At the Anchorage Museum, Van Gogh gets a digital makeover

A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum is using light and sound to help patrons experience familiar art work in a new way. It’s part of the museum’s experiment with technology, and different ways of engaging visitors.

40 projectors splash more than 3,000 images onto walls and floors in several different rooms, changing a viewer's perspective from one space to the next. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
40 projectors splash more than 3,000 images onto walls and floors in several different rooms, changing a viewer’s perspective from one space to the next. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

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A few fifth-grade boys dance in front of a giant, glowing digital version of “Sunflowers” painted by Vincent Van Gogh. Moody chamber music fills the room.

“It kinda makes the pictures come alive with their stories,” said Skyler Smith, a sixth grader at Denali Montessori school.

His class came to see the museum’s Van Gogh Alive exhibit a day before it officially opens. Every few seconds Van Gogh’s familiar self-portraits blend into landscapes, or still lifes of fruit, crustaceans, and battered black boots as the pictures change over.

The exhibit is made up of 3,000 images spread over 40 surfaces. Smith stares at an inky blue splotch of wall as it fills with swirling yellow orbs made of pixels instead of pigment, guessing at what they could be.

“Stars,” he said. “Really old stars.”

Once Smith spots the church steeple he realizes he’s starring at Van Gogh’s classic “Starry Night.”

“That’s my favorite,” he said confidently. “It’s just really calm.”

Calm isn’t exactly what inspired its creation: Starry Night is actually based on an east-facing view from the asylum where Van Gogh was institutionalized after a severe mental breakdown.

The exhibit isn’t a retrospective, nor is it a biography of his whole life. It focuses on the turbulent, prolific last 10 years Van Gogh was alive before he killed himself in 1890. Curator Kirsten Anderson believes it’s because works like Starry Night are so familiar that they’re good material for getting viewers to re-experience an image they may have seen dozens of times before.

“He’s so well known, so I think that was attractive to having an immersive experience like this,” Anderson explained. “Having someone that is well known, that people are familiar with, and then being able to see it in a new way.”

Middle schoolers try there hands at sketching portraits in profile, guided a short video. The easels will be up for the remainder of the exhibit. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Middle schoolers try there hands at sketching portraits in profile, guided a short video. The easels will be up for the remainder of the exhibit. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

The exhibit is part of a push within the Anchorage Museum to test how technology can change a person’s relationship with art and objects. The music, vivid wall-sized projections, and occasional details about Van Gogh’s life (projected onto the scene like subtitles, rather than cramped cards consigned to the corner of a work) are an attempt to scramble the traditional museum experience. As are the easels set up in one room, filled with middle-schoolers sketching faces. Anderson loves these spontaneous outbursts of creative engagement.

“There was some modern dance interpretation going on, which is great to see,” she laughed. “It’s very immersive: it’s sound, it’s light, so it’s fun to see them enjoying that.”

The exhibit is, frankly, candy for the senses. And it is meant to draw patrons in to a constellation of complementary events, workshops and lectures that help tie Van Gogh’s works to life in Alaska.

The show was created and designed by an Australian company, Grande Exhibitions, and will be up in the Anchorage Museum through January.