How to experience art without using your eyes

Ever tasted a Francis Bacon painting? Listened to a Cézanne? Stroked the Mona Lisa's hair? At galleries across Europe, art is becoming a feast for all the senses. Nione Meakin investigates

Featured January 16 Words by Nione Meakin
How to  experience art without using your eyes

Something strange is occurring n the world of art. In the past 12 months, visitors to some of the world's most venerable national institutions have pawed a Mona Lisa, sniffed glue in front of a Richard Hamilton collage and even walked off with exhibits. There have been no repercussions. In fact, the galleries in question have even encouraged it.

Welcome to the latest, possibly most hands-on, art trend of 2016, which is seeing galleries take a leaf from experiential theatre to create interactive shows where the paintings on display all but burst from their gilt frames.

Of course, artists have been making multisensory work since long before it became a buzzword. The Futurists, for example, were infamous for their avant-garde 1930s dinner parties, where guests stroked velvet and sandpaper while eating, and poetry and music were employed to ‘awaken the flavours' of dishes. But now curators are jumping on these approaches as a means of revitalising collections and attracting new audiences. Why settle for a soporific audio tour, they say, when you could be scratch 'n' sniffing a Monet at New York's Metropolitan Museum or ‘hearing' a 19th-century seascape at The National Gallery?

“It struck us that all art was being presented in the same way in galleries that were fundamentally identical spaces,” says Tom Pursey, whose creative agency Flying Object masterminded the Tate's headline-making show Sensorium. “We wanted to see what happened when we shook things up a bit.”

Sensorium offered a way to engage afresh with four works through piped-in scents, sounds and tactile installations. Richard Hamilton's Interior II was accompanied by the smell of glue and hairspray - a nod to the artist's use of collage - while a chocolate was created to eat in front of Francis Bacon's Figure in a Landscape.

It may sound gimmicky, but for Pursey, it was an attempt to make people re-examine familiar work by stimulating different senses. “When we look at things, it tends to engage the more analytical parts of our brain. When we smell something, it connects directly with our memory. We were curious about how experience of an artwork alters when more senses are involved.”

The National Gallery took a similar approach in Soundscapes, which saw leading musicians, including The xx's Jamie Smith, commissioned to compose tracks for pieces in the gallery.

“People told me that the music offered a ‘key' into paintings they may otherwise have walked past,” says curator Dr Minna Moore Ede. The sceptics may have sniffed (“Mainstream art critics were furious. It was almost as if we were treading on the sacred ground of the ancients,” says Moore Ede) but, like Sensorium, the show drew in the vital younger visitors galleries often struggle to attract: 25% of the overall audience were under 25 and more than half under 35.

“Older audiences are no problem, but we have to find ways of attracting younger people too,“ says Moore Ede. “These works belong to all of us, after all.” If someone comes to a Goya exhibition as a result of drinking a Goya-themed cocktail - as created by London restaurant Aqua Nueva in its recent partnership with the National Gallery - that's fine by her. “There are multiple routes into art and if galleries wish to stay relevant, we need to explore them.”

But how much do these bells and whistles add to our understanding and appreciation of the art itself? Not a lot, according to Time Out critic Eddy Frankel. It's hard to fault Spain's Prado Museum for creating 3D versions of its collection to allow blind people to ‘see' the Mona Lisa, or to criticise the Monnaie de Paris for inviting visitors to touch and even take away work by notably interactive artists such as Yoko Ono, but Frankel considers the majority of gallery-staged multisensory shows to be window-dressing exercises. “They get people through the door, that's what they're designed for, but do they make great art any better? Nope.

I don't think hearing a song by the dude from The xx or eating some food while looking at a painting adds anything to the experience of viewing art. These are things designed by curators to add to already beautiful art and I haven't seen them work.”

Frankel is more interested in original multisensory work created by artists. This year's Frieze art fair, for example, featured seven specially commissioned immersive works, including a tunnel by Jeremy Herbert, where visitors could experience wind on their faces and the sounds of the sea, and Rachel Rose's Alice in Wonderland-esque series of ever-smaller tents.

Frankel highlights Canada's Jon Rafman, whose recent solo exhibition in London's Zabludowicz Collection was a maze filled with installations, including a waterbed, massage chair and a ball pit. “Here the art is already designed to have extrasensory factors. It's not some stuff that's been added to an Old Master to make it seem new and kooky. [Rafman's show] is not my favourite thing I've ever seen, but the ‘experience' is part of the art, not something added to it. That's a big difference.”

Frankel will have to grit his teeth for now, as galleries show no signs of dismounting from the multisensory bandwagon any time soon. In fact, this summer will see the launch of a potential behemoth. Meet Vincent Van Gogh is an ‘all-encompassing' international touring show from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum which will use light, projections, scent, sound and state-of-the-art techniques to take audiences on a virtual journey through key moments in the artist's life. Let's just hope they skip the severed ear.

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