“Immersive” entertainment is all the rage

A room full of visitors surrounded by projected images at the immersive King Tut exhibition.

At “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience,” images of Tutankhamun’s tomb art are projected onto screens that surround visitors. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel

Attendance is slow at the movies and museums, but people flock to “immersive” shows that allow them to walk (virtually) into a Van Gogh painting, King Tut’s tomb, or a surreal fantasy world.

Because matter: People yearn to abandon their sofas and phone screens for transcendent experiences that allow them to move and socialize, unconstrained by a theater seat or virtual reality headset.

Drive the news: The astonishing popularity of the half-dozen competing Van Gogh immersive exhibits that have swept the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic has helped open the door for similar shows, which make world-class art and artifacts more accessible and engaging.

  • Advances in projection mapping allow producers to create dazzling shows.
  • “You enter and are transported to another world,” says Gilles Paquin, CEO of Paquin Entertainment Group, which is behind the “Immersive King Tut” show that just opened in 14 US cities. “It puts you in a zen place, a relaxing place.”

What is happening: Production companies that specialize in concerts and plays are rushing to open immersive entertainment divisions, in part because the original “Immersive Van Gogh” grossed big bucks.

  • The company behind “Immersive Van Gogh,” Lighthouse Immersive, “reported that it sold more than 5 million tickets between February 2021 and May 2022, indicating that 1 in 90 Americans had purchased a ticket,” according to Artnet News.
  • Van Gogh’s Lighthouse shows have grossed $250 million in overall revenue, MarketWatch reports, not counting $30 million from gift shops.

Now you can also wander through the works of Monet and Klimt, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

  • Other immersive experiences, some modeled on the abstract weirdness of Meow Wolf, include outdoor Lumina Night Walks and indoor shows like Inter_, a “Fantasia”-like show just opened in beta in New York City.
  • Inter_ features an interactive “sound bath” and tunnels of light, as well as bubbles that are released as guests progress.
  • “Hopefully, along the way, the bubbles will fill with mist and scents,” said Ryan Nelson, co-founder of the show. “It will be a nice olfactory experience.”

The trend is hitting airports and also transit stations: a new installation at Newark Liberty International Airport was designed by Moment Factory, which also created a “color bath” at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station and multimedia diversions at Los Angeles International Airport.

  • Some shows — like SuperReal, which played last summer at the famed Cunard Building in lower Manhattan — capitalize on the architectural uniqueness of their venue.
Spectators seated on the benches of an enthralling Van Gogh exhibition.
At the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit in New York last summer, visitors could sit “inside” the paintings. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel

What are they saying: When the Van Gogh exhibition arrived in Paris in 2019, “I couldn’t understand how a very successful immersive exhibition could be organized in a market where there were all the biggest museums in the world, and then I realized that it was a new art form, if you will,” Paquin said.

  • Immersive shows transform audience members from passive participants to active participants, explained Jamie Reilly, general manager of Moment Factory.
  • “You blur the lines between what’s real and what’s surreal, what’s digital and what’s physical,” he told Axios.

Yes but: Critics and audience members alike called some of the shows underwhelming, cheesy, and expensive.

  • Van Gogh’s exhibitions “distill fin-de-siècle French painting into captivating amusement like a children’s carousel,” derided a New York Times critic.
  • The Daily Beast asked about ‘Monet’s Garden’: ‘Does it really do justice to the marvel of Monet?’

The bottom line: Shows that blend art, music and an upbeat atmosphere are a perfect fit for today’s zeitgeist of wellness, mindfulness and mental health.

  • “We’re really encouraging people to put their problems behind them,” says Nelson of Inter_, which is run by a company called Jobi.
  • “We want to create experiences that give people a reason to leave the house and interact with each other.”
The SuperReal scene, an interactive projection mapping exhibition.
SuperReal, which played at the Cunard Building in Manhattan last summer, was an extravagant experience for spectators, who could relax in oversized beanbag chairs. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel

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