflowers and felt increasingly melancholic.

Maybe it was the bittersweetness of emerging from the worst of the pandemic, with the art world opening up and new exhibitions finally debuting; maybe it was being inside the former Amoeba Music building, a beacon of independent music that was now housing a traveling exhibition; or maybe it was the ginormous wall projections of Van Gogh’s deep-set, tortured-looking eyes, now staring down on a jumble of journalists snapping selfies. But the melancholy grew with the projections and music.

“Immersive Van Gogh” has been a hit since it launched in Toronto in 2020. Since July of that year it has sold more than 2 million tickets. Madonna was so taken with her visit, she posted a video on Instagram. On the day of the hard-hat tour, filmmaker George Lucas had visited “Immersive Van Gogh” in Chicago, we were told by co-producer Corey Ross.

Creative director David Korins (set designer for “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen”) attributes much of the exhibition’s success to timing combined with what the Post-Impressionist artist represents.

“Many of the conditions and things that he wrestled with in his life are things that nowadays would be considered gifts. He was just misunderstood,” Korins said during the tour. “I really think that one of the reasons we’ve had so much success recently is that no matter where you spent your pandemic, I think we can all relate to a person whose voice has been misunderstood and who’s dealt with some loneliness.”

Blue swirls in a digital projection in "Immersive Van Gogh's" hard-hat tour.

The “Immersive Van Gogh” hard-hat tour took place as the exhibition was being installed.

(Deborah Vankin / Los Angeles Times)

Several on the tour, such as Chanin Victor, editor and publisher of the children’s events and activities website Macaroni Kid Santa Monica, commented on the educational value of the exhibition. “I don’t think people realize how kid-friendly it is,” she said.

Her 10-year-old daughter, Senna Victor, said she liked the show more than she thought she would. She learned about the artist, she said, and especially loved the animation, which altered her perception at times.

“It felt like the floor was an elevator,” she said. “It was like going back in time, like going inside a painting.”

Then she surveyed the room and, in a tone far wiser than her years, quipped: “For adults, it’s an excuse to get off their phones.”

Outside, construction crews hoisted enormous metal lettering onto the façade of the building — a “A” was going up as we walked by.

Up the street, at Caffe Etc., owner Viviana Pollack showed mock-ups of the Van Gogh sugar cookies she’d ordered, featuring the artist’s face.

“It’ll be a great introduction to the neighborhood,” she said of the exhibition. “We were kind of forgotten during COVID.”

Then Pollack added: “It’ll be an introduction to Van Gogh. It’s so important to keep history alive.”

Even via sugar cookies and sunflower bar drinks.

I sat down at a table across from a friend who’d accompanied me to the walk-through — she was still wearing the hand-painted “Starry Night” hard hat she’d been given during the tour and tipped it upward to accommodate her smoothie straw.

“It’ll be fun,” she said of the exhibition. “It’s gonna make someone a lot of money.”

Then she touched one of the bright yellow sunflowers with which Caffe Etc. had adorned its tables, readying for the exhibition, and shrugged, now looking melancholic herself.

“He couldn’t sell a single piece of art while he was alive,” she said of Van Gogh. “He wouldn’t have been able to afford a sugar cookie!”

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