Don’t know much about Van Gogh or art history? Me neither! That certainly didn’t stop me from wandering into Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, fascinated by the sign in the city centre that promised “a 360° digital art experience”.
As I stepped into the main exhibition, I was transported – Van Gogh’s most famous works were being projected onto the walls, the ceiling, and the floor, surrounding me completely. It was accompanied by soothing, almost hypnotic music, which further added to the dreamlike nature of the experience. The paintings were incredibly dynamic – smoke billowing, stars shimmering, and ripples forming in the water. One painting slowly transformed into the next, and I was enthralled. The atmosphere felt intimate, reflective, and absolutely surreal, and I stayed in there for nearly an hour, just taking it all in.
Outside the main exhibit, there was a long table with crayons and several blank copies of Van Gogh’s paintings (including his portrait), for people to colour in. The visitors’ interpretations of his art – my favourite was Van Gogh as a purple E.T – were displayed on the wall, which I thought was a fun way to get people to engage with his work. And yes, I did a painting too, trying and failing to colour in the lines because I have the motor skills of a two-year-old.
However, the best part of the exhibition was the Virtual Reality experience (which cost an additional £3) that took you through a day in the life of Van Gogh in Arles – a city in France where he spent a big part of his life and created his most famous pieces. I put the VR headset on and immediately found myself in Van Gogh’s bedroom. The tour took me through the gorgeous spots that inspired eight of Van Gogh’s major paintings – the forests, the meadows, the village – ending with Starry Night Over The Rhône. The scenes were masterfully designed to be as immersive as possible, and you could turn 360° in your seat in order not to miss a single detail. The whole thing lasted around 11 minutes, every one of which I spent in childlike awe and wonder. I have to say, though, it was quite bizarre to look down and not see my legs; I felt like a head floating through space.
The exhibition also had displays of his paintings, along with information about his life, art, and eventual illness (including the reason he cut off his own ear). I ended up learning a great deal, and was sorely tempted by the cute gift shop right before the exit, where they had Van Gogh themed t-shirts, cups, postcards and more.
The experience stayed with me long after I left, and so I made another trip there, this time to chat with the staff and find out more about the exhibition. Cristina, the assistant manager, pointed out that there were no real paintings in the exhibition, everything was digital. The unique sound and light show was designed to provide a fully immersive experience, to make you feel like you had stepped into Van Gogh’s paintings. The exhibition has travelled across the world over the years, and has been in York since 2019. It’s in St. Mary’s Church, Castlegate, where the stone walls, arches and high ceiling add considerably to the grand experience. Tickets for students cost £11, and bookings are open through the end of the year. If you couldn’t tell already, I highly recommend giving it a go!