On 9th September 2015 a group of sixteen art historians and conservators gathered together at Tate Britain for a private view of the IK Prize 2015: Tate Sensorium exhibition.
The format of this visit was an unconventional one as we had to split into small groups in order to experience the exhibition.
Alongside we engaged in a rotating and stimulating discussion on The Politics of (Multisensory) Experiences.
We were kindly joined by Tate Britain’s Multimedia Producer Tony Guillan and Courtauld alumnus. Following this event the participants were asked to write a few words on their experiences:
Dr Beata Hock
First thought (prior to the private view): interesting starting point, although the coquetry with spectacle and affective entertainment looms large in the strong emphasis on the senses
Introduction / expectation:
1) my i.e., the visitor’s sensory experience will be enriched through more-than-just-visual input
2) this complex perception will open up for me, the visitor new and unexpected interpretive paths
The above only happened with picture 4 (F Bacon) and the tasting input; this was indeed powerful – though, for me, utterly horrible – enough to lead me to a quite unexpected reading of the work. (I saw there a rape scene probably because I myself felt raped having to swallow the unidentifiable horrendous substance in my mouth.)
Alright, to a much smaller degree, there was a similar effect – that the various inputs did combine in my reading of the image – with picture 2/Latham, too.
With the other artworks:
* mostly week and indirect sensory experience (smell did not envelop you, you had to sniff at a focused source; touch was limited to one single effect on the hands) – immediately combined with a cognitive process to identify the smell
* the strictly directed rhythm of the visit often blocked abandonment to the senses
Discussion, curator’s comments
In the absence of strong, more immediately operating non-audiovisual input, a primarily cognitive process of tracking down the curators’/team’s interpretive acts and multiple associations was left for the visitor. (If s/he is a fellow-professional; I’d be most interested to find out lay audiences’ impressions)
Dr Anna Marazuela Kim
To briefly reiterate some of my impressions of the exhibition, I thought it compelling on the following grounds:
- as a meta-reflection on our relation to works of art and upon ourselves as active agents in constructing their meaning/interpretation
- in its capacity for stimulating synaesthetic, embodied experience of two dimensional painting that evoked not only new perspectives on those particular works, but artworks more generally
- as a refreshment of the sensorium that encourages new, multi-sensory engagement with works outside the exhibition.To the criticism that the exhibition manipulated its viewers and/or presented works of art as spectacle, my own belief and hope is that the museum continue to pursue experiments of this kind precisely in order to raise these kinds of issues or bring them into view, as well as to foster the modes of revitalization I detail above.
The work which I found less stimulating in visual terms, Full Stop, ended up acquiring a very interesting meaning after the ‘touch’ experience. As I felt the wind being blown on my hand, I simultaneously felt I could see the work much more in detail; things which I hadn’t actually paid much attention to, such as the plain white of the background, stood out.
The experience which I found most fascinating was the ‘taste’ one (we were offered a little chocolate, in front of a painting by Bacon): mainly because it wasn’t so much my visual experience which changed or was enhanced (as I would have expected) but my experience of taste.
I know the texture of the chocolate was quite peculiar in itself… but it was extraordinary to listen to the description of the painting, whilst looking at the work, whilst munching on something that actually felt like part of the work… that’s what I would describe like a truly immersive experience.
Here is how I would rate the added sensory elements in order of effectiveness:
Sound – the most all-pervasive experience and therefore one which did not require conscious effort.
Touch/taste – I’d say the effect of these was about equal. Initially, the experience of eating the chocolate was more of a distraction, as I was trying to puzzle out what the connection might be. But then the combined effect of sound and brutal image took over and what I think happened is that the taste just became another part of the general assault on the senses associated with the Bacon work
Scent – I had thought in advance that this might have the strongest affect on me. I registered how fitting were the scents that had been concocted – for instance, the machine smells re. Bomberg, and the overwhelming sense of the synthetic that accompanied the Hamilton pic. But overall there was too much cognitive effort involved in making these matches.
Did I feel manipulated? Yes, the verbal instructions had the effect of making you feel as if you were being instructed to experience something, even though no specific expectations were set.
In this respect, the effectiveness of the sound element could be considered overpowering.
Technology in the gallery is an interesting addition in my view. On the whole, I agree with the founding premise for the exhibition; namely by being alerted to an expanded sensory arena for experiencing a work of art one is undoubtedly more likely to go about future encounters in a different way.
However, many of us already experience vision as a more open sense: I think one of the inspiring elements of viewing art is the unexpected imaginary sensations that pop up of their own accord.
Ideas for no technology? A string quartet, candles, an open window, being allowed to touch sculpture – how about this for the Barbara Hepworth exhibition?
Dr Kathleen Brunner
The experience was a bit confusing for my brain. Mostly I was moving around trying to coordinate the various activities and losing sight, literally, of the works. At least for the Hamilton work and the Bomberg. I saw the Odette Toilette scratch cards yesterday in the book shop and was reminded of the diesel and the old perfume.
The painting that really worked was the John Latham “Full Stop”. That was almost eerie. The viewer was pinned to the spot for that one which helped the viewing. And the darkness and the vibrations from the loud gong created that immersive sensation. The reference to process with the soft sensations on the hand was interesting. Tony was right to say that the more abstract the work the better.
The Francis Bacon seemed to be the most trivialized by the Sensorium approach, although the seriocomic or black humour is certainly in Bacon’s work. So maybe the melting chocolate isn’t that far off the mark to express the existential black mass that the figure on the bench is disintegrating into.
I took the whole thing very seriously and appreciate the incredible talents of the Flying Object team. It’s a good start to trying to expand the way the viewer looks at things. I think it’s important to learn from the exhibition so that your own imagination can do the work in normal gallery viewing.
We never got round to talking about the politics as you had asked. And you had referred us to the Futurists. I hadn’t realized they did cooking. Anyway, those artists worked as a collective in an attitude of provocation. Noise for them was important for social and political protest. The aural aspect of Sensorium is designed to be internalized by the individual, usually wearing headphones
Dr Elisabeth Raissner
It was a show that provoked thought about how we respond to paintings.
What, for instance, do we bring to the viewing experience from our own experiences of being in the world, in the sense of ‘being in the world’ explored by Maurice Merleau-Ponty? How much of our response is prompted by the way in which the artwork has been made?
This is something that Philip Rawson touched upon when he discussed how a spectator’s ‘analogising faculty ‘sets to work upon [a drawing’s] marks, their patterns and arrangement’ as a way of endowing the represented objects ‘with a kind of metaphorical radiance’.
For Rawson, Drawing, 26, this ‘experienced analogy’ draws on ‘fields of experience’ that may derive from other works of art, or from aspects of nature such as moving water or clouds, Rawson, Seeing Through Drawing, 21.
To this pool of knowledge Patrick Maynard added the ‘often barely conscious experience of our own bodies’, Maynard, Drawing Distinctions, 195
Part of the display was the ‘measurement’ of the spectator’s bodily reaction to the paintings when they were viewed in conjunction with added tastes, sounds, smells and touches.
Whilst it is fascinating to be given an annotated diagram of ones own reactions, I felt the lack of some sort of control experiment.
How different would my diagram have looked if my reaction to the paintings had been measured without the added tastes, sounds, smells and touches?
Would it have looked any different to a third experiment carried out after experiencing the paintings as the Tate display presented them, but this time without extraneous tastes, sounds, smells and touches?
There was an air of mystery surrounding the Sensorium before entering it: waiting outside, you had to watch as four people at a time disappeared through heavy doors for half an hour, strange sounds, and their return with a piece of paper that showed which works they reacted to most strongly through a measurement of pulse and perspiration. The actual Sensorium experience itself was even more surreal: armed with a wristband measuring your reactions, and headphones instructing you when to go where and what to do, you move from work to work not in your own time, but as told by the voice in the headphones.
Of the sensory experiences included, sound, touch, smell and taste, the latter was the most effective for me. Though thoroughly unpleasant, the strong reaction it provoked when looking at the painting amazed me: the bitterness and crumbly texture of the chocolate immediately made the dustiness, dirt and unpleasant work depicted in the image tangible, so that I felt I ‘experienced’ the work, rather than looked at it critically. The least effective of the ‘sensory props’ was smell. Again largely unpleasant, the different smells streaming out of little boxes in relation to two of the images did not seem to correspond with what I was seeing, and so felt out of place. Rather than automatically linking taste and vision as in the chocolate example, vision and smell seemed disjointed: I enjoyed the visual experience of the painting, but the seemingly unrelated smell was distracting me from viewing it properly. Finally, the accompaniment of sound seemed the most natural, possibly because we are more used to combining sound and vision when looking at, or watching, something.
In the end, however, I am unsure about the experience the Sensorium provides. I felt manipulated by the sensory additions to my viewing experience, and the restricting manner of being instructed when to go from here to there seemed unfittingly authoritative – a strange way of viewing artworks! Although the concept of the Sensorium may be successful in drawing people into the gallery who would not usually visit, the idea of having to ‘enhance’ artworks through at least two additions of sensory experience seems outlandish and dystopian. It was an interesting and thought-provoking experience overall, however, one that was no longer focused on the paintings themselves, but the thrill to try out something new – which had hardly anything to do with focusing on art anymore.
Before entering Tate Sensorium, I was sceptical as to how successful it could be. I was concerned that, in the same way as a wall text, the sensory stimuli that had been chosen in advance according to the interpretations of another group of people would act as just another narrative limiting my own reading of the works. Alternatively, instead of contributing to an interpretation, the result of adding the sensory stimuli to the chosen work could be a new work in itself; a multi-sensory installation piece that posed the same interpretative problems as the works that Tate Sensorium exhibition had hoped to provide access to.
I was surprised to find that this wasn’t my experience of the works in Tate Sensorium. The stimuli did not dictate a single way in which I should read the works. Though they may have been chosen according to someone else’s interpretation, the associations the stimuli would have triggered for them will have been different to those which I formed in the exhibition, as a result of differing past encounters that particular sound, taste, smell or feeling. Furthermore, as each individual’s physical make up is different, our experiences of the sensations themselves will have been of different intensities, or perhaps even qualitatively different. Like a wall text, the stimuli provided a toolkit, or a means of access to the work, but one which will have been different for every individual. I appreciated the fact that the Sensorium generated brand new, singular readings of the works through viewer participation.
I was also surprised by the extent to which the extra information enabled a deeper appreciation of the woks themselves; I didn’t feel, so much as I thought I would, that I was experiencing a new work of art. The instruction to increase your awareness of the sensory stimuli when confronted with the work forced you to pause and be mindful of the way your own response to a particular stimuli related to the work in front of you. Where a visitor to a gallery may pass a work without taking a second look, the Sensorium provided a reason to engage; something to think about. Perhaps it could be said that rather than an interpretive answer, Tate Sensorium posed a question, for which each visitor to the exhibition would have a different answer.