… Where’s the sense in multisensory art?

Tate-SensoriumIt used to be known as ‘synaesthesia’; now ‘crossmodal perception’ is the scientific term for the ability of one sense to stimulate another. Experiments by Oxford University psychologists and researchers in New York have found links between reactions to sound and smell in the part of the brain known as the ‘olfactory tubercle’. It may sound like a plug of mucus in a brass instrument, but apparently it’s highly sensitive. When one researcher banged his coffee mug down next to the laboratory mice whose olfactory reflexes he was testing, their smell cells jumped.

Artists, always looking for new angles, have played with crossmodal possibilities for years. But while modern artists like Kandinsky and Klee focused on art’s relationship with music, postmodern artists have developed a less salubrious interest in smells. At the Whitechapel Gallery’s groundbreaking exhibition This Is Tomorrow in 1956, Richard Hamilton installed a strawberry-scented carpet. That was yesterday, and things have moved on. In 2008 the Reg Vardy Gallery in Sunderland devoted a whole exhibition, If There Ever Was, to the fifth sense, regaling visitors’ nostrils with the aroma of the last meal of Death Row prisoner Jesse Tafero and claiming to reproduce the scent of the sun by heating the seven earth metals from which it is composed to melting point. In 2010 specialist fragrance artist Clara Ursitti subverted nasal expectations at Tatton Park Biennial by infusing the upholstery of a Nissan Sunny with the designer perfume of a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, and in April this year, for the odour-themed exhibition I’m Here But You’ve Gone staged by the Fiorucci Art Trust in a Sloane Avenue townhouse, Mary Ramsden sprayed a black and white room with the scent of Panda Sex. I can’t give a nosewitness account, but according to a report in the Evening Standard it smelt of baby wipes and posh candles. If that’s what turns pandas on, it’s no wonder they have difficulty breeding.

Now public galleries struggling with the problem of ADHD-afflicted visitors who’ve lost the ability to focus on one thing at a time are hoping crossmodality could be the answer. Last summer at Tate Britain the special exhibition Tate Sensorium offered visitors a multisensory tour of four paintings from the collection – Richard Hamilton’s Interior II, John Latham’s Full Stop, David Bomberg’s In the Hold and Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape – with added bells and smells. The experience of Hamilton’s Interior, for example, was aurally enhanced by the sound of clacking heels on 1960s parquet and distant traffic noise, while wall dispensers diffused the odours of furniture polish, hairspray and glue. (Or so we were told. All the scents in the show smelled to me like stale air-freshener, not surprisingly considering their creator trades under the name of Odette Toilette.) The sense of touch was tickled in front of the Latham by an 404 Not Found ‘Ultrahaptics’ device using ultrasound waves to puff spurts of air, and the sense of taste in front of the Bacon by a ball of chocolate that exploded in the mouth into a gritty mix of edible charcoal, cocoa grains and sea salt, evocative of Bacon’s dingy earth palette but rather more exciting.

As we listened, sniffed, felt and munched our way through the darkened rooms, our reactions were recorded on wristbands using lie detector technology to measure electrodermal activity through perspiration. The trouble was that the technology had no way of telling what exactly was getting us in a sweat. At the exit we were handed readouts of our reactions to the different works. My personal graph traced a level line of phlegmatic indifference to Hamilton, Latham and Bacon – without a blip for the chocolate – but went completely haywire in response to Bomberg. This led the Sensorium to conclude that my “strongest physical reaction was to sound and smell within The Hold”. It didn’t entertain the possibility that my excited response might have been to the visual stimulus of the painting, the only one of the four works selected to reward sustained optical exploration.

There’s a growing assumption in our multimedia age that looking at pictures is no longer enough. In the 17th century, when artists painted Allegories of the Senses, viewers were supposed to use their imaginations – the sight of the poopy baby’s bottom in Jan Miense Molenaer’s The Sense of Smell was expected to do the business on its own. Now post-modern literalism expects more. Yet which seems funkier, the rumpled sheets on Sickert’s iron bedsteads or the real ones on Tracey Emin’s My Bed, reduced by years of conservators’ condition reports to a state of artificial deinsemination?

On the evidence of the Tate Sensorium, the senses of smell, taste and touch contribute little to visual enjoyment. Hearing is a different case, as we know from film scores, which raised my hopes of the National Gallery’s summer exhibition Soundscapes for which six composers, sound artists and recordists were commissioned to write soundtracks to paintings of their choice. A problem with sound, of course, is that to appreciate it you have to keep quiet, which gallery visitors – unlike concert or film audiences – aren’t obliged to do. The calls of the raven, cuckoo and Lapplanders’ ‘yoik’ supplied by David Attenborough’s sound recordist Chris Watson as an undercurrent to Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele would have been wonderfully atmospheric if not regularly drowned in waves of chatter every time the gallery doors were opened.

Not all the soundtracks were as evocative as Watson’s. The melancholy sawing of Susan Philipsz’s Air on a Broken String, played as an accompaniment to Holbein’s The Ambassadors on a violin with a string missing, was as maunderingly self-indulgent as her 2010 Turner Prize entry and – apart from the knowing reference to Holbein’s broken lute string – had no connection with the picture. The other sound artists Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller chose a more appropriate accompaniment to Antonella da Messina’s St Jerome in his Study in Guillaume Dufay’s early Renaissance composition Vergine Bella, but then managed to completely upstage the painting by installing a large wooden model of Jerome’s study in the centre of the room and relegating the original to a corner. Digital remix artist Jamie xx had a decent stab at replicating the pointillism of Theo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene with pullulating electronic rhythms, and classical composer Nico Muhly’s theme for bells and viola da gamba was a harmless complement to The Wilton Diptych, but the only unqualified success was Gabriel Yared’s

score for Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuse. Yared is a film composer who knows his stuff. His orchestration for soprano voice, clarinet and tinkling piano vividly evoked the shifting light and leaves of a sylvan glade, while his repeating doo-whump figure in the cello supplied a thumping bass for the bottom-heavy bathers. The fact that the painting is the size of a wide-screen TV helped.

Soundscapes was an interesting experiment, but was it successful in making people look at the paintings? Here’s a conversation The Jackdaw’s sound recordist overheard in the ladies’ toilets.


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1: “Did you go to the cinema?”

Girl 2: “What cinema?”

Girl 1: “The one with the film where all the artists talked about their


Girl 2: “Oh no! You mean I missed the main thing?”

Laura Gascoigne