There are few art experiences that can keep a three, five, 32, 37, and 42-year-old equally enthralled. Salford Quays is currently home to one. We head out on a starry night to find out what makes the world's top immersive visitor attraction so special.
It’s hard to put your finger on the exact moment MediaCity’s latest visual arts offering completely envelops you. For some, it’s wandering through a room brimming with sunflowers, mirrored walls creating the feeling of endlessness.
Others might be more taken by the subtle, blink-and-you-miss-them animated details that play tricks on the eye. A quick flurry of activity in your peripheral vision, within a picture that seems oh-so-familiar. For me and my family, sinking into Van Gogh Alive happened when the adults planted their bodies on the floor, and the two infants began attempting to run through a field of wheat that wasn’t actually there, but moved beneath their feet.
Arriving into Salford Quays at the end of October, and staying straight through to late-January, this ode to the life and work of the most famous man ever to chop his own ear off makes some pretty big claims. “The most visited immersive, multi-sensory visitor attraction on the planet” is just one of them. After spending an hour absorbing this truly living exhibition, it’s easy to see why it has proven so successful.
Attending anything with a three and five year old is always risky. Taking them to an art retrospective is bordering on madness. And in truth it takes a little while to get settled, once the youngest is politely told by staff that the bed at the epicentre of a life-size reconstruction of ‘The Bedroom’ is definitely not the place to get comfy.
A moment later we pass through the exhibition entrance-proper and it’s hard to know where to look first. Walls, floors, temporary partitions — everything is saturated in colourful, intensified takes on the Dutchman’s iconic visual world. The blues and purples of ‘Irises’ have never looked more vivid, surrounding us in every direction, giving the impression of actually stepping into the piece itself.
‘Sunflowers’ on screen more than match those in the mirrored room for impact. Meanwhile, ‘Starry Night’ is arguably the most spectacular element of all, wrapping us in midnight blues, swirling whites and luminous yellows. But it’s only when you really start to take in the form of this spectacular event that the painstaking processes involved become apparent.
These are not simple projections of Van Gogh’s work on a variety of surfaces. Nor are they just still backgrounds with well thought through uses of animation bringing each into the real world. Instead, pieces have been dissected in ways that are both logical and surprising. Each part then given a place either on the ground or the walls, with the sole purpose of making it feel like we are physically exploring the original.
For want of a better word (maybe?), it’s a trippy experience that’s nothing short of psychedelic. It’s also resolutely educational, and fully interactive. Granted, the pre-schooler and Year 2 might not have got much from the written histories interspersed or layered over the art itself. But from the perspective of an art lover who has seen a fair share of gallery interiors, Van Gogh Alive has cracked a difficult formula. Delivering a lot of background information without making it feel like a presentation.
Similarly, once you’re done with the exhibition itself — which is whenever you bore of being hypnotised by a constantly evolving digital canvas showcasing one of the world’s most beloved and innovative artists — painting workshops await out in the foyer. Picking up a brush to emulate the master post-impressionist might seem daunting after you’ve already trodden all over his best-loved efforts, but that’s exactly the point.
We live in an age when old rules of exhibitions aren’t just outdated, they’re barely relevant. Visitors don’t just want to look, they want to be part of the experience. With that in mind, Van Gogh Alive is every bit an exhibition for our time.
Van Gogh Alive
Dates: 22nd October 2021 – 23rd January 2022
Cost: Adults £22, Children (aged 5-15) £15, Children (under 5) Free