Immersive Frida Kahlo & Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino

In the bottom of the frame, multiple individuals in a dark room hole up their phones to take photos of a painting of a person's face projected on a far wall.
Immersive Frida Kahlo – Los Angeles. Promotional video still.

Whenever I’m visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I make sure to throw on a pair of shoe covers and walk into the colorful void of James Turrell’s Breathing Light (2013). I never tire of being drowned in purple light, of watching the floor disappear into nothingness, of gliding into the box until my nose nearly crashes into what my brain thinks is infinite space.

I can instantly recognize his trademarks, and I get giddy for what’s to come. It’s honestly like the thrill I get from a fistful of McDonald’s french fries, a special treat I gift myself about once a month. Both Turrrell and fast food are comforting in their familiarity and dependable in their quality. They always delight my personal taste.

I have a love/hate relationship with immersive artworks. I can’t get enough of a schtick like the Kusama Infinity Mirror Room that’s always at capacity at the Broad museum. I gobble up the experiences like a Taco Bell Doritos® Loco Taco. But while Kusama and Turrell have a conceptual backbone, many immersive experiences feel like gimmicks, mental empty calories that are just leveraging the public’s vague familiarity with famous artists to make lots of money. Immersive art, with the promise of its Instagrammable moment, can lure a segment of the general public to a cultural institution that normally wouldn’t get their dollars.

I actually love this method of outreach, because I believe art should be accessible and shared regardless of class or education. I want people to come to a museum for a fun picture and then linger because they’re mesmerized by a Rothko color field. But the cash grab genre of immersive art isn’t helping you learn about the artists’ work or politics. I witnessed this first hand at Immersive Frida Kahlo – Los Angeles, the latest of a new crop of Immersive [Famous Artist] installations. See also: Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, and Banksy.

During Immersive Frida’s hour-long screening, Kahlo’s subjects eerily move with amateurish animation to tell the story of her life, but there’s no voiceover, subtitles, or even wall text to explain what’s happening in this surreal presentation. When Diego Rivera appears, the audience is never clued in to who he is, or even a hint that their marriage was actually full of violence and infidelity. Similarly, Zapatistas flood the walls without any mention of the Mexican Revolution, and hammer and sickle motifs never go deeper into Kahlo’s ties to communism. Without prior knowledge of Kahlo’s life, this exhibition has no meaning, and it’s too generous to assume the audience is entering this world with a deep education on Fridamania. 

I experienced a similar sensation when I tried the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino®. It looked enticing, but it was actually awful. Even though I often experience unsatisfying immersive artwork, it doesn’t turn me off from the genre entirely. I can still count on artists like Turrell to deliver something that will satiate my creative hunger. I’ll gladly jump into a vibrant void, heart and stomach full.

Against a bluish pinkish background, a shadow of a Starbucks cup filled with a blended pink and green drink is a unicorn.
Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino®

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Author: Renée Reizman

Renée Reizman is an interdisciplinary artist and writer specializing in social practice and civic engagement. Working within diverse communities, she studies the ways infrastructures shape our culture, policy, and environment.