Newfields says 'THE LUME' is a must-see cultural experience. I say it isn't.

One hundred and thirty-two years after Vincent van Gogh wrote, “How lovely yellow is!”, I found myself bathed in the pale sulfurs and golden citrons of his still life paintings. Sunflowers. Vase with Five Sunflowers. Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers. Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background. They were all part of a new digital exhibition at Newfields, Indianapolis’s art museum-turned-Instagram playground. 

Titled THE LUME, the 30,000-square-foot exhibition features 150 projectors that, according to the museum, transforms “two-dimensional paintings into a three-dimensional world that guests can explore through all their senses.” But the floral Smell-O-Vision? I didn’t detect any of it. (I actually didn’t even know it was part of the exhibition until after my visit, when journalist Sarah Bahr mentioned it on Twitter.) I wasn’t familiar with most of the classical music playing either, so I didn’t understand its context. Was it composed during van Gogh’s lifespan? Was a piece inspired by a van Gogh painting? What was the connection between the Dutch post-impressionist artist and the composer? Why did I not pay more attention in music appreciation class? So many questions. But as for the sense of sight, I could only see what wasn’t there: the contemporary art collection. 

The fourth floor at the IMA Newfields had always been my favorite. Back in the day—before admission was the same price as a lobster roll—I’d haul myself there a few times a year and walk, wander, and appreciate. It’s where I would escape my depression for a couple hours. Sit on a bench and take in—slowly, calmly, rhythmically—the cool museum air. Fuck you, anxiety. Not today, not today. 

Although one of my friends describes contemporary art as “assaulting to the senses,” I find it delightfully abstract. Mobius is gorgeous. Untitled (Mylar) has always fascinated me as well. (Here’s a photo I snapped back in 2018.) But my favorite is Julianne Swartz’s Terrain. The IMA Newfields commissioned it in 2008 and installed it in the entrance pavilion. It eventually moved to the fourth floor, where a series of motion-triggered speakers created a delicate mess of wires. To create the installation, Swartz had asked 37 people to think of someone they loved. She had recorded each person saying their tender reflections and ultimately created an interactive, sensual experience with layers of indistinguishable whisperings. When in the gallery, soft murmurs would surround you, follow your movement. Shshshsh. Ffffffhh. Huuuusss. Ssssssh. I love you. 

But with the installation of LUME, Terrain is gone. So, too, are Mobius, the mylar piece, and everything else on the fourth floor. Removed from sight. Put into storage. Even rumored to have been sold. When asked what was happening to the collection, different docents gave different answers. It’s moving to the second floor. We’re studying where to redistribute the art. Good question; I wish I knew the answer. Every piece will find a home. We don’t know how long it will take. Some things are too hard to move and too hard to display in another location. I’m sorry, I don’t know. 

As one of my former editors would say: “Neat.” 

The fourth floor at the IMA Newfields used to be an escape for me. A place to chase away invasive thoughts and reconnect with my emotions. But that quiet retreat has been replaced with what @fablesfaubus called an over-the-top “Disneyland lightshow.” Bahr described it as the film before a theme park ride you half pay attention to and journalist Lou Harry called it a sideshow “which is to art what an amusement park Laser Floyd show is to an actual Pink Floyd concert.” One friend called LUME “gimmicky.” Another said it’s gaudy. I’ve also seen the words “underwhelming” and “disappointing” used to describe the exhibition. 

I get it; negative feedback is much easier to find than positive feedback. It’s louder, in a way. But that said, what is LUME other than a 40-minute projection that 1) doesn’t provide a narrative about the van Gogh’s life, or 2) lacks information and context about the paintings themselves? 

The idea that museum and travel experiences should be photograph-friendly is nothing new. Back in 2017, The Ringer published an article about the Museum of Ice Cream and the Paul Smith Pink Wall, which were designed with Instagrammers in mind. Restaurants and bars do the same thing—take London’s Sketch, for example. But if going all-out is out of the question, businesses create—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally—an “Instagram wall.” In Indy, you can find photo-friendly walls at Two Chicks District Co., SoChatti, Business Furniture’s Mindset on Maple, and Bovaconti Coffee

From a branding standpoint, Instagram walls work. You see the photos and know, right away, where they were taken. That is one benefit of LUME—people recognize where the photos were taken. The same thing happened when the IMA Newfields had the Yayoi Kusama exhibit. So many photos of those black-spotted gourds. But unlike LUME, the Kusama exhibit explored the artist’s life. Before you entered the little mirrored room, you had the opportunity to read about her journey as an artist and how she found her distinct style. 

That’s where LUME fails, in my opinion. 

It doesn’t establish who van Gogh is, really. 
It doesn’t explain that the paintings in the first room are shown in chronological order. 
It doesn’t explain the order of the paintings in the second room, either. 
Multiple paintings are simultaneously displayed, which isn’t immediately evident. 
I couldn’t find a complete list of which van Gogh works appear. 
To my knowledge, there’s no info on which classical music pieces are used. 
Or why certain music was chosen. 
What’s the context behind each painting? No idea. 
A digital projection is nothing like a painting; you can’t see the texture, the depth. 
Does LUME talk about van Gogh mutilating his ear? Not really. 
It doesn’t say every projection is of a van Gogh piece. 

What little information there is comes after the projection galleries. As Domenica Bongiovanni, the arts and creativity for the Indianapolis Star, explained, you get the most out of the experience if you walk back and forth between the projection room at the beginning, the three paintings at the end of the exhibition, and the spaces between them. Back and forth, yonder and through, in other words. It’s terribly inefficient unless you’re looking to get 4,527 steps in. But for someone with a physical disability, LUME is not easy. It lacks couches, chairs, and other amenities that help galleries feel comfortable for people of all abilities.

After dozens of similar exhibitions around the globe, you’d think LUME would have its kinks worked out. 

Remember that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when Cameron stares at the Georges Seurat painting? While Ferris and Sloane make out, Cameron stares—like, really stares—at Seurat’s pointillist Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The music intensifies. The camera zooms in on Cameron’s face. Then the painting. Then Cameron’s face again. Then the painting again. The canvas. Cameron’s eyes. The longer he looks, the less he sees—and that’s what Cameron fears about himself. 

Whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, an installation, a model, tilework, pottery, a drawing, a piece of furniture, you name it, you’re able to stand before it, take your time. Look. See. Analyze. Think. Reflect. Remember. Notice color. Follow lines. Appreciate the material. Understand the story. Ask yourself why you like it. Or why you don’t like it. You can take as much time as you need to feel … whatever it is you need to feel. If you’re not attracted to a certain work, you can bypass it for the ones you are fond of. You get to spend your time viewing the pieces that mean something to you. LUME doesn’t give visitors that opportunity. You see what you see, in the order it’s presented, at the pace it’s presented. No skipping ahead. No going back. Miss something? You may have to wait 10, 20, 30, or 40 minutes to see it again. Blergh. Blargh. Blug. 

Toward the end of LUME, there are three paintings. Only one of those paintings is by van Gogh. When I stepped up to it, I could see the layers, the texture, the cracks in the paint. My eyes were drawn to a small swipe of red toward the upper-left corner, and I thought about how van Gogh might’ve had to step back, view his progress, then touch up the details. Step back again, view his progress, make changes. Lather, rinse, repeat. This was something that van Gogh actually touched. This was real. I could see it. I could sense it. Holy shit, this is something he did. 

My eyes welled; my breath grew short. I bit my bottom lip, tried to keep myself from crying. 

Yeah, art definitely makes you feel something.
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