A review of Tate Britainís Sensorium


16th September, 2015

I just can’t make up my mind about Tate Britain’s latest exhibition Sensorium. I wanted to hate it, however, I just can’t help but love it. In this article I’ll try to explain why, and analyse its importance in the long-term trial and error of multisensory experimentation and design.

Developed by London-based technology consultancy Flying Object, the project was the winner of Tate’s IK Prize – an annual competition for ideas that use ‘innovative technology to enable the public to discover, explore, and enjoy British art from the Tate collection in new ways’. A series of collaborators worked with Flying Object on its execution; the list is quite long but for our purposes the most important things to note are that the scents were project-managed by (the fabulous) Odette Toilette and created by IFF. The exhibition certainly sets itself a big challenge, and I think the semantics of its aims are important. The press release asks, ‘can taste, touch, smell, and sound change the way we ‘see’ art?’ It then states that ‘the experience encourages a new approach to interpreting artworks’. After concluding the exhibition, visitors are even promised a personalised map of the gallery that denotes ‘what other artworks might trigger your non-visual senses’. 

 

Objectives 

It was from this introduction that my cynicism grew. I couldn’t understand the point of it all other than for fancy. The choice of music, fragrance, taste, and tactility were decided by the respective experts in collaboration with their peers but not informed by data or research, and not intended as stand-alone creative responses. Therefore, rather paradoxically, the sensory stimuli on the one hand can be considered far too subjective to form academic and scientific significance, and on the other are not subjective enough to have artistic value in their own right. When viewed in this way, projects such as The National Gallery’s Soundscapes, or Museum Tinguely’s Belle Haleine, simple as they may be, make far more sense – they are coherent in their artistic as well as intellectual objectives. I feared the case would not be the same for Sensorium

Something that came to mind was Selfridges’ 2014 project Fragrance Lab. Oh, there was a lot of hype surrounding it, wasn’t there? Audacious claims that The Future Laboratory in collaboration with Campaign (fragrances created by Givaudan) could ‘distill your personality into a scent’. Of course, the aim there was completely commercial, but I think some of the same multisensory interdisciplinary principles were applied: effectively, that a trend-forecasting panel (undisclosed to the public) decided that if you select sharp objects in a questionnaire over rounded ones, say you wear fragrance to feel sexy, and pick an image of a garden rather than the ocean, then you will like herbal spicy green perfumes. Here’s your personality – now buy it, now. This fails on experimental, intellectual, and artistic grounds. However, Fragrance Lab was still important for the same reason that Sensorium is an important exhibition. 

The reviews for Sensorium available at the time didn’t make me overly optimistic either. Gian Volpicelli’s analysis that ‘the result is convincing; the sounds and smells manage to give extra depth to all the four pieces’ seemed weak at best. Mark Hudson’s assertion in The Telegraph that the project is well-meaning but falls somewhere between branding, architecture, and art wasn’t very thought-provoking; and then Tom Chatfield’s bold comment that ‘Sensorium is, among other things, an exercise in unknowing’ is terribly chic but needs qualifying. 

 

Monstrous and menstrual mess


Magda Cordellís No. 12
After having passed through the exhibition I was very pleasantly surprised – the experience was engaging, interactive, memorable, and very special. However, fun as it may have been, I left feeling a little disappointed and quite rushed – perhaps it was just too overwhelming, but there was so much going on I’m not really sure how much of it I was able to take in. To add to that, I couldn’t decide whether I thought it was successful – perhaps I was in fact distracted by the multisensory experiences and doesn’t that in fact miss the point? Therefore, I decided to try my luck getting another ticket and just managed to squeeze in the last session of the morning (which is a real testament to its popularity). 

While I waited I took up Tate’s offer to explore its recommended art works in multisensory ways. Overall, the suggestions were pretty standard and uninspired – Sir Nathaniel Bacon’s 1620-25 Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit supposed to inspire my sense of taste and Jacob Epstein’s 1940-41 Jacob and the Angel to engage my sense of touch. Pretty boring stuff, really. The recommendation I did appreciate was Magda Cordell’s 1960 work No. 12, with a prompt to trigger my nose. I suppose I did manage to find a new way to engage with the work – the monstrous and menstrual mess in front of me was no less shocking but the acrid and mineral olfactory memory of blood along with slightly fruiter notes of mango and bitter orange did induce themselves upon me. 

Then it hit me, that due to this framework I was attempting to find a narrative in the abstraction, and is this really a well-executed and intellectual strategy? Is the very point of physical art not to communicate its intricacies, techniques, and underlying philosophies, through the visual medium and let its visuality speak for itself? A lot of the multisensory prompts from the exhibition seem to be encouraging the viewer to ‘bring the painting to life’ or to imagine you yourself were in the painting. Whilst no view in twenty-first century art-historical practice is necessarily wrong, analysis solely through narrative and iconographic symbols is fairly facile and does little to further interpretation.

 

Overview

So my time had come and I went back into Sensorium, a little embarrassed that the assistants recognised me. I’m very glad I did - the second time around was far more fulfilling. I knew my bearings and to some extent how to respond. Let me give you a quick overview of the artworks and the triggers designed so one can ‘see’ the artwork in new ways (with a bit of a focus on the scents, obviously):

 

Room 1 – Richard Hamilton, Interior II, 1964

  • Percussive sounds of the objects depicted delivered through speakers, including paper and paint
  • Three scent diffusers in separate locations pumping out:
    • A bracing and fresh scent with slight green woody and dry undertones that simulates glue and paper
    • A very aldehydic slightly sweet accord that feels diffusive and fast on the nose, suggestive of hair spray
    • A sugared bright citrus scent with a hazy background that I believe is simulating the original Pledge  

The review in the Telegraph stated that the effect ‘suggested the action was being extended beyond the painting’, and in the Guardian that the project tried to ‘draw visitors further into the painting’. I had a similar experience which I don’t think was very valuable and I found it to be quite distracting – the multisensory experience was entirely based on finding a narrative and exploiting it, something very objective and not in keeping with the aims of the project. In addition, smelling from the diffusion machines was actually quite cumbersome and took away from the little time one had to view the painting. 

 

Room 2 – John Latham, Full Stop, 1961

  • Indefinable resounding mechanical noises and bells filtered through the headphones, followed by a downpour from what sounded like a rain stick 
  • The Ultrahaptics device in front of you, creating tiny tactile sensations on the underside of your palm using ultrasound, didn’t seem to be working very well and I just about felt a few light touches on my hand to go along with the audio pitter-patter 

Perhaps the most abstract of the experiences, but also the least successful, in my opinion. The multisensory stimuli were hard to engage with and there didn’t seem to be much confluence between the audio and Ultrahaptics. A little bored, if I’m honest! 

 

Room 3 – David Bomberg, In The Hold, 1913-14

 

  • Violent, high-pitched, deafening screeches projected on directional speakers followed by sounds associated with a ship’s cargo hold such as the clang of pipes, gas vents, shouting, and engineering work 
  • Two sets of marble-looking angular plastic objects to pick up and rattle, which inside had the scent of:
    • A calone bomb – oceanic, slightly salty, needle-like and fresh
    • A warm cashmeran-esque softly smoked tobacco scent that felt low, rich, and dusty

This was certainly a moving experience – the fact that you could pick up the objects and smell them whilst looking at the work was a real advantage and it truly did make me feel nauseous at times with superbly precise speakers that oddly felt like you turned your headphones up too loud.

 

Room 4 – Francis Bacon, Figure in a Landscape, 1945

  • An edible milk chocolate sphere with a slightly smoky and salty cocoa gravel inside that powerfully connected with the dark black soil-like gritty brush strokes on the canvas and was quite uncomfortable to eat, but somehow also delicious
  • The sound of metal hitting metal followed by children laughing and running, with an audible breeze and perhaps birds in the background
  • The fragrance, released slowly though a diffusion machine underneath the table in front of you, is hard to define – it is woody and slightly smoky conjuring a nice rich vetiver but also with a surprising sweet green grassy accord at the top and a feral hay-like blend that smooths out the spiciness 

Apparently 40% of visitors to date reacted most strongly to this work and it is not hard to see why – it is the only work where all five senses are engaged and the surprise of eating something in an unfamiliar space such as a gallery creates a true sense of uncertainty. This fragrance, by the way, is absolutely incredible, and I have to commend Odette Toilette for her choice here. 

 

Conclusions about great sex

I will not forget this exhibition any time soon, and this is one of its strengths. However, I still don’t feel that it truly achieved its aim of ‘encouraging a new approach to interpreting artworks’. Facetious as this comment may be, of course the technology and stimuli behind this project will alter the experience you have in front of the painting, simply because it’s not where it normally is in a white room; but then, if you bite into a lemon slice whilst petting your cat, that too will of course change the experience because it’s different from the norm. Whilst Sensorium wants to focus on the nature of subjectivity, in fact most responses are nudged towards narration. If I am critiquing the scents alone and their appropriateness to this project, I’d say that overall they were too literal, apart from the accompaniment to the Bacon which was a masterstroke from Odette Toilette – a perfume I’d love to wear.

This is where it lacks successful execution. It’s neither scientific nor artistic but stuck in the middle. Most work in this field is focused on enhancement and / or pleasure. Take the work of Charles Spence, for example. This is broadly in the arena of experimental psychology but engages with many different disciplines to form scientific conclusions about how to enhance our experience of eating a strawberry dessert, say – how to make the strawberries taste even fruiter, even sweeter. Charles himself even expressed doubt at the effectiveness of Sensorium’s ‘electrodermal activity’ readings taken to inform a future paper by the University of Sussex. 

However, what this exhibition does do, why it is in fact absolutely essential and daring in the development of multisensory understanding, is cultivate the awareness of how the five senses impact each other and impact experiences, and hopefully inspire multisensory design. This brings to mind Jinsop Lee’s ‘five senses theory of design’, based on the simple principle that great sex is ‘so damn good’ because it virtually overwhelms all five senses. That said, the key to good (multisensory) design is appropriateness, and knowing when and how to utilise the senses. Sensorium is extremely important in asking the right questions and encouraging a multisensory design strategy – it’s just that this one isn’t quite right. 

 

The Sensorium is open until 20th September. You can find out more on the Tate website here.

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About the author: Eddie Bulliqi

Eddie Bulliqi read History of Art at the Courtauld Institute and has been working in the fine fragrance industry for the past three years. A Londoner at heart, but with American and Kosovan descent, his primary interests lie in interdisciplinary research and how olfactory associations form. He loves cats, playing the jazz sax, and being by the water.

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