The Enlightened Revolution

Immersive art exhibitions born of the digital revolution are now offering a new way of admiring works and visiting museums.
The Bassins des Lumières in Bordeaux, built in a former German submarine base, houses the Gustav Klimt: Gold and Color digital exhibition through January 24, 2021. © Culturespaces/Nuit de Chine/AKG Images/Erich Lessing/Heritage Images Fine Art

Nice, Antibes, Saint-Tropez, L’Estaque, Collioure… From the Italian Riviera to the Spanish border, Impressionist and Fauve artists such as Matisse, Signac, Bonnard, and Derain celebrated the beauty of the Mediterranean. Thanks to our modern museums, we believed that we knew everything about their works. But by digitizing, pixelating, and projecting their works across enormous sections of wall, they can be cut up, reframed, and sometimes even animated to reveal a new perspective. This method can unveil fresh details and enhance colors, which are bright in Derain’s work, crimson red for Matisse, multifaceted for Signac, and sunny for Bonnard. The immersive art exhibition concept has lit up the Atelier des Lumières in Paris. Splashed across the walls of a former 19th-century foundry near the Père Lachaise cemetery and set to the sounds of Monteverdi and Billie Holiday, the animated paintings by Impressionist masters showcase a flamboyant vision of the Mediterranean that continues to enchant visitors.

This heralds the dawn of an HD experience, with iconic works revisited by dozens of laser projectors sweeping across immense spaces backed by an army of speakers. The success is undeniable: The Atelier des Lumières attracted more than 1.2 million visitors in 2019. Most of them were young people, and three-quarters had never set foot in a traditional museum. This popularity was also mirrored in Les Baux-de-Provence in the heart of the Alpilles mountains. Some 800,000 people flocked to see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night digitized, animated, and projected onto the limestone walls of an old quarry converted into a performance space.

A Light Show in New York City

Culturespaces manages these high-tech centers and a dozen more traditional organizations, including the Jacquemart-André and Maillol museums in Paris and the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence. With 4.5 million visitors per year, the company has become the fifth largest artistic space operator in France, behind the Louvre, Versailles, Beaubourg, and the Eiffel Tower. And they’re just getting started.

A new space was recently opened – a discreet affair given the context – in the former basins of a submarine base in Bordeaux. Spread across 140,000 square feet, the resulting Bassins des Lumières is the world’s biggest digital arts center and Culturespaces is now looking to export its model. The concept has already won over Dubai, where the company is developing the Infinity des Lumières space near the Burj Khalifa tower. In New York, the business has partnered with IMG, which hosted the blockbuster King Tut exhibition held last year at the La Villette culture hub in Paris. Thanks to this partnership, a Hall des Lumières is being planned in the Tribeca neighborhood.

Paris’ first digital arts center, the Atelier des Lumières, opened its doors in the spring of 2018 in a former foundry in the 11th arrondissement. © Sophie Lloyd/Culturespaces
In New York, the Hall des Lumières will open at the end of 2021 in the former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, a 32,000-square-foot space in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. © Culturespaces
The Van Gogh, Starry Night digital exhibition, presented in 2019-2020 at Les Carrières des Lumières in Les Baux-de-Provence. © Eric Spiller/Culturespaces

Originally developed in France, this light show concept should in fact garner its biggest following in the United States. American museums are eager to expand their visitor bases – less than 24% of American adults went to an art museum or a gallery in 2017, according to the National Endowment for the Arts – and are looking for technologies that would help the public connect with artwork. With this in mind, U.S. institutions are unapologetically turning to these Disneyland-esque spectacles, which have led to the sorts of endless lines museums are skilled in managing. With the public health and economic crises, coupled with a rapid decline in donations from leading patrons, these immersive installations are opening new doors, freed from borrowing original works and the prohibitive costs of transporting and insuring them.

Van Gogh Cloned in Indiana

While walking through a Chagall exhibition in Les Baux-de-Provence in 2015, Charles Venable came up with the idea of importing this technological combination of art and music to Indiana. The director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art decided to revamp the floor home to contemporary art and instead feature digital exhibitions where visitors could explore “a three-dimensional world […] through all their senses.” The space will be inaugurated with a Van Gogh installation in June. At its Michelangelo retrospective in 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was already using digital technology to project a small-scale, 3D reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling onto the walls.

Whether despite or due to its storming success, the digital transformation and display of works by Van Gogh (painted crows flying through cornfields) and Monet (the boat in Giverny rocking gently on the surface of the lake) has sparked an aesthetic debate. Purists see the triumph of the virtual world as a regression, particularly when the works are detached from any art history perspective. They claim that without the distance and setting of a museum stimulating our sensitivity and judgement, a brutal immersion in a sea of botoxed images reduces culture to primal consumption, in which spectators feel more than they understand. Worse still, the fear is that these wallpaper reductions of masterpieces will dissuade people from going to admire the originals. Only time will tell. But instead of pitting immersive exhibitions against traditional museums, we should see them as two sides of the same ambition: Bringing the experience of art to as many people as possible.

Article published in the January 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.