Immersed in Pictures – a Special Way of Experiencing Art

The Atelier des Lumières in Paris is housed in what used to be an old iron foundry. Since last year it has been used to present the works of world famous artists – in moving over-dimensional pictures projected on the 10 m high walls and the floor of the hall. It is currently featuring the work of an artist particularly close to my heart - Vincent van Gogh. When I saw some examples of what they were showing on the internet I was spellbound.

Is this all just sensation-seeking showmanship, I asked myself, or is it a genuine and very special way of experiencing art. And I wanted to find out. So I recently went there and saw it all for myself.


Optical sensations – acoustic manipulation

It’s quite a long trip with the metro to get to the 11th arrondissement where the Atelier des Lumières is located. And yet so many people were making the same journey on the day I went that there was a long queue of visitors waiting for tickets in front of the entrance – even though it was 7 o’clock in the evening! Fortunately I had booked my ticket on the internet and could go straight in.

What awaited me on the inside was first of all darkness and complete silence which was astonishing given the great number of people in the hall. And then a mixture of museum and movie theatre. Pictures that the artist had originally painted with simple oil colours on comparatively small canvases now appeared as gigantic moving pictures, fragmented and seen in startling close up – a marvellous optical sensation. But with no voice-over commentary, no attempt at explanation or interpretation, just … companionable music. Now you only have to think about the power music can have over human emotions to realise how manipulative the bond between pictures and music can be – and particularly when it comes to art.

Film music is a prime case in point. Yet film music is commissioned by the film’s producers or director and so to some extent is controlled by the creators. Only here on the contrary people from the 21st century have put a musical soundtrack to the pictures painted by a van Gogh in the 19th century that the creator himself can no longer influence. An accompaniment that changes from jazz to classical music to unknown pieces with even the occasional pop song.

So it really is a genuine blend of museum and movie theatre. And this really is indispensable for this kind of presentation that could never bear the stillness needed to contemplate the original paintings themselves. Without a musical accompaniment such overwhelming optics would be simply lost in space, unable to unfurl their full intensive effects as they do here.


Now is this is good or bad?

Perhaps you’re asking yourself the self-same question at this very moment. It’s a question I asked myself. And for me it’s by no means a question of morals.

Obviously the owners of the Atelier des Lumières would go to great lengths to attract as many people as possible to their presentations and it’s pretty apparent that they’ve succeeded remarkably well.

People who are already interested in art or in this case van Gogh might well find this type of presentation of questionable taste. But there are also a great many people who shy away from the academic presentation of works of art in museums. These are the people who visit this spectacular show in the Atelier des Lumières because they’re attracted by the completely different nature of the over-dimensional digital presentation. They bring their families with them, their kids and their babies, they look around for a place in the hall, sit down and enjoy the show. If what they then see and hear gives them a point of entry to the world of art or to van Gogh and makes them curious to know more, then that in itself, I believe, is a considerable achievement. And when I tell you that the babies I saw there were completely entranced by the colours and forms passing over the walls, surely that speaks for itself.


Sensual pleasure in art not academic expertise

The Atelier des Lumières is still a young institution; the exhibition hall first opened its doors about a year ago. Klimt, Hundertwasser, art nouveau, and art deco were the themes of previous exhibitions which all used the Atelier’s 140 video projectors to project the art works on a monumental surface of 3,300 m².

The walls are 10 meters high, and with its size, its height, and the depth of the hall there’s something of the sacred about the place. It’s dark, totally dark, so that the overwhelming video projections can achieve their full effects – in some way it’s a place of awe and reverence.

And the exhibition really has reached a great many people across all ages, and all nationalities. This is not only due to the brilliance of the projections but also to their “muteness”.

There are no headsets and no museum guides whispering in your ear what you need to know or think about particular works. The Atelier des Lumières is not a place of expertise. It’s a place where in a totally unprecedented manner people can be immediately reached and moved by art. And that in my opinion is so immensely important – striking out in new directions and using the latest technology to enable an experience of art that opens up space for our own thoughts, associations and ways of seeing.

This is why I am delighted that the Atelier des Lumières is such a successful venture. It’s a fun place to be. The people there are highly concentrated, they literally drink in the pictures. And let their own sensory perceptions bathe in them.


My bottom line

This newly created opportunity for a purely emotional resonance chamber is just as interesting for the art displayed there as it is for the people who visit it. It creates a counterweight both to the commercial art world and the academic world of art. All this is fine and important. Yet as a counterweight it can only be successful if in future it also offers forms of presentation of a different nature – interactive presentations, for instance, that invite visitors to ask questions rather than just consume or even the occasional presentation whose aim is to provoke. Taking all this into consideration, the answer to the question about is this “good” or “bad” is that it’s “as much of one as the other”. Even so, I would still warmly recommend a visit – it’s very well worthwhile.

More Dagmar Woyde-Koehler