Why The Trend Of Immersive Art Shows Isn’t Always A Good Thing (Though They Are Spectacular) | WFAE 90.7

More than 500 years ago, Michelangelo completed perhaps his life’s crowning masterpiece: ethereal, larger-than-life frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that depict such grandiose stories as the creation of man. They have been called “a transcendent work of genius,” and continue to influence and inspire artists centuries later.

And now, for less than 20 bucks, you can catch a glimpse of them in an old, empty mill building in west Charlotte.

Of course, it’s not the real thing. “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” is on display in west Charlotte’s Savona Mill until July 31. Set up in a cavernous, industrial frame, the exhibit is intended to bring viewers up close to the artwork that is typically about 60 feet overhead and usually viewed among a crush of people.

“It’s like 2,000 people in there and you only have 15 minutes and screaming and yelling and no photos. And it wasn’t really that pleasant of an experience other than seeing the artwork,” said Martin Biallas, CEO of See Global Entertainment, the tour organizer, of his experience seeing the real frescoes. “(And) when you see it, they all look like stamps.”

The Sistine Chapel display is just the latest in “immersive” art experiences that are making their way to Charlotte, across the country and around the world. Sometimes, they include swirling light shows that envelope attendees. Often, tiny paintings are enlarged and projected on the walls and ceiling. Occasionally, still images are brought to life with motion.

They are COVID-friendly because they’re usually held in large spaces with lots of room for social distancing. And they give people who either can’t travel now because of the coronavirus or wouldn’t have a chance to see artwork in person for other reasons an opportunity to experience some of our world’s greatest artworks.

They are a show and they are a spectacle — and they are a mixed blessing, according to Davidson College art professor C. Shaw Smith.

“I’d say on balance, yeah, it’s great,” Shaw said. “On the other hand, you’re not seeing the Vatican. You’re seeing a show in an American venue, very different location, very different kind of kind of atmosphere, different scale.”

The Sistine Chapel exhibit includes 34 individual panels of artwork presented in the actual size they are on the ceiling, according to Biallas. A handful are overhead, but most line the sides of the display. A replication of The Last Judgment, the largest fresco in the Sistine Chapel that is on the sanctuary wall, is hung from the ceiling because it was too large to display upright in the west Charlotte building.

This kind of display might be starting to sound familiar. You might have heard about the Immersive Van Gogh show that opens June 17 at Camp North End. That is not to be confused with Van Gogh Alive, which will be at the Biltmore in Asheville starting in November, which will then be followed by Monet & Friends: Life, Light & Colour and Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius as part of a series called “Legends of Art & Innovation at Biltmore.”

And of course, the immersive Dali and Gaudi exhibit is opening in Paris, which undoubtedly will make its way to the U.S. at some point soon.

It all sounds like a fun and colorful experience in our mostly drab COVID-19 world, but take a minute to listen to Shaw’s impromptu art history class, and you can see why these popular immersive art shows might not be as wonderful as you think at first glance.

“Not everybody can go to the Vatican and see the Sistine ceiling, right?” Shaw said. “But of course, they’re not seeing the Sistine ceiling. They’re seeing something that’s a substitute for it, what’s called a simulacra.”

Sistine Chapel exhibit

Jodie Valade

The Last Judgment is too large to stand up in the display, so the exhibit has it positioned on the ceiling.

A “simulacra” is a theory by sociologist Jean Baudrillard, a Frenchman who sought to examine the relationship between reality, symbols and society. Shaw says that “the substitution of a reproduction for the original,” leads to it becoming impossible to ever truly appreciate the original.

“That notion of something substituting for the original keeps us from actually seeing the work,” Shaw said.

If it all sounds a little too existential, consider something like Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” The swirling blue-and-yellow work is one of Van Gogh’s most recognizable pieces, but in real life, it is only about 30 inches by 36 inches. In “Immersive Van Gogh,” attendees become part of the painting, stepping on brushstrokes that are projected into the floor.

How can anyone ever really appreciate the greatness of the little painting on the fifth floor of New York City’s MoMA after seeing that?

“Van Gogh had almost nothing to do with that, in the way that it’s shown,” Shaw said. “You can’t see the scale, the place, the brushstroke, the sense of relationship to your space. All those things are completely different. And he never imagined any of that.”

Shaw actually saw the Van Gogh exhibit in Paris several years ago when he was finishing a textbook, “Palimpsests of Patrimony: A Concise History of Art and Architecture in France.” He loved it.

“There’s just literally a spectacular quality,” Shaw said. “Think about the word ‘spectacle, spectacular,’ as opposed to the word ‘art.’ It’s a spectacle that has this sort of drummed-up energy because it’s big, it’s new. It has a kind of technology that maybe people hadn’t seen before. And it gives you access to things that you might not have.”

But Shaw also knows that he wasn’t seeing the real Van Gogh. And anyone who attends these popular immersive art experiences isn’t seeing the true works by any of the artists.

“I would encourage people to go — but go and be aware of what it is,” he said. “You’ve got to realize that sense of it’s replacing the original doesn’t always work.”

Biallas with Charlotte’s new Sistine Chapel exhibit says he never intended the display to replace Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

“Of course, it doesn’t replace the original,” he said. “If you can, you want to see both. But this is a great alternative, if you will.”

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