Having arrived in the city in July 2019, fresh from a successful tour of Europe, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience was originally supposed to stay in York for only six months.
However, 18 months, 65,000 visitors and two national lockdowns later, a decision was made to further extend its stay at York St Mary’s, a medieval church turned contemporary art exhibition space in Coppergate in the city centre. It has also been credited with lifting the spirits of those who have seen it during what has, undoubtedly, been a difficult year for many people.
The exhibition is the work of Mario Iacampo, the Belgian creative director and founder of Exhibition Hub, a curator, producer and distributor of large exhibitions globally. The company is also responsible for The Art of the Brick, which was the first major contemporary art exhibition to solely use Lego and received rave reviews when it visited Manchester as part of a global tour attended by more than four million people.
Mario said: “It has been a wonderful experience, in spite of the confinement, with a very appreciative audience.”
He also revealed that the exhibition team hoped, all things being well, to be bringing a new art attraction to York this year, adding: “We look forward to continuing into 2021, not only with Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, but also with Claude Monet: The Immersive Experience.” So watch this space.
The Van Gogh experience attracted more than 15,000 visitors between the first and second national lockdowns alone, despite the fact that its capacity had to be reduced to accommodate social distancing guidance.
Exhibition manager Evie Blackstock believes that one of the reasons it has proved such a hit with visitors is that it gave them a welcome taste of the “holiday vibe” that most of us missed out on last year as a result of the travel restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of Covid-19. This explanation seems entirely plausible given that visitors could immerse themselves in fields of golden sunflowers; twinkling, starry night skies; and other famous scenes from Van Gogh’s work, all of which are projected onto the ancient stone walls of York St Mary’s.
“The feedback we have had post-lockdown has been wonderful,” says Evie. “I think people are appreciating art even more. They want to escape the real world, even if it’s only for an hour. The exhibition lifts everyone’s spirits and gives them hope as we strive to get back to normality.”
It certainly seems to have struck a chord with people. Guest book comments like “Absolutely astonishing... My anxiety instantly cured” and “Inspirational exhibition! I’ll be getting my paints back out thanks to Vincent! Waited since March, worth it!” demonstrate the strength of feeling that the exhibition provokes in visitors.
“We know that lockdown impacted on just about everybody’s sense of wellbeing, and it seems like the feedback we’re getting from visitors now is even more positive than when we first opened,” says Evie. “The Zen-like experience of the main immersive projection is having a huge impact on our visitors, who are commenting about how it has lifted their mood.
“We’ve seen people return for a second visit. As the attraction is set out in a socially-distanced way, visitors feel safe and able to relax, leaving feeling positive and uplifted.”
The first part of the exhibition is a 35-minute sound and light show for which visitors take a seat. “There are 360-degree projections around the church of Van Gogh’s most famous work and some of his sketches. This part of the exhibition tells you about his life and his struggles,” says Evie.
She likens it to an abstract journey through the artist’s life, which was punctuated by episodes of mental illness and poverty. Widely considered to be a tortured genius and infamous for severing part of his own left ear, Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37 having failed to achieve commercial success in his own lifetime.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that he finally began to receive widespread acclaim, and his paintings are now among the most expensive ever sold, fetching tens of millions of pounds at auction. His Portrait of Dr Gachet sold for more than $80m in 1990, making it the world’s most expensive painting at the time.
As one of the first attractions to reopen in York last July following the first nationwide lockdown, the Van Gogh experience secured Visit England’s “We’re Good to Go” accreditation to reassure visitors that steps had been taken to create a safe environment. Everyone who visits is required to wear a mask and the deckchairs that people sit in for the main show are spaced two metres apart.
“In the virtual reality section, we’ve had to take extra precautions; disposable covers are used on the masks provided and we sanitise the VR equipment between each use,” adds Evie. “We’ve removed half of the VR stations to enable social distancing. Gloves and hand sanitiser are provided in the drawing section.”
The exhibition’s sound and light show charts Van Gogh’s life in Arles in the south of France, which was where he developed the painting style that’s so instantly recognisable today, and where his subject matter evolved to include the olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers. Also featured are excerpts from hundreds of letters that he sent to his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who offered him both financial and emotional support.
“The projections are very family-friendly. Rather than going to an art gallery, it’s way more engaging for children and fun to watch,” says Evie. “There’s also a virtual reality section where you are taken to a day in the life of Van Gogh during his time in Arles.”
This part of the exhibition features eight of his most famous masterpieces, including The Starry Night, and tells you about the sources of inspiration for his paintings.
“Visitors will feel actively involved and will really feel what the inspiration was behind each painting. It also gives you a real sense of what his life was like at that time,” adds Evie.
The exhibition also features a mindful drawing section, where visitors can create their own artwork and have it projected onto the walls, as well as information boards on Van Gogh.
Evie believes the location enhances the atmosphere. “St Mary’s is the perfect setting; it fits the mood of the exhibition well.”
Thought to date back to 1020, the church is a remarkable visitor attraction in its own right. The remains of the original Saxon church are limited to an area of stonework close to the chancel and much of the building that we see today was erected in the 13th century, with some 14th and 15th century modifications.
At 47 metres, its steeple is the tallest in York. The church was deconsecrated in 1958 but operated as a heritage centre for several years before being repurposed as a venue for contemporary art exhibitions, run by the York Museums and Gallery Trust, in 2004.
It’s a fitting venue to host an exhibition dedicated to an artist whose work continues to dazzle and inspire in equal measure 130 years after his death.
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is in York until February 28. Tickets must be pre-booked. For details about prices and Covid-related information go to www.vangoghexpo.co.uk or call 01904 501544.