Which Van Gogh is it? Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition and Its Controversy

Which Van Gogh is it? Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition and Its Controversy

HeadshotTianchu Gao is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Since 2017, the famous Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, was running a global tour of her retrospective show Infinity Mirror. She was known for creating kaleidoscopic obstacles and immersive experiences with colored lights, mirrors, and inundating polka dots. These spacey wonderlands, first created by Kusama in the 1950s, went viral on the Internet. It had attracted more than five million visitors around the world to wait in long queues to see the works. Los Angeles Times described the unprecedented frenzy in the US as “hotter than Hamilton.” Kusama’s popularity reflects people’s interest in art that generates interactive experiences and activates all senses in an immersive environment. Similar experiential exhibitions have quickly started trending around the world. 

One of the most successful examples is the immersive exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings. If you use Instagram, you must have seen photos or short videos of animated paintings by Van Gogh projected all over the walls of a spacey room, creating a fantastical environment. In the past two years, these exhibitions have spread to many cities in Europe and America, including Toronto. But what many of you may not know is that these shows are not organized by the same organization.

Van Gogh’s paintings have been around long enough to be legally reproduced. As the immersive Van Gogh shows became so popular around the world (and certainly on Instagram), more creators are joining the lucrative business. It is difficult to say which immersive Van Gogh of them is the original one. Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about the multiple vendors of experiential Van Gogh shows in the US in 2021. These shows have confused and disappointed many visitors who paid to see something totally different from their expectations.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission of Ireland confirmed that there is no clear breach of consumer protection law from an initial review of the different shows. So far, no organization has proposed to copyright its show. A similar copyright controversy surrounding Van Gogh happened in 2001 between two websites featuring digital copies of Van Gogh’s works.

What is ironic is that the immersive Van Gogh shows have little to do with the actual artist himself. “They are designed to create crowd-pleasing versions of an artist's existence who didn't sell any work in his lifetime. ... There's an irony to seeing an artist whose work didn't have that kind of economic value be turned into a tourist attraction,” as artist and critic William Powhida pointed out.