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Thoughts on Tate: Sensorium

As I stand in the queue for the Tate’s multisensory experiment, I feel a mixture of exhilaration and apprehension. I am all awash with the thrill of its novelty, but at the same time I vaguely imagine my faculties being deadened by the sensory overload, like the soma-addled wraiths of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, who drown whatever sorrows the totalitarian state has not eliminated in hyper-intense multi-sensory ‘feelie’ films. My speculations are put to an end as the assistant arrives, and we wander in, just the four of us – as dictated by the nature of the display.

The first painting we are shown is a work by Richard Hamilton entitled Interior II (1964), which depicts a woman standing in a 1950s/60s home, creating a vivid sense of the normal and habitual by the use of plain flat colours and photographic collage. Here a brief audio clip alternating the tap of footsteps and the rustle of paper, together with the smells of hairspray, glue/solvent and Pledge, conveys the ambience and the sense of monotonous, repetitive habit which the painting seems to evoke. The experience was striking, but in retrospect this was the most trivial of the exhibition’s multi-sensory efforts.

The second and third pieces are both highly abstract. Full Stop (1961), by John Latham, consists of a large black blob of airbrush paint, blurred at the edges, on a white background, while In the Hold (1913-14), by David Bomberg, comprises a brightly coloured chaos of interlacing triangular shapes. In both these cases, the multi-sensory stimuli bring the pieces vividly and irreversibly to life. Full Stop is paired with an audio clip of surges and crashes, intercut with gentler whooshing sounds, and this is synchronised with an ultrasound-based device which hits the viewer’s hand with blasts of air, to create a similar sensation of touch. As a result, I start to see the black blob resonate and pulsate, as if it were being racked by a series of micro-explosions; it fills my mind with an overpowering impression of impact, of bombs and torpedos and depth charges. In the Hold is paired with a similarly powerful set of stimuli, a crackling white noise combined with two strangely fragrant smells (which were apparently meant to be shrill and ship-like, respectively, but they smelled more or less identical to me). This chaotic soundworld seems to scramble the painting, setting my eye roaming almost beyond my control – yet I find myself feeling strangely satisfied by the sensation of a futile search for form.

This chaotic soundworld seems to scramble the painting

The last painting, Francis Bacon’s characteristically haunting Figure in a Landscape (1945), offers the most complex cocktail of sensory inputs, comprising an ambient smell of grass and soil, together with sounds of machine and metropolis, and a chocolate whose innards are an acrid and salty assemblage of charcoal, sea salt, cacao nibs and lapsang souchong tea. The almost hollow figure of Bacon’s painting, posed in a drab and dirty industrial environment, is even more vividly realised as a dread and empty phantom by the disquieting tastes inside the chocolate. Here I was struck at the extent to which the sensory inputs brought the painting to life – where before my mind saw shapes and struggled to piece them together, with the sounds, smells and taste I found myself vividly imagining Bacon’s landscape of alienation.

As I leave, my mind is aglow with images and sounds, yet I find myself more titillated than satisfied. The exhibition feels overwhelmingly like an experiment – it is difficult to sense the coherence of the display, difficult to find a meaning from so few works. All I can detect is a vague preoccupation with the experience of industrialisation and modernisation – it almost feels as though the curator has sought to capture a hint of the 20th Century through a series of multi-sensory flashes.

The exhibition feels overwhelmingly like an experiment

I expected a sensory overload and indeed to feel a specific interpretation foisted onto every painting. But in fact what I experienced was a widening of the sensory possibilities inherent in each painting. This got me thinking beyond the limits of this exhibition: it is curious how we seem always to have limited our sensory palette – art or cultural experience is usually in the form of a single sensory stimulation, e.g. visual art in art galleries, classical music in concert halls. Of course, we come to associate other senses with these experiences, but they are, as it were, purely incidental. But why should it be so? When people speak of the inevitable demise of the ‘high’ art forms, the waning of classical music, the irrelevance of painting, we must surely realise that we have delved so little into the possibilities of artistic expression. We have created so little – the sensory superstructures that await us in the art of the future could be astonishing. It sounds fanciful, but I like to imagine sensory stimuli stacked like jenga towers, and connoisseurs assessing their combinations with all the gusto with which gourmands combine cheese and wine.

Aside from such speculations, this sort of stimulation is clearly a tonic to the gallery experience. That experience has become almost numbingly ritualised. There is much to be said for the sanctification of art, but, much as with the ritual of classical music in Britain (where we sit motionless in respectful silence), it kills something of the spontaneity and power of the experience. Multi-sensory stimulation is one potential way we may again disrupt that ritual.

Tate Sensorium ran at the Tate Britain from the 26th of August to the 4th of October.