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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
As children, many wish they could walk into a painting like Mary Poppins into the world of street chalk, or follow the scribbles of Harold’s Purple Crayon. Since there is not yet a portal into these worlds, the next best thing has begun: immersive art exhibitions.
Walking into these exhibitions — likely housed in an old warehouse — the ceiling lights shut off and the surrounding walls are illuminated with famous artwork like Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” or the Sistine Chapel. Why not turn van Gogh, Monet, and Kahlo into a sort of Walt Disney world with interactive playgrounds made from their art? Perhaps even with a Zuckerbergian Metaverse spin? These multisensory, immersive experiences based on any given artists’ original work loom larger than life.
The premier of Immersive van Gogh, in particular, spread like wildfire, much like any “cool find” on TikTok. In 2020, Netflix released an episode of the hit show “Emily in Paris,” featuring a bright-eyed Emily wandering through the original Parisian Immersive van Gogh exhibit. It was a perfect idea for the (somewhat) post-pandemic, impatient lifestyle: exciting, fast-paced, and with lots and lots of screens.
After Immersive van Gogh made its successful debut in Paris, the medium turned its attention toward exhibiting in American metropolises. The grandness and perpetual stimulation feel appropriately American, especially for American children (a generation of “iPad kids”) or adults who find the art world inaccessible due to its ties with wealth and elite education. Immersive art exhibits do succeed in bringing the infamous and unattainable closer to audiences that would have to board a plane to experience the art. But this point is caveated, however, by the exhibitions’ exclusive location in big cities.
A major draw of these shows becomes clear after watching “Emily in Paris” or scrolling through social media. These immersive shows are aesthetically stunning. On Instagram, they convey an image of a person who is not only fun and artsy, but cultured. Undeniably, a huge part of Immersive van Gogh’s success was the appeal to teens and young adults who love a colorful and flashy post up on their feed.
This trend of immersive art is not confined to contemporary generations, either. A Shakespeare play at the Globe theater or a choir singing in a Medieval gothic church have historically had a similar, although analogue, immersive effect to these exhibits. More recent examples include the works of the contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama or those featured in Venice’s Biennale that require viewers to walk through a physical space to experience their art on a multidimensional level.
Of course, seeing an original Kusama installation is entirely different than seeing a recreation of Frida Kahlo, but when attending Immersive Frida Kahlo, it is the original work of Massimiliano Siccardi, who was also the artist behind Immersive van Gogh, Klimt, and Monet & The Impressionists. Siccardi is well-established in the art world, having studied dance and winning awards for his photography and scenography over the course of thirty years. As the mastermind behind these installations, Siccardi has asserted himself in a monopoly of the grandiose digital art world, his reach spanning continents and genres.
These artists at the heart of the immersive exhibitions, many of them long dead, could have never envisioned this digital era twist on their works. What they did with oil paints, a brush, and canvas can now be revitalized by Siccardi and other digital artists. In order to use this art, they certainly had to jump over hurdles with copyright laws, but so did artists like Warhol. In 1984, Warhol altered Lynn Goldsmith’s portrait of Prince for a Vanity Fair piece, after which a series of debates on his right to do so ensued. Warhol argued that his interpretation changed the meaning of the photo, giving it new life, as the animated interpretations of these impressionists claim to do. Siccardi and Warhol perhaps upcycle others’ art to an extreme extent, but most artists create with a grasp of their time and the art that came before them.
Impressionism came out of Romanticism, which took spins on works from ancient Greece. A totally new and contemporary genre actually situating itself in a canon of Western art. Immersive exhibit artists are now harnessing what they learn from the art before them with digital tools, perhaps similarly to how Romans copied exact Greek sculptures using more modern tools. Should these Roman sculptures face the same contestation as immersive exhibits?
Perhaps then, a crux of the issue lies not only in catering to a social media-centric generation, but that in using this famous art, digital artists strip the original art of its “aura.” In one of his most influential essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 20th century aesthetic and social philosopher Walter Benjamin defines aura as “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Ancient Roman art, copied or original, therefore has an aura that Siccardi’s “mechanical reproductions” of impressionist work do not. The original art he shows does not retain its “aura,” while for Kusama, walking across her mirrored floors is experiencing her art in its most fruitful, not withering, form.
When going to Immersive van Gogh, you are not going to see a collection of van Gogh’s greatest works, you are going to see a digital interpretation of van Gogh, which may or may not matter to the audience that would rather spend $40 to see van Gogh animated in a Tribeca warehouse than $25 to see the real thing at the MET.
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