Failing to nurture our senses not only detracts from our appreciation of the subtleties and beauties of everyday experience, but also strips away layers of meaning from our lives.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonder Box
When one thinks of an art gallery, visual aesthetics are — typically — forefront in the mind. Visual arts such as painting, photography, sculpture and drawing are standard gallery fare, which goes hand in hand with the ancient and ongoing privileging of sight in Western aesthetics.
Yet, at a time when visual culture has exploded to the point of near-inescapability, some artists and audiences are seeking to engage with our other senses. Within OCAD University’s artist ranks, several have been pushing creative boundaries by presenting work that involves not only sight, but also scent, sound, touch and taste.
In this article, I offer glimpses of work by three such artists who are creating experiences that rattle visitors’ expectations by integrating senses typically neglected in the gallery space. The results can be at once challenging, refreshing and exciting. In addition, encounters with their bold, multi-sensory work encourages us to question how we define galleries, art and aesthetics.
The visual is not the most effective means of displaying a subject. Some have even argued that scent can be as powerful — if not more so — than sight. One explanation for this arises from the fact that scent and memory are intrinsically tied. That’s because the olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory. Meanwhile, a study of scents in the gallery space found that scent increased visitors’ focus and memory.
Drawing on the power of scent to galvanize attention, stir memories and encourage engagement, Amanda Robertson-Hébert’s recent work Reincarnate (2016), while visually stunning, also has a major olfactory element. The sculpture was created using moss, soil and otter fur, and Robertson-Hébert encourages audiences to smell the work so that the earthy, musty scent of these materials can be integrated into their experience of the piece.
He Loves me If?, 2016
He Loves me If?, 2016
Hands and tongues
Kaia’tanoron Bush has incorporated both taste and touch experiences into her piece He Loves Me If? (2016). Bush’s sculpture consists of carefully crafted biomorphic forms carved from chocolate — presented much like Easter eggs in a basket. The gallery didactics encourage visitors to have a taste.
There is also a tactile aspect to the piece because a visitor must handle the sculptures and use a large kitchen knife to carve off a slab of the edible sculpture. With every slice of the knife, every bite taken, the sculpture changes, making the visitor integral to the work’s development.
Jill Price’s SOFT DATA (2016) sculpture integrates visitors’ bodies through sound. This series of soft cloth sculptures was equipped with a variety of speakers installed to amplify the ambient noises echoing in the dramatic shadows cast by the pillowy forms. SOFT DATA’s sonic element heightens visitors’ awareness of the gallery’s sounds, which receive much less attention than the visual aesthetics of the experience.
(Roberston-Hébert's and Bush's work is currently on display until May 7, 2016, as part of the Primitive show at the Indigenous Visual Cultural Centre.)
Emily Cluett is an emerging curator enrolled in OCAD University’s Criticism & Curatorial Practice MFA program.