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Step inside 65 million pixels of Vincent Van Gogh's most iconic works

Immersive Van Gogh, now in San Francisco and headed to other cities soon, takes you inside the troubled Dutch master's paintings. It's a moving place to be.

Cheshire Isaacs

Massive yellow, gold and rust sunflowers stretch from floor to ceiling everywhere I turn. 

These aren't your standard, everyday sunflowers. They're Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers, and I'm steeped in them. That, of course, is the point of Immersive Van Gogh. The multimedia exhibit invites viewers to "step inside" the legendary Dutch painter's most iconic works through digital projection, animation, light, and music from classical to original to Edith Piaf. Chairs hover; windmills turn; and flowers shrink, expand and explode into bursts of brilliant blue. A nightscape appears to rain down the wall and a man in a boat rows past me in rippling water. The exhibit is moving, quite literally. 

GIF by Leslie Katz/CNET

Immersive Van Gogh -- running in San Francisco now through Sept. 6 and heading to many other cities later this year -- is a technological feat. The production I'm seeing at the cavernous SVN West events venue in SF involves some 300,000 cubic feet of projections, 65 million pixels, 60,600 frames of video from 400 images, 40 projectors, 30 speakers, 510 feet of truss and 8 miles of cable. 

But the numbers behind this exhibit, the technology, don't feel important right now. I can only focus on the surreal fact that for the first time in a long, long year, I'm standing in a room with other people, strangers, sharing a cultural experience live. All around me, famous paintings like The Bedroom and Starry Night reveal themselves through giant, swirling brushstrokes. It feels like floating through a mesmerizing post-Impressionist dream.  

The exhibit takes all appropriate COVID-19 precautions: reduced capacity, mandatory masks, touchless hand sanitization stations, temperatures taken at the door, contactless payment and circles projected onto the floor to keep viewers socially distanced. "It's safe to Gogh," the website assures visitors.  

Watching Van Gogh's towering masterpieces assemble and disassemble, shifting palettes from dark and muted to vibrant and pulsating, is like walking straight into the artist's canvases and consciousness. Through this exhibit I'm experiencing art beyond the confines of my computer screen for the first time in many months. But I'm also taking a big step toward returning to the world. 

In Immersive Van Gogh, a self-portrait of the artist floats downward through images from his 1889 painting Starry Night. Van Gogh painted it while hospitalized in an asylum in France.

Leslie Katz/CNET

The traveling exhibit from Lighthouse Immersive originated in Toronto in July 2020, went on to Chicago and will play in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas and Houston. It's surpassed a million ticket sales in North America, with tickets for the San Francisco showing ranging from $25 to $40.  

It's fitting that Van Gogh is the artist coaxing people out of their homes and into a shared space in such large numbers. The painter famously struggled with mental unrest and isolation, "an experience all of us can relate to more than we could have a year ago," Toronto-based co-producer Corey Ross, speaking over video chat, tells a small group assembled for a showing before opening day of the West Coast premiere. 

This is an exhibit of quickly shifting moods, like the past year has been for just about everyone. 

After so many canceled and reimagined plays, concerts, parties and trips, everything about the experience feels extra vivid, and extra special. That makes me cautiously hopeful about the future of cultural events, despite the many roadblocks and reconstructions ahead. Maybe people will emerge from the pandemic with a renewed reverence for all we went without.  

"The past year taught us to be creative, to be flexible, to be patient," co-producer Svetlana Dvoretsky says before the show. There's triumph in the air -- and on the walls.  

Cheshire Isaacs