Starry, starry byte – digital Van Gogh enlivens SF arts scene

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Immersive Van Gogh allows visitors to experience what it might be like if you stepped into a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. The multimedia experience runs through Sept. 6 at SVN West in San Francisco. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

While museums are reopening (slowly) and theaters are sadly stuck as likely the last venues to come back to life, there’s a new hybrid event that gives you a taste of both high art and in-person thrills. Immersive Van Gogh is, essentially, a virtual reality experience without the goggles…and with the added thrill of being around other people in a big room.

This slick, artful use of technology is popping up in cities all over the place, and it’s a gentle way of bringing art-craving people back together under one roof to see, listen, think and feel. The set-up is simple and straightforward: project floor-to-ceiling images of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and embellish them with some artful (occasionally cheesy) animation effects. Then underscore the visuals with music ranging from ambient to classical to pop/rock. Think Mussorgsky, Radiohead and a dash of Piaf (with ample assistance from composer Luca Longobardi). I have to say that even without the stunning visuals, just hearing such loud music outside my house (or my headphones) was thrilling.

But this is all about Van Gogh, so the visuals are monumental. For instance, when creative director Massimiliano Siccardi and art director Vittorio Guidotti decide to present some of Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers, the room practically explodes with golden yellow joy. These crystal clear digital renderings of the paintings allow us to experience the texture of every brush stroke. Often, the paintings chosen for this show assemble themselves as if Vincent’s unseen hand were magically manifesting them just for us. The brush strokes undulate and wriggle and swirl like living creatures.

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We’re in the country, in villages, in cities, in bedrooms. There is, of course, a starry night (and happily they did not play Don McLean on the soundtrack, but I was holding my breath for ja moment). The artist’s self-portraits are plentiful, which adds a reminder that this post-Impressionist superstar was a real, live human being who, amid other troubles, only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Immersive Van Gogh emerges at such an interesting time. We’re all craving safe group experiences outside the grocery store, and as our pandemic restrictions ease, this seems a more than viable option. Before you even enter the special event space at the corner of Market Street and South Van Ness in San Francisco, your temperature is taken and security guards wand you. Social distancing measures are strictly observed, as are mask requirements. Once in the inner sanctum, you see a floor filled with socially distant circles of light. You can move around the room, but when you stop and stare, you are asked to pick a circle. There are benches here and there, and whenever a sitter stands and leaves, a staff member disinfects that bench almost instantly.

The show lasts about 35 minutes and plays on a loop. You can stay as long as you like, but I was satisfied after about 45 minutes. There’s a raised platform in the center of the room for a full 360-degree view for a limited number of people, but honestly there’s not a bad view anywhere. And if the music gets too loud, a staff member will fetch you some earplugs. There’s a café and a rather large gift shop on your way out, naturally.

Is this experience better than standing and contemplating an actual Van Gogh painting? No. Is it entertaining, joyful and entirely welcome? Absolutely. Van Gogh experience it for yourself.

Immersive Van Gogh continues through Sept. 6 at SVN West at the corner of Market Street and South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Tickets are $24.99 (children 16 or younger) and $34.99 (adults). Visit or call 844-307-4644.