Review: ‘Tate Sensorium’

The IK Tate Prize was awarded this year to Flying Object’s project ‘Tate Sensorium’, an exploration of our non-visual senses and the impact they have on our appreciation and interpretation of visual art. Currently showing for an extended run at Tate Britain, it adds another perspective to the plethora of exhibitions (such as the National Gallery’s recent ‘Soundscapes’) that focus on multi-sensory interaction, a popular subject for contemporary art. The experience at ‘Tate Sensorium’ is an exclusive one: you enter the Sensorium with only three others, after collecting your free ticket from the reception. Tickets are released in two batches at 10am and 2pm daily, but queues are quick to form. Fortunately, Sensorium proved worth the wait.

The space is organised in four rooms, with one artwork in each. A gallery assistant guides you, and I really felt I was being accompanied on a “discovery journey”. The four works on display are very different, as are the associated stimuli. From pop paintings accompanied by smells, to hand tickling before a geometric abstract work, all five senses are engaged. The aim is to help visitors reach their own interpretation, informing a personal response enriched by the contribution of other senses. The impressions Sensorium left me with are very personal — it would be fascinating to hear about what the same stimuli did to different people, perhaps written or recorded for public display once you emerge from the experience.

I found myself frequently reminded of random things, which often had little or nothing to do with the paintings I saw. The guide instructs visitors to allow memories to arise freely, and to create associations between those memories and what we were experiencing. The sweet fragrances and sleek design of the room depicted in Richard Hamilton’s Interior II (1964), reminded me of the film Barefoot in the Park (1967), which I saw five or six years ago. David Bomberg’s In the Hold (1913-14) called to mind my harp lessons as a child, once again triggered by the smell, which was very similar to my teacher’s fragrance.

Also interesting were instances when the perception of the painting was modified or distorted by the interference of the other senses. The tactile sensation of wind made me ‘see’ the giant black dot by John Latham (Full Stop, 1961) as a dark hole, with the help of the acoustic recreation of winds which sounded, to me, like what I might have heard in space. When the stimulus changed to raindrops and watery sounds, my attention shifted to the right-hand side of the work, where the drops of sprayed paint were more visible. At that point, I almost felt that I was touching the work, and experienced a persistent sensation of coldness. Similarly, Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape (1965) was heavily influenced by the sensorial stimulus, this time the taste of a grainy ball of chocolate. The texture led me to focus on the top-left corner of the painting, which looked as “dusty” as the sounds I was hearing. So I conceptualised the whole work as a real landscape set in the Far West. I could see it in all its elements: a gallery carved in the rock, perhaps of a mine; a cart on a railway; the tail of a horse.

The overall experience of ‘Tate Sensorium’ was compelling and exciting, and I would have little to add to it. My only concern with ‘Tate Sensorium’ was the predominance of sounds. While the other senses were present only once or twice, sounds were never absent, perhaps as they are easiest to insert into a gallery space. I would have preferred to have had moments of silence, to be able to perceive the difference between experiencing a painting with or without sounds. But the exhibition succeeds in its intended purpose, namely to trigger new and fresh interpretations of paintings by appealing to different senses, and to see the ways in which smell, touch, taste, and hearing can contribute to our appreciation of art.

Anna Zanetti

More information about ‘Tate Sensorium’ can be found on the Tate website.

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