Visitors admire the large-scale projections of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” (Photo Credit: Michael Browsilow)

Imagine walking into a field of sunflowers. Bursts of yellow and burnt orange surround you against a sea of sky blue. Soon the flowers that have become synonymous with artist Vincent Van Gogh fill every corner of the room and launch your journey into the life and work of one of the most influential artists in the world. 

The Immersive Van Gogh exhibition, now open in Charlotte’s bustling new Camp North End, spreads across 76,154 square feet, or one and a half football fields of sensory overload. The specs include 118,800 frames of video, 500,000 cubic feet of projections and 190,000 pixels displaying Van Gogh’s work from the sunny landscapes and night scenes to his portraits and still life paintings. 

The exhibition includes some of his most recognizable paintings like “Mangeurs de Pommes de Terre” (The Potato Eaters, 1885), “Nuit Étoilée” (Starry Night, 1889), “Les Tournesols” (Sunflowers, 1888), “Le Chambre à coucher” (The Bedroom, 1889) and so much more. Over 400 images were licensed for the exhibition from museums across the world.

Adding to the immersive experience, Italian composer Luca Longobardi has created an imaginative soundtrack. As the petals from “Ramo di Mandorlo Fiorito” (Almond Blossoms, 1890) fly across the room, Longobardi’s own “Kyoto” moves to Murcof’s “Lost in Time – Chapitre I” and Van Gogh’s “Camera da Letto” (Bedroom in Aries, 1888) is created all around you. Later in the roughly 35-minute show, blasts of color fill the room as the majestic sounds of Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” bring viewers to a moment of awe. The partnership of Artistic Director Massimiliano Siccardi and Longobardi is magnificent.

“Beyond art exhibiting, it’s also filmmaking,” said Corey Ross during the June 16th pre-opening and ribbon cutting. Ross is just one of two producers from the Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive company that created the immersive exhibition. “You’re going to find yourself standing in the middle of an animated film where Massimiliano Siccardi has deconstructed all of the works of Van Gogh and reconstructed them in a very interesting way.” 

The blockbuster exhibition was seen by over 2 million visitors in Paris, received tremendous acclaim in Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco, and has additional openings scheduled for 16 cities across North America, but Charlotte currently has the largest exhibition in the world. 

“This historic Ford Factory is such an incredible palette for Massimiliano to work on, and also for our team to work on,” continued Ross, “Each installation is completely unique and different. It’s informed by the architecture of the building. It’s informed by the culture of the city, the collaboration we can have with the local presenter and moreover with local artists.” 

Bree Stallings helped create those opportunities for the local art community in numbers that have far surpassed other cities in the exhibition’s tour. Stallings was recently named Blumenthal Performing Arts Director of Artistic Experience and is a popular local artist and muralist herself who recently completed a mural at Time Out Youth with local LGBTQ youth.  

Connecting to the history of Camp North End, a classic Model T with Van Gogh racing stripes sits near the opening of the exhibition. In 1924, nearly 35 years after Van Gogh’s death, architect Albert Kahn designed the first factory at the site for the Ford Motor Company. 300,000 Model T and Model A cars were built at the factory prior to the Great Depression. 

The exhibition space also features photographs from the 1890s in Charlotte, showing what the city looked like during Van Gogh’s life. Murals, installations and sculptures complete the space with work from 19 local artists. In addition, 26 Charlotte-based artists are selling their custom merchandise in the boutique area of the exhibition gift shop and Blumenthal is expected to announce soon the 10 artists who will take up residence in the space through September. According to Stallings, “one dollar from every ticket is being sewn back into the creative and small business community.” 

A Welcomed Return to Art

Tom Gabbard welcomed a room full of city officials, local artists and community members to the event on June 16 with a smile on his face, acknowledging the long time since he had spoken in front of a physical audience. “We are at this unique point in time, as a world, as a country, coming out of the COVID crisis we’ve been living through,” said Gabbard. “Immersive Van Gogh in Charlotte and in many other cities is one of the first opportunities that we’ve had to be back together — to enjoy a live experience together.” 

Gabbard has been the CEO of Blumenthal’s Performing Arts since 2003 and in that time has taken the organization to becoming a Top 10 market for touring Broadway shows in North America. The Blumenthal’s 110 employees manage six theatres in Charlotte, typically hosting over 1,000 performances annually in addition to numerous education programs. 

Revenue has been down however, with a 90 percent reduction over the past year because of pandemic shutdowns. In February, the arts organization released its PNC Broadway Lights and Equitable Bravo series lineup. Additional changes to the popular theatre seasons were announced in April, but exhibits like Immersive Van Gogh and local entertainment options are welcomed by residents and by the organization as our lives seem to be edging back to normal. 

Reminders of the virus still exist however, with sitting or standing circles spaced throughout the exhibition at the appropriate six-foot intervals we’ve all grown accustomed to, and guests are encouraged to wear masks if they have not been vaccinated. Hand sanitizer stations are spaced for guests convenience and the Boileryard behind the Ford Building provides a perfect space to gather with friends outdoors after walking through the exhibition. 

Ross further discussed the fully experiential moment that Immersive Van Gogh provides. “What’s been so wonderful about this project is coming out of COVID when none of us have been able to experience any of the usual experience of art, here is an opportunity to see a completely new type of genre as the first thing that you get to see,” he said.  

When you visit, make sure to walk around the room, experience how the colors play off the corners and fill the space with light. Benches are scattered around the space for when you want to relax and take in the full breadth of the show, along with a bit of people watching. Cushions are also available for people to rent or purchase, allowing you to sit directly on the floor. 

“Astonishing in scale and breathtakingly imaginative, this is a completely new look at the Master’s work.” 

Tickets start at $39.99 for adults and $24.99 for kids. For more information about Immersive Van Gogh, visit vangoghclt.com.

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