I went to the opening of Tate Britain’s new installation, “Sensorium”, with a question: was this more than a gimmick?
Constructed by an interdisciplinary collective called Flying Object, it invites you to view four pictures. Each has its own darkened zone boxed off from the gallery, and each is accompanied by a tailored sensory experience. Headphones deliver a three-dimensional soundscape; capsules release aromas from strategic positions; there are things to touch and taste.
Approaching the first picture—Richard Hamilton’s “Interior II” (1964)—was like walking into a movie, if that movie were playing in an apartment paced by stiletto-wearing ghosts. The picture shows a cut-out woman in a room, and around me unseen footsteps came and went, alongside a machine buzz and what sounded like paper ripping. The smell of hairspray and glue tickled my nose as I paced the viewing area.
It got steadily odder. For the second picture, John Latham’s “Full Stop” (1961), ultrasound shivered across one hand when I placed it into a box. Here was a more violent soundscape: white noise blaring until the image, a black circle against off-white, seemed almost to vibrate. The jagged geometry of David Bomberg’s “In The Hold” (1913-14), was matched by scents of sour diesel and smoke, while planes of sound shifted around me. The last, and greatest, picture was Francis Bacon’s “Figure in a Landscape” (1945), showing what appears to be a seated man, or perhaps some cleverly butchered meat. While looking at it, I ate a specially crafted chocolate tasting of ashes while breathing grassy, bitter smells.
If I walked in unsure, l left—blinking into the light—still unsure, but richly and ecstatically so.
Here’s the thing. Looking at pictures hung in an art gallery is a more or less knowable, safe and civilised activity. But stand in front of a picture and stare for long enough, and it starts to get weird. What, exactly, is so special about this picture? Are you seeing what you think you’re seeing, or what everyone else sees? As I stared and paced in front of Hamilton’s “Interior II”, the associations spawned by the sound, scents and outer darkness took on a life of their own. That cut-out woman in front of her cut-out Sixties chair: she was about to go to work in a job she hated, I decided. She lived in Manhattan. She was lonely. Was something inside the television moving, beside her? Was someone waiting in the next room?
Such thoughts, and more, meandered through my mind as “Sensorium” coerced me into uncomfortably close viewing. The timings are strict, the voiceover’s patient instructions on when and how to move—a softly schoolmarmish Tamsin Greig, no less—not to be disobeyed. You walk from picture to picture when you’re told to walk. You’re given no information in advance and then, after each viewing, just enough to set more questions rebounding. “Please,” I found myself thinking at one point, “tell me what to make of this: tell me what it’s supposed to mean.” Tamsin didn’t oblige.
Beyond its effect on the pictures, though, the sensory immersion began stealthily to put my own body on show. In “Interior II”, I wondered at myself as much as at the painting: at how the sound of feet clicking across a room could turn an interior into something filmic, associative, tugging at memory; how flashes of hairspray scent fleshed a figure into a story. In front of Latham’s “Full Stop”, the bursting sound followed by silence made the image itself thicken and shiver. Associations crawled out of cracks before I could stuff them back in, summoned by sounds and smells. I was, I felt, floating under a great depth of water alongside this image, claustrophobic with pressure. My eyes kept pulling more darkness out of its depth—until, with a pop, the soundscape released me.
Only a few thousand people will get to experience “Sensorium”, such are the limitations of space and time, and this is a shame. It’s profoundly accessible and beautifully put together. As the installation’s producer, Peter Law, explained to me after my journey, “it has been extensively play-tested”. When experience itself is on show, immersion must be complete. Everything is honed to idiot-proof progression: every potential dither ironed out, the better to transport you.
At the end, an elegant printout (attention to detail abounds: it’s no Times New Roman afterthought) plotted my skin’s conductivity over the duration of the installation, measured by a bracelet donned at the beginning. Complete with suitable peaks for tactile and sonic surprise, I showed a steadily escalating excitation: from emotional inertia to arousal, via the uneasy sense that I no longer quite controlled what I was thinking or feeling. “Sensorium” is, among other things, an exercise in unknowing—in bringing yourself to a dark, strange space that happens to hold four paintings, and asking what it means to hand over your senses to a talented cast of outsiders.
The back of my printout suggested I engage with a few of Tate Britain’s other works in my heightened state: “Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table” (1916-17) by Harold Gilman, for example, with particular attention to taste. I declined. What I most needed was a long walk and some time alone in my head, sifting the echoes: a black sun, suspended, shivering; a jagged cargo hold, reeking of diesel; a figure, half way between flesh and meat, shackled to a machine, the taste of sugar and ashes in his mouth.
Sensorium Tate Britain, London, to September 20th