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Travel to Dubai


An Impression of the future

1 March 2018

The Van Gogh Alive exhibition in Dubai this month is set to entertain as well as educate. But could it also represent the future of how we enjoy art?

The lights dim, the audience settles in expectation. Suddenly, amidst a riot of colour and stirring music, a true, timeless icon looms large on huge screens, drawing everyone deeply into the vivid images. They are instantly engrossed, captivated by the sights and sounds. But this isn’t the latest 3D movie at an IMAX theatre. Instead, somewhat incredibly, this is an exhibition devoted to Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh – and it’s changing the way we think about and experience art.

Van Gogh Alive comes to Dubai in March after a six-week run earlier in the year in Abu Dhabi, and has been wowing audiences across the world since its 2011 debut. The premise is simple: to use huge, high-definition projections, light, sound and spectacle not just to immerse an audience into the groundbreaking work of the artist, but also to tell the story of his life. It’s about as far away from queuing in a gallery for a sight of a small still-life painting of some sunflowers as it’s possible to get.

“We wanted to create a new way to experience art and open it up to a wider audience, and that means people who might not traditionally visit art galleries,” says Rob Kirk from Grande Exhibitions, the company behind Van Gogh Alive. “The idea is to engage, entertain and reflect the kind of thing people expect from a cultural experience in 2018. You have to do a lot more to capture people these days.”

Interestingly, Kirk says Grande Exhibitions consider themselves storytellers more than anything else, so when they were considering which artist might fit best for their first show, there were important decisions to be made, not only about who had the most worldwide appeal, but also how their “brand” of visually impressive art would work across 40 huge screens.

“Van Gogh is top of that list,”

“He’s one of the most famous artists in the world, and his work is tremendously vibrant and colourful. There’s a great story of a tortured soul who only painted for 10 years of his life, but who produced this huge body of spectacular work."  explains Kirk.

“So we wanted to take that work onto a large scale and immerse visitors in the paintings, combining them with a musical score – which is a very important component of the experience. The scale is so awe-inspiring, it’s almost like you’re part of the painting.”

In fact, Kirk likens the process of putting Van Gogh Alive together to adapting a much-loved book for the big screen. More than 3,000 digital images are used in the show, including his famous Sunflowers, The Starry Night, Self-Portrait and Bedroom In Arles. Once permission has been gathered to use them, the really hard editorial and production work begins, with animations commissioned and even some set building taking place – you can step into Van Gogh’s famous bedroom painting and have your photograph taken.

Given that the originals are dispersed across the globe, it’s easy to see how a show such as Van Gogh Alive can offer not just a new way to experience the artist’s work, but perhaps the only way to visit it; unless you’re willing to travel thousands of miles to museums on different continents. The exhibition has now been to 36 cities around the world, and while you can’t get up close and personal with his original artworks, the show is meant to be complementary rather than a replacement for seeing the real thing.

“We don’t dictate what people should take from the experience,” Kirk explains. “Predominantly, it’s families, younger people and the digitally savvy visiting, and we hear most people say they want to learn more about art or Vincent Van Gogh having done so. But they want to be entertained as well as educated.”

The educational element, along with the immersive tech on display, was key to the decision by Dubai-based events and entertainment company 6IX to license Grande Exhibitions’ show for UAE audiences. There’s also patronage from the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, and support from Emirates.

“I spoke to a family in Abu Dhabi who told me it was the first gallery they’d been to where their children wanted to stay longer than they did,” laughs 6IX director Jessica Zuell. “So we do want this to be an engaging, entertaining and educational experience, which will make sense for people who might not usually go to an art gallery or know much about art. It’s about providing a gateway experience for everyone, and maybe they will find themselves wanting to know more about Van Gogh and art generally.”

Zuell says that although she’s now experienced Van Gogh Alive hundreds of times, she’s still struck by how the show continues to genuinely move her, thanks to the combination of movement, image and music.

“And that’s the feedback we’ve already got from visitors. It’s quite an emotional experience thanks to its unique concept,” says Zuell. “You see all of his paintings completely differently, and the way you can forget everything around you and be completely immersed in the painting is really quite beautiful.”

In fact, Zuell argues that Van Gogh Alive has become something of a phenomenon, given that more than two million people have experienced it since 2011. And with Grande Exhibitions now offering similar “blockbuster experiences” with Leonardo da Vinci and the French Impressionists – as well as other non-art shows – it certainly feels that their mix of technology and entertainment might be the future of how we experience an exhibition.

“A lot of traditional galleries are are looking at introducing this technology into their own exhibitions, whether that’s because the originals are getting too fragile or because audience expectations are for an immersive, digital experience these days,” says Kirk.

So might we see a Virtual Reality Van Gogh Experience soon, where you strap on some goggles and are transported from where you stand into the painting? Perhaps surprisingly, Kirk isn’t so sure that this is the answer, despite the fantastic opportunities that technology now offers.

“One of the real benefits of Van Gogh Alive is that it’s a shared experience,” says Kirk. “You can see the amazed reactions of family and friends. We could do virtual reality quite easily, but it’s singular. You could sit and do that at home.

“For us, going to Van Gogh Alive is about being in a crowd and feeling a part of something that everyone around you is enjoying. It’s more like a rock concert in that sense.”

Dubai Design District D3, From March 11, 9am to 10pm (Daily)


Words: Ben East