Breathing Consciously: Exploring Sensory Experience in Art

By Dr Elisabeth Reissner (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Sensory tour led by Professor David Howes at the Courtauld Gallery

Sensory tour led by Professor David Howes at the Courtauld Gallery

A connecting thread between the events that have taken place under the umbrella of ‘What Sense is there in Art?’ over the past year has been the requirement that participants bring not only their intellect and visual perception, but also their sense of hearing, smell, touch and taste. At the start of the final workshop, held on the 26th of September, it was fitting therefore that speakers and audience were invited by the research project organiser, Dr Irene Noy, to take part together in a short meditation which encouraged a sense of being present in our bodies.

There are further reasons why the five minutes spent paying attention to our breath and listening to the sounds around us were apt. One is the quality of risk, experimentation, even transgression – so unusual is the introduction of a practice stemming from the yoga tradition into an academic space. It was experimental in the way its possible effect upon the discussion that was to follow could not be known beforehand. Reflecting back it is interesting to consider whether things might have been thought, noticed or said that otherwise would not have been. The space it created, or the tone it set, has certainly had a bearing on what I have felt able to express in this text.

Sensory tour led by Professor David Howes at the Courtauld Gallery

Sensory tour led by Professor David Howes at the Courtauld Gallery

The conscious breathing and listing mediation may subtly have ‘conditioned’ how participants engaged or attended. ‘Conditioning’, or the cultivation of sensitivity, was later touched upon by Dr Valentijn Byvanck in the introduction he gave to the ongoing program of installations/immersive exhibitions devoted to the senses at Marres, House for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht. Groups of visitors have been invited to remove their shoes before starting, and facilitators have guided their experiences. Accompanying the exhibitions are a series of lectures and also a program called ‘Training the Senses’. This training includes walks, workshops and presentations in which artistic practices, bodily reflexes, mental states and conditions are examined.

Jan Brueghel the Elder and companions, Hearing, Taste and Touch, c. 1620, Madrid, Museo del Prado

Jan Brueghel the Elder and companions, Hearing, Taste and Touch, c. 1620, Madrid, Museo del Prado

A quality of experimentation and risk was something that Professor David Howes addressed in his keynote lecture ‘Coming to Our Senses: The Sensory Turn in Contemporary Art and Ethnographic Museums’, as he gave examples of ‘sensory museology’. These included the permitting of a traditional indigenous practice of ‘smoking’ Iroquois false face masks and the handling of artifacts. He also commended Tate’s ‘Sensorium’ and the National Gallery London’s ‘Soundscapes’ – exhibitions that last summer Dr Irene Noy used to begin the year-long, exchange of ideas about art and the senses, which she has led. Experimentation and risk characterized the work of Jessica Akerman in her sound art exhibition, which was curated by Dr Noy and took place in June this year, at the innovative ‘Museum of Portable Sound’. It was present too in Professor Joanna Woodall’s paper when she proposed thinking about the pictorial fields of the pendant paintings of the Five Senses, made under the aegis of Jan Breugel the Elder, not as allegories or representations of the discrete senses, but rather as analogous to an embodied human subject.

Mary Bauermeister, Untitled (Blue Honeycomb), 1958, layered paste on wood, 18 x 24 cm. Collection Mary Bauermeister

Mary Bauermeister, Untitled (Blue Honeycomb), 1958, layered paste on wood, 18 x 24 cm. Collection Mary Bauermeister

The proposal that pictorial fields can be analogous to ‘human-like presences’, as well as the idea that boundaries between interior and exterior spaces within Breugel’s pictures had a liminal quality, suggestive of sensory portals, was contextualised historically. These thoughts took on a contemporary relevance, however, when expressed in a workshop that had begun with a meditative focus on breath and in which a question emerged regarding Art’s role in helping to facilitate/develop a sense of wellbeing, or of being present to the world around us. Whilst in 17th century Antwerp Breugel’s exploration of the senses may have expressed a hope for divine harmony, ‘What Sense is there in Art?’ has questioned the ethical dimension of present day explorations. In 2016 we can at least hope that a more creative, dynamic and ethical relationship between ourselves, the communities we live in and the wider natural environment becomes a little more possible when we are sensitively attuned to our own bodies, the world we live in, and the connection between the two.