Stimulating the senses: smelling, tasting & hearing art

If we think of art only as visual – and not as something that can address all the senses – we miss fundamental parts of the way sensation in representation generates space and meaning. Multisensory, interactive experiences of art can create innovative imaginative environments, and artists, designers and researchers are increasingly looking for new ways to understand and explore the creative significance of the senses. So how are practitioners and galleries today making the most basic perceptions of sonic communication and scented air visible to the mind of their audience?

In the majority of museums, visitors can only experience the artworks by viewing them, but as last summer’s show at Somerset House revealed, it’s time to start asking what art smells like. Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent featured ten installations, in which perfumers conjured up the scents of the Moroccan desert, a Catholic confessional, a water theme park, a Texan desert town and a lover’s boudoir.

Experimental scratch-and-sniff paintings have also taken the process of absorbing scent seriously, but to really bring smells to life, artist and designer Kate McLean maps smells and organises ‘smell walks’ in cities around the world. From New York and Singapore to Edinburgh and Amsterdam, she prompts participants to identify distinct scents and record their personal associations and reactions. She then analyses the responses arising from the walks and visualises them in complex, stylish maps. (If you happen to be in America this spring, her smell maps of Amsterdam will be on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, as part of The Senses: Design Beyond Vision exhibition.)

‘Tasty’ events are always popular and Tate has good form – its 2015 Tate Sensorium involved chocolatier Paul A. Young creating something edible inspired by Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape. (Young’s chocolate spheres filled with sea salt, lapsang souchong tea and enrobed in a coating of charcoal powder were a hit!) Similarly, this April, Tate Exchange in London with the Cambridge gallery Kettle’s Yard will be holding Carnival of the Senses. Devised by artist Gayle Chong Kwan, it is billed as an ‘immersive banquet’ that will enable visitors to experience ‘the tastes, smells and sounds of North Cambridge’s annual Arbury Carnival’.

Some of Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s best-known art is made of ‘spills’ of brightly coloured hard candy or silver-wrapped chocolates. His poignant, deeply personal 1991 piece Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of a 175 lbs mound of individually wrapped candies that visitors are invited to take and eat. The amount of candy represents the healthy weight of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness. (The artist himself died of AIDS in 1996.) As the pile gradually disappears it re-enacts the debilitating effects of Laycock’s illness (becoming a metaphor for life’s fragility and the process of dying). The candies are then replenished, and the cycle of life and death continues. Here, candy functions as candy, as art object, and as a means of engaging with the ideas of the artist.

Sound is often still regarded as a poor cousin to the visual arts, but things are slowly improving and a noisy kind of audience interaction is emerging. The current show at Nottingham Contemporary, for example, is immersive and sound-infused, and is all about listening and translation. From Ear to Ear to Eye: Sounds and Stories from Across the Arab World (until 4 March) considers how sounds can provide testimony, and the ways in which histories and experiences are intertwined with music, recording, and notation. Among the works by the twenty artists involved (many of whom are also musicians), Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s powerful Rubber Coated Steel and Jumana Manna’s film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me stand out.

Alternatively, why not check out the British Library’s free exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound (until 13 May), which forms part of its ‘Season of Sound’. The installation features one hundred sounds from the archives, covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

It is hard to overstate the importance of sensory experience in our daily lives, and the need for us all to interrogate our assumptions about the operations of vision in art and popular culture. Art can emit or evoke smells, tastes and sounds, and we are deeply implicated in every artistic phenomenon we encounter. By using all our senses we can change the way we understand the world around us and strengthen our creative experiences.

Image credits:
Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House
Smellmap Amsterdam (detail), 2014 © Kate McLean
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Rubber Coated Steel, 2016. © Lawrence Abu Hamdan, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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