Review: Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition in SF

Like anyone with a social media account, I had seen images from this artistic light show when it was touring Europe. With the rich colors of Van Gogh’s paintings swirling on walls and floors around visitors, it looked neat.

When it finally came to San Francisco and I saw the price tag, I thought it better be neat. But all three of our kids were enthused at the idea of attending, and it would be our first chance to go to, really, any cultural event in over a year, so I bit the bullet at paid $60 each for five of us. When I booked, only “premium” tickets were available for the day we wanted to go, which came with a poster and a cushion rental.

We booked over a month in advance, and received tickets by email which I was able to download to my Apple Wallet on my iPhone. When the day finally arrived, I scoured the ticket email for instructions on where to park and how long we could expect to wait to enter. There wasn’t much in the way of details provided. After the fact, I see that there is a FAQ on the web site that answers those questions. At any rate, they didn’t mind that we had a small backpack with us, even though the site says they’re not allowed. That was a relief because you don’t really want to leave bags in your car when parking on the street in San Francisco, it makes it more likely that your windows will get smashed.

We had purchased Flex tickets, which come with an entry time, but you are allowed to arrive up to two hours before or after that time. They sell “Timed” tickets, where you are supposed to arrive within 20 minutes of the entry time, for less, but those were already sold out for the day we booked.

Knowing that San Francisco parking is never a breeze, Erik dropped us off at the venue about 20 minutes before our ticket time and then went to park the car. There were only a few people waiting in line at the entrance. There a security guard took our temperatures, verified that we were wearing masks, and glanced inside our bags. Inside an uncrowded lobby space were tables for premium and VIP ticketholders, where they would scan your ticket and give you the merch that came with your ticket level. For premium, we had a choice of two Van Gogh self portrait posters. The VIP people were getting large paper bags with some fake sunflowers sticking out the top. I thought it was awkward that they handed this stuff out before you went into the exhibit, but they said we could leave our junk with the staff member at the entrance to the viewing room, which we did.

When we walked into the viewing room, the half hour presentation was about halfway through. It probably starts on the half hour. It doesn’t really matter though because there’s no narrative order to the presentation, as far as I could tell.

If you don’t get the package with the cushion rental, bring one, because that’s a concrete floor.

The exhibit is in a room the size of a small theater. There is a curved structure in the middle of the room, like a stairwell. This was covered in mirrors. There are a few backless benches big enough for two people here and there, but most viewers have to sit on the floor. There are projected circles of light on the floor to tell you where to sit for social distancing. A number of people were leaning against the walls while sitting on the floor, which is understandable for comfort, but it slightly detracts from the viewing experience. If you want to sit on a bench, I would advise trying to arrive right on the half hour, because when the presentation ends a lot of people get up to leave.

We sat on the floor. The presentation is basically a movie projected all around you, including on the floor at some points.

You see elements of Van Gogh’s paintings, sometimes still, sometimes animated. Sometimes things float around, brush-stroked birds fly, one scene morphs into another, that type of thing. All the while, loud instrumental music plays. I thought the music went well with the visuals, except when they started playing Edith Piaff belting Non, Je Regrette Rien, at which point I couldn’t help giggling. One of my kids, the sensitive one, complained that the music was too loud.

Being me, I was a little distracted from the first 15 minutes or so of the presentation because I kept watching the people on benches for any sign that they were getting up to leave. I’m just someone who’s always on the lookout for something a little better I can snag for the family and me. After 15 minutes, the runthrough of the program that had been in progress when we entered ended, some people near me got up, and I scrambled over to their bench before anyone else could snag it. Maybe half the people in the room left, others repositioned themselves, and more people came in. You were allowed to stay for as many runthroughs as you wanted, but the whole video lasted only about 30 minutes.

Seated on the bench, leaning back to back with Erik, I was able to focus a little more deeply on the next 15 minutes. My favorite thing was when the filmmakers animated things in the paintings, like taking little V-shaped painted birds and making them flap their wings.

When we got to the point where we had walked in, Erik and the two younger kids wanted to leave, but our oldest wanted to stay, so I relocated to a circle of light near her and lay flat on the floor, watching the walls in a more chill state of mind now that I knew that I wasn’t going to miss anything. I became very relaxed and almost fell asleep.

When it was all over and we regrouped in the lobby, we had fun taking some photos in front of some large copies of Van Gogh sunflowers that were clearly set up just for Insta.

We hit the gift shop, where Nutmeg tried on this gorgeous bomber jacket that was created just for the show by Bibisama Apparel.

It was priced $189 in the store, and I really, really wanted to buy it for her, but, well … $189. Now I’m glad we didn’t buy it there because I found it on Bibisama’s web site for $139. Too bad her birthday already passed!

I’ve read that in other cities, this exhibit included some museum displays and a VR experience, but not in SF. Also, a friend who saw the exhibit in Europe told me that the video displayed there had more intricate visuals and more depth of color. I have no idea why or how it would be different.

Oh, and one more thing about logistics: When you exit the exhibit, it’s through a different door than the one where you entered, so if you left your stuff with the entrance guard, that guard will be nowhere in sight and it’s very easy to forget about it. The only reason I remembered was that I used the bathroom and the bathroom exit landed me back at the exhibit entrance. We didn’t especially want five Van Gogh posters, but I see that people are selling them on eBay, so maybe I can make some of our ticket price back!

Everyone in the family said they liked the exhibit. In general, I thought it was pleasant if not amazing. I feel like I would have enjoyed it more under the influence of a little weed. I don’t use cannabis often, but lying around watching colors and brush strokes morph on the walls just seems to be screaming out for a little light drug use.

Was it worth the money? Not really. I mean, this was a half hour movie with no seating. We paid more than we would have paid for many live theater events, much less for a short film. The fact that the movie was all around us, as opposed to, say, an IMAX presentation, didn’t add that much in my opinion. So all in all, I’m glad we went, but I probably wouldn’t pay to go again if the same type experience with another artist comes through town. For $60 each, I’d rather visit a whole art museum where the experience would last more than half an hour.

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