“If Van Gogh were alive today, he’d be a digital artist,” says Bruce Peterson, founder of Grande Experiences, which is behind new multi-sensory digital art gallery The Lume.
Not convinced? Think about it a little. Van Gogh was an artist who depicted the people and environments of his time through his own personal lens. Take The Potato Eaters from 1885, widely considered his first major work, where he captured the hardship of day-to-day life for the lower classes – their fingers bony and rough, the skin on their faces weathered. Or his Bedroom in Arles from 1888, a snapshot of his bedroom with portraits of his friends hanging on the wall. Likewise, today many artists are capturing the rawness of their everyday lives through digital mediums such as video, photography and even 3D animation – then sharing their works on digital platforms, such as Instagram and NFT marketplaces.
Think also of Van Gogh’s hypnotic landscapes, such as Wheat Field With Cypresses from 1889. Paint tubes had only been invented some 50 years earlier, making it easier for artists to work en plein air, or outdoors, to capture a scene’s vibrant colours and natural light. At the time it was cutting-edge technology, and Van Gogh seized it with both hands.
Fast-forward more than 100 years, and we can now experience Van Gogh’s mastery in a medium that’s far more 21st century: a humungous digital showcase.
The Lume has taken up permanent residence at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, and its inaugural experience – centred on Van Gogh – sprawls across 3000 square metres, with soaring 11-metre-high ceilings (four storeys, or thereabouts).
There’s no single gallery quite like it in the Southern Hemisphere, and that magnitude hits you as soon as you enter the space. That, and the pleasant aromas that swirl around you, which Peterson explains are designed to “sync” with the awe-inspiring surrounds.
Indeed, this is as multi-sensory an immersive art experience as you can find these days, anywhere in the world. The towering ceiling is loaded with no less than 150 state-of-the-art projectors, which continuously beam high-definition images onto all sorts of surfaces – be they flat, round or even stacks of cubes. Expect to see more than 3000 reimagined paintings, sketches, letters and photos. Be enveloped by the iconic Starry Night, or experience a life-size recreation of Bedroom in Arles.
But one of the most memorable aspects of the experience is the use of animation. The cypress trees writhe, the clouds of the Starry Night swirl, the Japanese cherry blossoms fall down off their stems. It’s a mesmerising, surreal feeling when the brushstrokes beneath you move and you are swept up in the charm of it all.
The surround sound is equally incredible. A carefully curated soundtrack, which accompanies the glorious highs and dark struggles of Van Gogh’s life, is comprised of classical but recognisable pieces. “We had a team of specialist music composers work with our creative design team,” says Peterson. “We really wanted a classical soundtrack, but it’s music that a lot of people know. And it’s music that really lends itself to Vincent’s journey. There’s up-tempo music that’s quite frenetic when he’s living in the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and then there are other moments in his time, like in the south of France, where the music is really bright and happy.”
Cue the artist’s iconic sunflower series, the vibrancy of which is also brought to life at The Lume in a side room of infinity mirrors, à la Yayoi Kusama’s luminous spotted pumpkins. Here, though, it appears as if you’re standing in a never-ending meadow of sunflowers. It’s lit quite brightly, too, making for an undeniably good selfie moment.
There’s also an on-site eatery, Cafe Terrace 1888, inspired by French cafe culture and with a nod to Van Gogh’s Dutch heritage. Find French cheese and charcuterie plates, a made-to-order souffle bar, and cocktails such as the Cherry Blossom-tini.
The Lume may have just opened in Melbourne, but it’s by a company that has brought immersive experiences to audiences for decades. Grande Experiences has staged more than 200 shows in more than 160 cities and in 32 different languages. And at any one time, Peterson says, there are “15 experiences touring out there around the world, with eight or nine different contents and themes”. It’s impressive for a company that was born and bred in Melbourne – which is also why the team chose this to be its permanent home. “We’ve always had an ambition to set up a permanent, multi-sensory digital art gallery to show off the content that we show all around the world in Melbourne.”
But the local connection doesn’t stop there. The Lume has also established an ongoing program that Peterson says, “aims to foster and celebrate the talent of established and emerging digital-media artists in Australia”. At the end of each experience, visitors can see three specially commissioned featurettes by local digital artists and their production teams, which draw inspiration from Van Gogh. Colourful Dream by 77 Productions is a watery dream sequence about the beauty of paint pigments, with vivid blues and golds mirroring Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Meanwhile, multidisciplinary artist Ross Calia has collaborated with Gomeroi woman Krystal De Napoli (an astrophysicist and constellation artist) and Wiradjuri woman Ella Havelka (the first Aboriginal person to join The Australian Ballet), to produce Our Starry Night. It draws from the well-known Aboriginal astronomical constellation Emu in the Sky.
“This digital medium is here to stay, and there are many Australian artists working with it,” Peterson says. “We’re just the ones providing the platform for them to display their great art.”
Tickets to Van Gogh at The Lume are available online, starting from $39 for adults. It’s free for children under three.
Alana Kushnir is the founder of Guest Club, a membership network for art lovers and collectors.