This summer Kensington Gardens hosted ‘Van Gogh Alive’, a globe-trotting exhibition heralded as one of London’s top attractions of 2021. Advertised as a ‘ground-breaking’ multi-sensory experience, the show aimed to immerse audiences in the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh. The concept may sound fascinating, but experiencing the reality left me questioning how technology has changed the way we engage with art – and possibly changed it for the worse.
Like many, I came across the exhibition through my Instagram and TikTok feeds, instantly falling victim to yet another social media trend. Installed inside a purpose-built tent, the entrance provides a timeline of the artist’s life, situated between a café, and a gift shop. This leads on to the main room, an eye-catching display of projected images showcasing a mishmash of Van Gogh’s art and writings, from his earliest works to his final impressionist masterpieces. The fusion of visuals and sounds take you from the origins of Van Gogh’s artistic career in the Netherlands to his turbulent last few days in Auvers. Displayed through mesmerising light projections, I found much of the experience emotionally moving and aesthetically pleasing.
Yet the exhibition itself was unquestionably an example of how art is being tailored to a new generation. In a single decade, Van Gogh created over two thousand pieces, becoming one of the most prolific figures in Western art history. The exhibition itself attempts to cover this influential body of work within the timeframe of an hour, an experience primarily catering for the short attention spans of Generation Z.
Indeed, the exhibits were all immaculately Instagrammable. Throughout the tent, viewers watched with phones in hand, always poising for that perfect ‘art-selfie’. At times, the audience seemed more concerned with their internet profiles than the art they came to view. Social media has infiltrated the art world, and while this can mean accessibility, promotion, and innovation, I have to wonder whether we can meaningfully engage with art in this way.
Furthermore, can we engage with pieces in the way the artist intended when they are being transformed and distorted by technology? At the ‘Van Gogh Alive’ exhibition, there was not a single artwork on display. We were viewing these creations through an entirely new medium, completely unknown to the artist. Van Gogh chose paint as a way to create indescribable expression and meaning in his work. I question whether these qualities can be fully conveyed through these altered mediums, or if they detract from the raw beauty of his work.
The growing importance of social media, which the exhibition clearly sought to play on, has turned the works of one of the greatest artists into another Instagram aesthetic. The show allows you to see flashing snapshots of Van Gogh’s paintings. Yet, there is no time to meaningfully engage with any of his work in this exhibition. Art takes time to understand and appreciate, something which this experience unquestionably ignored.
This all throws up questions about where art is heading in the 21st century. Is it dying? Is it becoming a social media fad? Not necessarily. In 2017, I went to a David Hockney exhibition at the Tate Britain. I remember it as a shining example of how art can innovatively embrace technology. The gallery demonstrated Hockney’s artistic journey from his first Los Angeles paintings to his more recent works. The use of video, photography and iPad drawings as experimental mediums showcased his brilliance, pushing art in new directions while navigating a contemporary age of technology and social media.
Yet while Hockney’s work exalts the artistic potential of technological mediums, the ‘Van Gogh Alive’ exhibition felt like a cautionary tale about the dangers facing the profession in the 21st century. It was a troubling example of how technology can detract and disfigure some of the most beautiful works of art in history. Van Gogh’s paintings were not created for a digital age and should have been left to their intended form of expression. This virtual exhibition is a concerning display of how social media is cheapening the meaningful appreciation of art, all for the sake of aestheticising Instagram stories.
Illustration: Verity Laycock
Image Credit: Elliott Brown via Flickr