In art there is the rarest of opportunities—the chance to create something that transcends time, an object, a sound, an idea, or simply a moment that touches upon eternity. Vincent Van Gogh seems to have accomplished this feat. 131 years after he took his own life, his works still possess an aching beauty that few human beings have ever been able to capture. Through the passing of two centuries, his work has bloomed long and brilliant like so many sunflowers, from viciously critiqued failures, to the most reproduced paintings in human history. I cannot explain this universal admiration. Does it lie in the excellence of his work? The tragedy of his narrative? The perceived a-politicality of his images? Or a confluence of all three, pressing into the collective guilt and the relatability surrounding a stifled attempt to live a life on one’s own terms? I am not equipped to elucidate the increasing popularity of the tragic Post-Impressionist. I am, on the other hand, equipped to explain the difference between art and spectacle.
Put simply, spectacle is an event, image or happening that makes you talk about it. Art can encompass all of the same mechanisms as spectacle, but it makes you talk about what it means. A military parade is a spectacle. A fireworks display is a spectacle. One rarely questions the deeper meanings or ideological themes of a Kiss concert (though one could and should). A performance by Sun Ra, although saturated with similar extravagant costuming and posturing, requires more cerebral scrutiny.
My examples lack nuance, to be sure. But living two decades in Las Vegas—a city built on spectacle without even the slightest veneer of modest introspection—has, I feel, given me some insight on this subject. That is the lens through which I’m looking at (and contextualizing) the latest touring attraction to tout itself as a form of arts engagement in Sin City.
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is described by its marketers as an “Awe inspiring journey into the incomparable universe of Van Gogh.” It’s possible I’m biased against such preposterous verbiage, especially since, when I was 12, my mother gave me my own Van Gogh immersive experience. She slipped her dog-eared copy of his autobiography, Dear Theo, onto my nightstand after touring a collection of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition (a dubious term in this context) is on view at AREA15, the avant-garde mall dedicated to all things immersive. (The security person who admitted me called Meow Wolf an “immersive-experience-Neiman-Marcus.”)
Upon entry, my 10-year-old son, who I’d conscripted to attend with me as a safety, deployed all of the symptoms of an oohed and ahhed tourist. He remarked, “That’s the guy that painted ‘Starry Night!’” For a moment, I felt hope that this would in some way provide my son with what my mother had provided me—a sincere interest in what makes the life of an artist.
The room housing Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience is a cavernous rectangle that would envelop the electronics section of your local Walmart. Tins of wilting sunflowers adorned circular, high-top tables. In a separate section, socially distanced loveseats dotted the walls. We took our seats at the center table and ordered two ginger ales from our waitress.
We were presented with a 30-minute loop of undulating animations of some of the artist’s most notable work. A more-than-satisfactory soundtrack of placid classical music backed the occasional passages, read aloud, from Van Gogh’s writings to his brother.
I must say I wandered into this exhibition fully aware of my jaded artist’s perspective, still hoping for some small piece of overwhelming catharsis. Instead underwhelming monotony occurred. I have no desire to spit upon a cadre of pixel jockeys’ hard work, but, even within the realm of spectacle, this exhibition was unimpressive. The irresistible enchantment of Van Gogh’s paintings is, in this format, lost. His sharp, swift brushstrokes are made soft and shallow. Watching animations of his paintings felt like being forced to look at parlor tricks. While Houdini performs behind a curtain, the silhouette of a great performance only heightens the inequity.
I looked to my son, thinking that a person born into this digital era, imbued with the naivety of youth, might have a more forgiving eye and show some sign of delight. The boy quietly sipped his ginger ale, reading the quotes that were used as transitional devices throughout the run of the immersion.
A man at the table across from us wiggled a selfie stick out of his blazer pocket, attached his camera, and extended the rod for a photo with his date. At this point, I found any possibility of even the most fleeting enchantment with this experience running out of my veins.
Las Vegas is a city built on the human desire for experience. Every pit boss, nightclub manager, and valet knows it. We count on the human need to escape mundanity, to play with risk, to over-indulge the senses for our city’s survival. In Las Vegas, we have made spectacle into a form of art. The slow rise in immersive spaces and experiences that tout themselves as art in this city will be the next in a long line of experiments we have trotted out in order to hold the world’s attention long enough to pick its pocket. I would be excited to see this coming new age, save the small discrepancy of verbage. Calling this “art” is particularly dangerous, and the use of the term “immersive” is powerfully deceptive. Art, if approached from a place of intentional interest, has always been and will always be immersive.
Feel free to label me an elitist or old fashioned, a Gen-Xer clinging to art’s material and conceptual past like a series of stuffed animals stitched together for a Mike Kelley exhibition. But I think Van Gogh would also be troubled by an era where observation is devalued for presentation. We have endless rooms dedicated to photographing ourselves, just to show our friends we did something. The desire to be seen is a farce of vanity. Maybe this is the new way of things—late stage capitalism’s final co-option of our desire to bring majesty into our lives.
I hope that I am proven wrong, that these are just the baby steps into an era of immersive experiential art that will show all of us new and compelling ways to be human—beautifully built experiences that transcend definitions, like “art” and “spectacle.” For now though, if you want to have an immersive art experience, I recommend First Friday, or Left of Center Gallery. Las Vegas has a wonderful library gallery system, and there is always the Barrick Museum at UNLV. Every single one of those things is free. Most are not much farther from The Strip than AREA15.
If you are looking for a background for your next Instagram post, then Van Gogh the Immersive Experience, and many of the surrounding attractions at AREA15, will certainly provide ample content. But if you want to engage with art and are hell-bent on spending money on paying a ticket price, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art has a really beautiful exhibition up. Or you could make a truly dangerous life decision and buy the work of a local artist. That might cost you more than a $35 admission fee. It might also require you to have a real opinion and sense of identity.
After several transitions through wall-sized projections of Van Gogh’s less remarkable work, the walls begin to melt, and projections of raindrops land on the floor. The artist’s last words are projected around the room: “Sadness will last forever.”
The loop begins again. My son points out that we are back at the beginning. I ask if he wants to stay and see it again. He side-eyes me in a way only your own child can, and we head for the exit. The child’s critique: “It was laggy. The quotes were the best part, but there weren’t that many. The rain effect was cool, but a lot of it felt fake and boring.” I laugh and remark, “At least the flowers were real”.