Van Gogh Alive: More than just a Lexus ad?

Art by Navita Wijeratne

“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” – Vincent Van Gogh


Van Gogh is perhaps, one of the most famous artists in the world, and with good reason. His art is beautiful, evocative, and unique. It expresses emotions we cannot put into words. It is a shame then that the Van Gogh Alive experience takes all of that and slaps a huge Lexus ad right over it, and charges you for the privilege. But Van Gogh’s art itself, is not the focal point of this exhibit, at least, not for me.

Let’s be upfront. This is a review of the Van Gogh Alive exhibition, and if you’re someone who just wants a yes or no answer about how to spend your weekend (or perhaps, nervously browsing a location for a first date that’ll blow them away): this exhibit is not worth it for the cost of its $39-59 tickets (depending on when you visit). It would take only roughly 40 minutes to an hour to see everything, longer if you wait for the perfect opportunity to take gorgeously Instagrammable photos.

But before we even get to the exhibit, you have to book a ticket, and the ticketing system leaves so much to be desired. There’s no way to compare which session is the cheapest, but your dear writer has found that the 9 am session on a weekend is $44. This is compared to the whopping $59 for general admission for an adult or the sweet, sweet concession saving of $54. 9 am on weekdays fares slightly better at $39, but that price goes right back up to $55 for adult admission and $49 for concession at 9:30 am. There’s a $3.95 service fee too, because of course there is. You also need to sign up for a Ticketek account which…why? My digital footprint is already vast enough to make bigfoot jealous.

In all honesty, you might possibly be able to get in at 9:30 am, with your cheaper 9 am ticket, but I dare not be the brave soul to try. Sunday morning finds me awake at 8 am, hauling ass to King Edward Terrace. I am on five hours of sleep. My bus card tells me I only have 80c on it, enough to make the trip there but not back. I am mentally steeling myself for the inevitable awkward dance I must face on my way home:  the charade of feigning surprise at my bus card having no credit? Why I never good sir. In short, I am not in a good mood. I am a little hater.  This does not change upon entering the exhibit. It takes me precisely eight minutes to walk through the entirety of it. It is the second most disappointing eight minutes of my life. I find myself staying for a further two hours.

The exhibit is divided into three halls. The first and third halls are practically created for Instagram photos. One has hundreds of artificial sunflowers, creating a dense field and convenient little nooks to pose in front of them. The other has fairy lights strung from the ceiling and the walls are covered in mirrors, reflecting the impressionist whorls and swirls of blues and yellows all around.

The main gallery plays a 40-minute loop of Van Gogh’s works, accompanied by a custom perfume that permeates through the gallery (meant to be reminiscent of the French countryside) and well-selected classical music. Gymnopédie No. 1 with its tentative and gentle piano lulls as Van Gogh’s landscapes of the French countryside play on the big screens throughout the hall. It’s a nice pairing, adding to the melancholic way that these beautiful bright sceneries always feel like Van Gogh is looking from the outside-in. Some artworks have been animated, with shadows of birds flying across them or trees swaying as if with some unfelt breeze.

It is beautiful. It is also incredibly ordinary. You could very much do the same at home. Play classical music, fire up a projector of Van Gogh’s art; this criticism has been leveraged many times I’m sure, against the Van Gogh Alive exhibitions.

Art purists best stay well away. The format of projection robs Van Gogh’s art of much of its character, that which is held in the pigments of the paint he chose and the texture he builds with considered brush strokes. Rather than being about the art’s own inherent value, the exhibit made me realise it was made for those of us who understand art with reference to ourselves.

I wanted to take pictures there to keep for myself, to post on Instagram, to experience art shallowly and think less of the technical skill in it and more of what I can show my friends. Some way of remembering not just the art itself but that I was there. There is a staff member standing in the sunflower room. I toy with the idea of asking her to take a photo for me. I lose courage several times, having to retreat into the safety of the main exhibition hall before trying again. In the end, it is not so hard to start a conversation. I just ask her about the art.

Soon, we are laughing over how jarring the Lexus ad was together. I ramble about how unfair it is that Van Gogh lived unrecognised, in poverty and struggling with mental health, and yet hundreds of years later, interactive exhibitions of his art, rake in millions of dollars.  She tells me about her views on corporations more broadly and that she’s in her first year of a law and commerce degree at ANU, with a desire to focus on corporate sustainability in the future. We learn about each other, in the transient but significant way that strangers do and dear reader, it all happened because we talked about Van Gogh’s art. When I do finally remember to ask her to take those photos for me, I ask her to take a selfie together too. I part with a hope to see you around and I mean it.

Van Gogh Alive is an exhibition, not about the art, but about the people who come to experience it. I put myself in front of the projected artworks and watched as it turned my white dress into shades of yellows and blues.

I watched as others did the same. And for a moment, we all thought of the art not as a static thing, but as something that we find ourselves in, alive as we are. “There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people,” and through this exhibit, through Van Gogh’s art, I loved people a little more.

Still. Not worth the money though.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.