Remembering Avicii as you enter his bewildering world

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STOCKHOLM — Visitors filed one by one into a darkened 6ft by 12ft room at the Space exhibition center here last Friday, where they were greeted by a mix of jingles and confusing noises: camera clicks, cheers of the audience, the roar of airplane engines. Strobe lights bounced off a ceiling-height screen showing car interiors, paparazzi flashes and the outstretched arms of a crowd of festival-goers in quick succession. Jagged mirrors on the ceiling reflected the chaos below.

The effect was meant to replicate the unnerving experience of being DJ Avicii, a wildly successful globetrotter. For some visitors, this had a big impact. “I think I would go crazy if I had to live like this,” said Magdalena Grundström, a 51-year-old classical musician.

If the participants had turned right, they would have encountered a very different space. Through a curtain of beads, panpipe music was playing in the next room. On one of its sea-green walls, a text on fabric hung explaining how Buddhism can help fight against anxiety.

These contrasting rooms are part of the Avicii experience, a new immersive exhibition dedicated to the life of the Swedish electronic dance music producer which opened in Stockholm at the end of February. The temporary museum is designed to give visitors insight into both the musical talents that brought him worldwide fame as an in-demand DJ and the pressures that led to his suicide.

He also wonders how to commemorate a short life shaped by extraordinary public interest in a way that is both entertaining and thoughtful.

Avicii, born Tim Bergling, died while on vacation in Muscat, Oman, in April 2018. Two years earlier he had pulled out of touring, citing the busy schedule of an internationally renowned DJ. He also struggled with alcohol and prescription painkillers.

Avicii was just 22 when “Levels,” a catchy dance track featuring a sample by Etta James, shot him to stardom. Over the next six years, his music took electronic dance music, or EDM, in new directions, blending beats with folk vocals on tracks like “Wake me up” from his 2013 debut, “True.” He has been nominated for two Grammys and his songs have been listened to over a billion times on Spotify.

After Avicii’s death, his family visited Abba the museum, an interactive and immersive space dedicated to the Swedish pop group, also in Stockholm. They thought something similar could work as a tribute to Avicii, Avicii Experience content producer Lisa Halling-Aadland said in a video interview.

“It’s obviously two very different emotions related to each of them,” Halling-Aadland said, “but we said yes, we can do something. Not the same thing, but something.

Halling-Aadland and her mother, Ingmarie Halling, the exhibition’s creative director, sought approval from the Bergling family throughout the planning process. “We just had to constantly look to them. We had an idea that’s good for us, and then we thought, does that feel right to you? said Halling-Aadland.

The multi-year Avicii experience is designed to highlight the contrast between Tim Bergling, an introverted individual whose passion was composing music, and Avicii, a global EDM brand.

“The normal impression was perhaps that of a rich and very successful man: why did he end his life the way he did?” Klas Bergling, the musician’s father, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want to say that we have an answer. Not at all. But you get another perspective.

The exhibit includes a replica of Avicii’s childhood bedroom, complete with a discarded pizza box and a computer screen showing his World of Warcraft persona. Nearby visitors can don a virtual reality headset, step into a replica of his recording studio, and sing along to one of his tracks.

The last 10 years have seen a boom in immersive experiences. Globally, there are currently at least five immersive Van Gogh exhibitions — Instagram-friendly shows that have attracted visitors beyond the usual art gallery audience. In London, there have recently been immersive shows dedicated to the work of David Bowie, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, and the theater company Punchdrunk has been exploring immersive and interactive productions for a decade.

It’s no surprise that as immersive experiences become mainstream, the topics they try to address are also expanding, said Sarah Elger, CEO of an immersive experiences company called Pseudonym Productions.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get it right. “Designing an immersive experience in itself is an art form,” she said in a recent video interview. For immersive memory spaces, Elger stressed the importance of a curator with a “personal connection” to the subject. “Challenges will arise if this becomes a mainstay of how we want to commemorate people,” she added.

In 2020, plans for an interactive and immersive Holocaust memorial experience in Kiev, Ukraine, sparked a firestorm of criticism, including a rebuke from A conservationist who said it would be “Holocaust Disney”.

The Avicii Experience is billed as a “tribute” to the musician and includes funeral spaces. The final performance hall is small and church-like, with white stone effect walls and flickering electric candles in alcoves. A slideshow of Avicii’s photographs is projected onto a wall, while a solemn orchestral version of his hit “The Nights” plays. In a section titled “Unanswered Questions”, a text explains that no one close to Avicii saw his suicide coming: “How could a human being find himself in the midst of such a creative flow and suddenly disappear?”

Priya Khanchandani, the curator of an exhibition on Amy Winehouse at London’s Design Museum that includes immersive experiences, said the line between emotional engagement and entertainment is a delicate one.

“It’s about sensitivity, and the immersive elements should be part of the storytelling rather than being some kind of fancy vehicle for sensory experience on their own,” she said. “The danger, of course, with these kinds of experiences is that they become too consumer-focused. The museum becomes a theme park, or akin to some kind of retail experience.

Outside of the Avicii Experience, a store was selling Avicii-branded caps for 449 Swedish crowns, or about $45. A portion of the proceeds from the Experience are donated to the Tim Bergling Foundation, a mental health charity established by Bergling’s family.

For Avicii fans, visiting the exhibition means oscillating between the roles of consumer and mourner. Ayesha Simmons, 20, flew in from London to see the show. “That room with the jagged mirrors felt so important to me because it gave us a hint of how it must have felt to him,” she said in a Facebook post.

The immersive elements didn’t impact everyone, though. “I just thought I was in an amusement park,” said 20-year-old Daniel Täng after browsing the exhibit. “I didn’t really think about it.”

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