Please Stop to Smell the Art

MIT’s new interactive art exhibit, “Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art,” is like the grown-up, version of Boston’s Museum of Science. The six artists displayed play with the senses to create an interactive, intriguing commentary on the way new interactive technologies are changing the way art is experienced.

Tactics as diverse as Scratch-N-Sniff inspired walls, a “touch-tunnel” filled with darkness, sounds, and a strobe light, and Bruce Nauman’s attempts to “see the night” help to propel the viewer through a tumultuous journey that challenges vision’s dominance of vision over the other senses. M.I.T.’s effort achieves something rare—a contemporary art exhibition that is both accessible and meaningful.

“Sensorium” is presented in two parts. Part 1, on display in MIT’s List Visual Arts Center from Oct. 12 to Dec. 31, features artists Mathieu Briand, Janet Cardiff/George Bures Miller, Ryoji Ikeda, Bruce Nauman, and Sissel Tolaas.

Upon entering the “Sensorium”, participants are immediately transported into a futuristic world. French artist Matthieu Briand’s “UBIQ, a Mental Odyssey” transforms the gallery entrance into a spaceship based on the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Visitors are then asked to wear a tan wireless viewing device that changes the view to what one of the three other participants is looking at, making the perception of the exhibition gallery into a shared reality.

Moving along, the gallery walls are painted a dull shade of white, bare except for the numbers one-to-13 differentiating the panels. This is the world of Norweigan artist Sissel Tolaas, recently profiled in The New York Times. Tolaas experiments with a sense that is often forgotten in the art world—that of smell.

To produce “The FEAR of smell—the smell of FEAR,” Tolaas worked with men of various ages and nationalities who were profoundly afraid of something. The smells of her subjects’ perspiration were captured and then mixed into wall paint in a process similar to that of the 1950’s phenomenon of scratch-n-sniff. A white plaque on the wall instructs visitors to “please touch walls to release scents.”

A fellow visitor commented that some of the sweat smelled “surprisingly good.” Tolaas deliberately chose scents that played with the olfactory perceptions of nationalities—was the strange lemon smell of panel #3 faintly European? Was #9 Indian? Forced to engage with a smell and no image, visitors conjure up fuzzy images that are refused confirmation in the white walls surrounding them.

Bruce Nauman allows viewers to see in the dark with the help of infrared technology in “Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage).” Each night Nauman aimed his digital infrared camera at one spot and recorded what took place for over 40 hours.

The result is a projected image of a desk chair and desk in a green glow. Shadows loom large, silence sounds like a vacuum, and the smallest cracking noise sounds like an explosion. The green glow of the power strip starts pulsating and finally the waiting becomes too much and the discouraged viewer leaves. The work is frustrating and mesmeric.

By far the best installation is Canadian duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s “Opera for a Small Room.” One cannot actually enter the piece, but is forced to look through slits in the wall to the large wood room in which it is housed.

The room is reminiscent of a junk shed, filled with thousands of albums marked “R. Dennehy” ranging from “25 Polka Greats” to Mendelssohn.

Paint cans, light bulbs, broken chandeliers, and about 15 old radio speakers complete the outfit. The artists then used Discmans, videocams, and binaural sound equipment to create the accompanying “opera.”

The arm of one of five record players lifts up, the megaphone announces the pieces, and the sound of clapping is heard.

The needle touches down and a haunting aria escapes from one of the speakers—the viewer dives into the scene and the music and the play of the light reflecting off the spinning record and onto the ceiling. A disembodied voice like that of Jim Morrison in The Doors’s “Soft Parade” begins to narrate.

The 20-minute “opera” continues with a music mash-up that would have Girl Talk drooling with envy. Opera, blues, narration, electric guitar, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and more combine with the lights and the ambient noise to place the viewer squarely in the moment, unable to move from the window through which the opera is played out.

Finally, the narration signals an end to the opera. “He waits in his room, playing records over and over. ‘Is that all you do?’ she says. It wasn’t his fault…The music doesn’t really change anything but it helps him in the same way he doesn’t really understand. It’s an opera after all, everyone dies in the end.”

The exhibition closes with this piece and the viewer stumbles confused out into the small bookstore, sure of little except the fact that they have definitely gained a whole new understanding for the term “sensory overload.”

Staff writer Kimberly E. Gittleson can be reached at gittles@fas.harvard.edu.