I don't know about you, but when I first heard about the big van Gogh multimedia show called "Immersive van Gogh," it gave me a shudder. In photographs I saw the hugely blown-up paintings with spectators literally walking through his modest bedroom, trudging through his spooky wheat fields with crows sweeping around their heads. Las Vegas came to mind when I saw spectators sitting like tourists in his night café, surely doused in rousing French accordion tunes and chansons. What happens to the intimate connection with a painting, I wondered, with the real thing, in the silence of an art gallery or museum? How do the multimedia tourists handle the painter's suffering, brilliance, craziness that now becomes a large hall decoration? It seemed an almost indecent proposition.
I didn't go.
To my surprise, when Frida Kahlo became the next immersion "victim" in
San Francisco, I was interested. For some reason, I thought, Kahlo's
continuous gaze at herself in a mirror seemed to invite a different reaction.
Like dancers studying themselves in mirrors to perfect their perfection, in
Kahlo's self-portraits one shares the dichotomy of her being both subject
and object of her art. One aspect of her self-portraits puts them "on show,"
exquisitely adorned and decorated and breathtakingly beautiful. The idea
of seeing her face high as a house, after studying it on her votive-size
canvases, seemed enticing.
The event took place in a semi-industrial district of central San Francisco,
in a worn-out warehouse or hangar, all ugly cement and metal. The place
once served for pop concerts and a car dealership. The organizers,
Universe Immersive, had made a minimal effort to be inviting. Left-overs
of "Immersive van Gogh" were painted on the concrete of the dreary
entryway. A neon window had Frida's name in garish colors; a striped
Mexican rug served as the first foothold for selfies.
Some sixty visitors were encouraged to group at a Covid-safe distance in
circles painted on the floor, with a bench or chairs. The show was projected
all around the room, sometimes also covering floor and ceiling. Compared
to the iMac experience, the height of the images was less impressive,
perhaps 15 feet maximum. But the room was very large and in "perpetual
motion" as images kept floating up and around, very close and very far.
Sometimes Frida's paintings "unfolded" like ancient scrolls from the top of
the walls – a visual effect that looked good but made little sense. Others
rose like a wave from the floor. There was always so much going on that by
chasing after one interesting painting or photograph you missed plenty of
others. I missed precisely the picture I had noticed in the trailer and
wanted to see: Frida in a wheel chair, painting at an easel. ,
The 40-minute spectacle seemed to run continuously. You knew it had
ended when you recognized what you had already seen.
I was puzzling over this dramaturgical ambiguity when there was, after all,
a sign of a beginning: an almost life-size cartoon bus, outlined in ghostly
white, started moving sideways in front of a Mexico City street-scenery by
night. The effect was startling. The cityscape moved to the left, the bus to
the right. A loud sound of a slowing and accelerating engine accompanied
flashes of film showing the road in the headlights of a moving vehicle. The
mixture of animation, slide projection and film perfectly rendered what
"immersive" multimedia stood for.
Clearly this was supposed to be the fatal bus ride ending in the collision
with a trolley car. It was a long, slow, suspenseful scene, giving one time to
imagine being on the bus and waiting for someone's life to shatter. By some
miracle, eighteen year-old Frida survived the accident with a broken back,
broken ribs, splintered leg and pierced pelvis. It was a biographical scene
that every spectator surely understood. It was also a scene every spectator
surely understood even without ever seeing a Kahlo painting in a museum;
such is her iconic stature. But as everybody knows about the accident that
happened in broad daylight, it's hard to fathom why the show added the
drama of a night ride? More immersive, perhaps?
There was no further dramatic urgency in the otherwise lumbering show.
The next long "scene" oddly pictured the Russian revolution and somehow
morphed into the apparent industrialization of Mexico, with pretty pop-up
pictures but no clear message. Was it to suggest that Frida believed in the
ideals of communism and that Trotsky was her lover? Or just that Frida
grew up on a modern Mexico and was a modern woman? Up came Frida's
self-portrait with a cigarette, blowing a little stack of smoke out of her
mouth. The painted Frida sucked the smoke cloud back in and blew it out
And then there finally was Diego Rivera, the big philandering husband, but
instead of his murals we got a long sequence of scaffolding being erected all
around the room to insistent sounds of hammering. Were we supposed to
take this as Frida's broken body being hammered together in her many
surgeries? I did not detect her painting of her body pierced by countless
nails. Maybe I missed it – or it was missing. Like the great quantity of
Frida's depictions of her looming death, her pain, her miscarriages and
abortions. Apart from a floating skeleton and the occasional skull she
painted into her self-portraits, her pain was absent from the show. On
purpose, it turned out.
An art show placed outside the museum circuit and meant for the "general
audience," had better leave out the nudity, blood and other harsher
realities of Frida's oeuvre. The Frida Kahlo Family Trust (originated by her
sister Cristina who apparently was one of Diego's lovers) teamed up with
the production company Universe Immersive to get away from the
"Suffrida," and present "a happy, empowered woman" instead.
The "happy" Frida got the rest of the 40-minute spectacle: all the familiar
paintings of Frida surrounded by nature, jungles, monkeys and birds. The
leaves in one of these paintings suddenly began to fall all over the walls,
looking pretty and surely meant to be happy. The voluptuous jungle scene
of another painting went "live" with hummingbirds zipping about and
flowers nodding. Next, her painting of herself as a deer pierced by many
arrows ran from wall to wall, but that was not enough animation. At first
Frida's face appeared in profile, then she slowly turned her gaze at the
spectator – another "immersive" dramatizing that distracted from the dark
meaning of the painting and bordered on kitsch.
And so it went, hop-scotching between the dramatic and the whimsical
(Frida-dresses swaying through the room), and the romantic (a spectacular
starry night in saturated blue replete with bridal imagery), all of it
accompanied in music from Mexican popular tunes. Where was the
narrative? Where was the script?
What was the idea behind it, I kept wondering and not getting an answer.
"Immersive Frida Kahlo" was neither a biography nor a serious portrait of
the artist, but a conglomerate, a potpourri that remained opaque,
mystifyingly meaningless and, in spite of her brilliant work on display,
Part of the problem may be that immersive multimedia spectacles are
group creations by technicians, not artists or art curators. I imagine other
famous artists' family trusts having their hands (and purses) in the game.
With the cheapest ticket at $40, the fashion seems lucrative.
Immersive art shows outside museums or galleries have multiplied in the
past few years. Diverse van Gogh and Picasso spectacles, Monet,
Michelangelo, Klimt, Dali, Chagall -- artists who already drag a cottage
industry of tchotchkes behind them and can't defend themselves as they
are dead. But even today's street-to-museum artist Banksy is cashing in. As
the first and only woman, Frida Kahlo will probably have to wait for a
"sister" in fame who could tempt the crowds to "immerse" themselves. We
could speculate: Georgia O'Keefe with her "happy" flowers? Louise
Bourgeois in a Halloween horror spectacle of giant spiders? Could they sell
4.5 million tickets like van Gogh?
Some culture critics joked that the true immersion in these spectacles
happens to your cell phone via Instagram. And not to forget, there always is
the final immersion: the exit through the gift shop. Maybe a post-pop
descendant of Andy Warhol will come up with a new "immersive" entirely
based on the souvenir mugs and caps, handbags and umbrellas of the gift
shop universe: the Immersive Remember Picasso, Immersive Gift van
Gogh, Immersive Full Fridamania or, you name it.