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Ever a fan of Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionist paintings, I was thrilled to discover that the York exhibition at St Mary’s, the deconsecrated church next to the Jorvik Viking Centre, was re-opening, albeit with safety measures in place due to the continuing pandemic.
The afternoon began well. Our booking was for two o’clock and, despite some difficulty finding a parking space, we arrived at the venue about twenty minutes early. Pleased to find no queue outside, we donned our face masks and headed down the dark corridor to the reception area.
Peering at us through the gloom, a young woman checked off our names, indicated where we might sanitise our hands and told us that we could go straight through the curtain into the main area. There we found already well spaced out van Gogh themed deckchairs, chose a couple in the centre and settled down to wait. Given our early arrival, we weren’t surprised to see only one other person seated in the vast space. He looked up at us, nodded and appeared to go back to sleep. I could see why, because the area was flooded with soothing music. Projections of famous paintings were appearing on the wall at the far end of the building and drifting all the way round, which we thought impressive for a pre-show. They were very colourful, some animated, and we particularly liked the illusion of raindrops splashing into puddles on the stone floor and leaves making their way up the medieval stone pillars of the church.
Two o’clock came and went, a few other people drifted in and there was an air of expectancy. Surely it was time for the main show to begin? By twenty past two, I was feeling restless as well as very hot and sticky behind my mask and got up to study the mock up of Vincent’s famous bedroom at the back of the auditorium. It was excellent and, as it turned out, the best part of the experience for me that afternoon.
No guidelines had been given as to what to expect and, some time after returning to my deckchair, I became aware of the fact that the moving images and odd bits of commentary were beginning to feel familiar. People old enough to remember when cinemas had continuous performances will understand what I mean by the phrase, ‘This is where we came in.’
The realisation seemed gradually to dawn on other people too and it took one brave soul to move towards the exit sign for a mass exodus to ensue. Still masked, we passed a large animated vase of flowers, a table on which lay a few colouring in sheets for children, disposable gloves and stumpy crayons and then a sign offering a virtual reality experience for an extra £3. No one seemed to be manning* that, though, so we shuffled past and found ourselves heading up a flight of steps into the tiny gift shop.
*Is that now considered a sexist expression? If so, I apologise.
My disappointment stems entirely from the lack of guidance given to us that afternoon. If there were signs telling us what to expect, we missed them in the gloom and we saw no staff members between the reception area and the gift shop. I should like to go back, the better to appreciate the features that I’ve read about since in various rave reviews. Waiting for ‘the show to begin’, I’d paid scant attention to many of the images drifting past us and even closed my eyes at times or checked my phone. Next time I shall appreciate the whole ‘immersion’ experience of seeing every wall and even the floor beneath me flooded with images. I shall enjoy seeing framed paintings moving in such a way as to be brought to life with trees swaying in the breeze, boats sailing by and even a train that appears to be entering the auditorium. I shall marvel at paintings folding away to reveal more paintings and flocks of birds flying around the walls. Knowing that I can sit through the 35-minute loop as many times as I like will be a relaxing rather than puzzling experience.
Once sated with all that, I shall track down a member of staff, don the special eye mask and hair cap prescribed and lose myself in the virtual reality of Vincent van Gogh’s France. Next time!.
30 September, 2020