The immersive arts trend — think Van Gogh — is surging in 2021

The Bay Area is fully immersed in one of the hottest art trends sweeping the planet — exhibits that send swirling colors and images of paintings, people, nature and other visual treats streaming throughout a large open space, engulfing viewers in a movable feast of ever-evolving eye candy.

“Immersive Van Gogh” made such a big hit in San Francisco, its run has been extended. In September, a similar Van Gogh exhibit — there are five touring the U.S. — comes to San Jose. And in December, it’s Monet’s turn, when an immersive show about the Impressionist painter makes its U.S. premiere in San Francisco.

Not all the shows are about painters. On Friday, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will open the nature-oriented “teamLab: Continuity,” developed by a Tokyo-based arts collective. Founded 20 years ago, teamLab has created more than two dozen installations and immersive digital shows around the world.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 4: Visitors watch images by Van Gogh projected at the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit at SVN West in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, April 4, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

And in August, a landmark 2015 immersive video installation by German filmmaker Hito Steyerl, “Factory of the Sun,” opens at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Why now? For one thing, digital projection technology, like virtual reality, keeps getting better. And the pandemic certainly helped. These productions, with their large, open venues and viewing positions within circles drawn on the floor, are naturally socially distanced. “Immersive Van Gogh” benefitted, too, from the “only show in town” factor when it opened in March, at a time when so many theaters, concert halls, clubs and museums were closed.

Yet, the trend shows no signs of slowing down as social distancing procedures relax and and competing entertainment options reopen. It doesn’t hurt that when Kanye West and Kim Kardashian took their four kids to an early viewing of “teamLab: Continuity” last weekend, it made national headlines.

“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” opens Sept. 24 at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center (courtesy Nederlander Concerts). 

“I believe we are on the cusp of an art renaissance,” says Corey Ross, co-producer of “Immersive Van Gogh,” which is running through Sept. 6 at SVN West, a converted former car dealership in San Francisco. “We have been deprived of all art and cultural events for over a year. People are hungry for unique cultural experiences.”

And just as people are hungry for new ways to experience art, museums are eager to find new ways to attract visitors.

The Asian Art Museum may have one with “teamLab: Continuity.” The show opens the museum’s new 8,500-square-foot Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion, which has been dubbed San Francisco’s largest new art exhibition space.

“teamLab: Continuity” opens in the Asian Art Museum’s large new gallery space on July 23. (teamLab/Asian Art Museum) 

Immersive shows all tend to be interactive to varying degrees, but “Continuity” directly incorporates the concept. Digital displays are programmed to change based on visitors’ movements. The images also move between rooms, interacting with each other as they leapfrog over traditional boundaries.

“Through an interactive relationship between the visitors and the artwork, human beings become an intrinsic part of that artwork, losing themselves in the artwork world,” says teamLab, which asked to be quoted as a collective rather than through one person.

Steyerl’s “Factory of the Sun,” which will open Aug. 6 at the San Jose Museum of Art, is projected on a single screen, but the observation room is surrounded by a grid of LED lights, so it feels as if viewers had been drawn into cyberspace as they are confronted with a rapid series of dance videos, video game scenes, drone surveillance footage and news footage, both real and fake.

A guest views a picture of artist Vincent Van Gogh at the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit during a media preview at SVN West on March 16, 2021 in San Francisco, California. “Immersive van Gogh,” is a digitally projected show that animates paintings by artist Vincent Van Gogh in a surroundscape experience. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) 

“’Factory of the Sun’ is a truly immersive experience,” says Kathryn Wade, the museum’s assistant curator, who organized the installation. “It creates an imaginative reality where modern warfare, corporate culture and anti-capitalist resistance movements are played out by digitally-embodied characters. This exploration of the flow of data in our current digital landscape is a reflection on how today, we knowingly surrender our personal data to corporate interest so that we might participate, often delightfully, in the digital landscape.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 16: Guests view the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit during a media preview at SVN West on March 16, 2021 in San Francisco, California. “Immersive van Gogh,” is a digitally projected show that animates paintings by artist Vincent Van Gogh in a surroundscape experience. The show runs from March 18th through September 6th and will be one of the first in-person art experiences in San Francisco since the city went on lockdown one year ago due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) 

Immersive art shows featuring such artists as Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet first began drawing attention and crowds with several European shows in the early 2000s. They have not been a hit with all critics (one New York Times writer opined that a Van Gogh show reduced the artist’s work to “wall-size screen savers”), but the shows’ creators say the works offer a new form of art and a new way to appreciate artists.

“With this experience, we wanted to create something very personal, unique for everyone,” says Mathieu St-Arnaud, the creative director of “Beyond Van Gogh,” which is headed to San Jose in September. “We wanted to create an experience that would speak to everyone, no matter what you know about Vincent’s work or about art — it’s for everyone to see and feel.”


“teamLab: Continuity”: July 23-February, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; regular admission ranges from free to $15, but there is a $5 charge added to regular admission to view this exhibit,

“Factory of the Sun”: Opens Aug. 6 as part of the permanent collection at the San Jose Museum of Art; $10-$8 (free for teachers and college students with ID, ages 17 and under),

“Immersive Van Gogh”: Through Sept. 6, SVN West, San Francisco; $39.99-$49.99 ($24.99 for children 16 or younger),

“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”: Sept. 24-Nov. 14, San Jose McEnery Convention Center; $34.99 for adults and $24.99,

“Monet by the Water”:  Opens in December, dates/prices/location TBA;

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