It seems, as observed in the London art scene this summer, we are approaching a new tendency of understanding pictorial art as something beyond from just visual. There have been three simultaneous installations in important institutions of the city, all of them using involving acoustic environments to alter, or maybe I should be saying improve, the optical experience.
In an isolated room, with one only artwork to focus upon, the viewer is invited to take a deep breath and listen, to walk around the room and appreciate how every little change in the environment changes our perception of the painting, to slowly learn that enjoying art is much more than watching pretty pictures.
The first one to open up this opportunity was the Whitechapel Gallery. This centenarian East London gallery, an international touchstone for contemporary art with exhibitors such as Picasso, Pollock and Gilbert & George, held the exhibition James Richards selects from the V-A-C collection, focused on Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1953). Richards’ sound installation with singers inhaling before braking into a mourning song, mixed with bells and a film sound of disruption, adds a new layer of information, increasing the terror and agony reflected on the painting. With the room surrounded by plain curtains, matching the texture of the portrait’s dark background, the tension of this inescapable space increases while the viewer suddenly might not only view the painting but become a part of it. The increased sensorial experience aims to make the spectator see the artwork from the inside, as if we were present when the image was created.
A similar scene took place at the National Gallery with Soundscapes, the latest attempt of the fine art museum to present itself as a contemporary and innovative institution. In this case, six pieces from the collection were selected by musicians or sound artists to create an immersive sound art experience in response. The neutral rooms with darkened walls allow the visitor to focus on the music, enhancing its connection with the artwork. From chamber music to an electronic DJ, the different art and music styles offer infinite possibilities for the viewer to imagine what a picture would sound like.
Christ Watson’s work upon Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele (1905) makes the wildlife and natural phenomena represented in the painting come alive, in a similar way of how Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller simulate the environment of Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study (c 1475), all of them following the idea of what would the artist have heard when working en plein-air. Another option is to use the music to accentuate the tension between the different elements in the artwork. Here we find Susan Philipsz upon Holbein’s Ambassadors (1533) and Nico Muhly with The Wilton Diptych (c 1395), both using classical instruments to include the spectator in this dialogue between the pictorial parts. In the last two rooms there are Gabriel Yared work after Cézanne’s Bathers (c 1894–1905) and Jamie xx with Van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene (c 1892). On this case the purpose of the sound is, on a more contemplative way, to create a mood in the room according to the depicted scene.
The experience with Soundscapes was a good attempt to awake another sense while admiring a painting and downplaying the importance of what we see. A particular aspect of the artwork, like the tension between the Ambassadors or the creative process of the pointillist Coastal Scene, could be appreciated more easily thanks to the extra layer of information provided by the sound installations.
Apparently, the final outcome of this summer of artistic synaesthesia is Tate Sensorium, a four artwork sensorial installation at the Tate Britain, the result of the IK Prize 2015 which searches annually for ideas connecting innovative technology with Tate’s art collection. A mix of the three types of composition that we have seen at National Gallery’s Soundscapes (environment, tensions and mood) can be heard in the small dark room while the group of four visitors is directed from one painting to the next one. On this occasion though, all five senses join the experience. While the sound is the one sense that serves as a connection among all of them, throughout the walk in the Sensorium the visitor will experience different smells, textures and even a chocolate treat to enhance the taste while contemplating Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape(1945).
It can be a bit overwhelming. We naturally feel the world with all five sense at a time, but we are not used to be specifically aware of that, paying attention to all the senses we have to sense. Yet the idea is very interesting and if it doesn’t produce the same involving feelings than Soundscape, it sure does open new ways to analyze art and to pay attentions to little nuances and details otherwise ignored.
The most positive outcome of Tate Sensorium is that it is presented as a reflective lesson. At the end of the room the visitor gets a map highlighting artwork from the permanent collection where the Sensorium experience can be emulate. Thus, it is not meant to be a selective once-in-a-life-time experience but an open door to view art in a different way (or rather to experience, as the word view doesn’t cover all the senses with which art can be understood). In any room of the museum, the Sensorium alumni can focus on any artwork and, remembering the short sensorial experience, appreciate what B. R. Haydon’s Punch (1829) would smell like or what sound would come out of Richard Long’s Red Slate Circle (1988).
Nowadays our world is based on Visual Culture. Our brain is fed daily with advertisements and moving images in flat screens, we have social networks like Pinterest and Vine based exclusively on images, even the concept of the selfie and its broad popularity is an example of how important are the visual stimuli in our culture. In this context where image perception is undeniably common, museum institutions have to face the challenge of turning their visit into something essentially opposite to all our other visual stimuli. A hundred years ago, seeing the Mona Lisa was a valuable experience, something extremely special. Today, in the world of images, it seems more important to take a picture of it, or even better: a selfie. An image, no matter how pretty or technically accurate, is a less extraordinary experience for us: we are too used to images.
Bringing more senses into the equation is not such an odd idea. What if through sound, smell or taste we found a way to recreate the extraordinary experience it was to visit a fine art museum before Visual Culture took over? After decades admiring the old paintings, maybe it is time to give them a new live, a new value, by adding this extra layers of information that can create a unique experience. Even if you won’t be able to attend any of the summer exhibitions here mentioned, I would like to encourage you to sit in front of any work of art in any museum: take a look, take a deep breath and think what would it sound like, which smells would bring, how would it taste. Allow yourself to disconnect from our visual world, forget the selfies, the I-phones and the #tags. Allow youserf to embrace art with all your senses.