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The Tate Sensorium Invites You To Experience Paintings Through Sight, Sound, Taste, And Touch

“We want people to experience their senses, to think about what the artist experienced,” Tom Pursey says.

There’s a set of rules for many museums. Don’t touch the artwork. No talking. Stare pensively. But this isn’t how the Tate wants you to think about art. In Sensorium, an interactive exhibition produced in collaboration with the London creative agency Flying Object, the museum uses taste, touch, sight, and sound to impart a wildly visceral experience.

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“Standing in a gallery there’s a lot going on,” Tom Pursey, co-founder of Flying Object, says. “It’s big and echoey, it symbolizes that it’s austere, sterile, important. We put art in places where our senses are suppressed and that affects your perception. We want people to experience their senses, to think about what the artist experienced, and kind of break through that shell.”

Tate Photography

Flying Object won the IK Prize—an award for experimental projects that use technology to encourage new ways to discover the Tate collections—for its Sensorium proposal. The agency worked with Tate curators to pick four abstract, evocative paintings and build an experience around them.

“When you look at food, plating effects how it tastes,” Pursey says. “Heston Blumenthal is known for his multi-sensory meals and we thought, what if we flipped that around and applied that to the visual world. Can we change the way stuff looks through taste?”

Take John Latham’s Full Stop painting from 1961. It’s a staggering beige canvas standing 10 feet tall. At its center is a black circle that the artist made by repeatedly spraying acrylic paint. Flying Object paired the artwork with an Ultrahaptics machine, a device that uses interfering sound waves to produce tactile sensations, in this case rain drops on your hands. It’s synced with headphones playing the sound of rain so you have three different senses relaying information to your brain. You form a reaction based on the convergence of the aural, haptic, and visual inputs.

“It encourages people to think about their other senses while they’re in a visual space,” Pursey says.

Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Figure in a Landscape 1945© Tate
Photo: Joe Humphrys/Tate Photography

Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape is a frenetic, abstract painting from 1945, a time fraught with war and political upheaval. Chocolatier Paul Young cooked up a special candy that mimics the painting’s sensibility. “It’s a little like tasting soil, Pursey says. “It’s dry, your mouth explodes with this powder, it’s not particularly pleasant and it sums up the grittiness of the painting. Flavors play around with smokiness and bitterness, but there’s a little sweetness representing the blue sky. It’s a very literal process of partnering up sections of the painting with an edible form.”

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And it doesn’t stop at the chocolate. Nick Ryan, an audio specialist, walked around Hyde Park, the setting of Figure in a Landscape, creating binaural sound recordings. When played, the brain positions the sound in a 3-D space so you yourself feel as if you’re in Hyde park, experiencing the acoustics much like the person Bacon depicts.

Visitors wear wristbands as they flow through Sensorium. Produced by the company Empatica, the bands measure electrodermal activity to quantify emotional responses to the artwork, essentially measuring how much the installations made you perspire. At the end, visitors receive recommendations about other artworks in the Tate collection that are similar to the painting which elicited the strongest reaction.

“It reminds people that artworks are intellectual but also for aesthetic enjoyment,” Tony Guillan, multimedia producer at the Tate, says. “The top line was, let’s remind people that their own responses are important.”

The Sensorium represents a new wave of forward-thinking installations and curatorial approaches that welcome new technology into the museum—a necessary measure if institutions are to remain competitive and engaging.

“Modern society and culture has been changing so much in the last 10 years,” Guillan says. “People use technology in all elements in their lives: to socialize, to consume news, etc. Technology fuels learning about culture. For an institution whose core mission is to share our culture, it would be behind the times not to engage.”

Sensorium runs August 26 to September 20, 2015. Admission is free.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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