Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (Royal Academy of Arts)

Sensingspaces1“Allowing room for the visitor’s imagination is essential if a space is to become a satisfying physical experience.” These are the words of Li Xiaodong, one of seven architects who have been invited to transform the neoclassical galleries of the Royal Academy for their freshest exhibition, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Xiaodong’s suggestion captures the spirit of the exhibition, which sets out to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery space.

The exhibition is carefully divided yet without any imposed sequence, each architect having been allocated one or two rooms. Many structures are visually and conceptually striking, such as Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Blue, an imposing pine wood construction occupying half of Room 2 in which visitors are invited to enter. In Room 6, the Ireland-based Grafton Architects call attention to the dramatic effects of roof light with their suspended plaster panels. Elsewhere, the Burkinabe Diébédo Francis Kéré created a stunning tunnel from honeycomb plastic linking two of the rooms, transformed by the visitors’ gradual addition of coloured plastic straws. Surely, the works in this exhibition succeed in heightening our awareness of the sensory realm of architecture. Be it through visually destabilizing environments, tactilely appealing surfaces, or even the smell of materials, the works underscore the ways in which architecture may have a direct impact on our bodily and mental states.

One of my concerns is that the exhibition is rather under-curated. The galleries display only basic factual information about the work they contain. And the iPads at the entrance of the exhibition, through which one will essentially learn about the production processes of the structures, do not offer much more. We learn little about how the architects have concretely sought “to address the human spirit,” and the way they have used “their appreciation of history to create buildings that acknowledge the past but are also highly meaningful within the present” remains completely speculative for the viewers.

I also wonder whether Sensing Spaces will have the long-lasting impact it hopes for. The statement of curator Kate Goodwin begins with a reflection on the ignored ubiquity of architecture in our daily activities, acknowledging how it very often is only the background to our lives. “Working, sleeping or playing,” she writes, “mostly take place within, and interact with, architecture.” The structures are quite spectacular in themselves, but precisely for this reason one is unlikely to engage differently with ordinary, everyday architectural spaces. The question remains open as to how these everyday spaces can become more rewarding, more satisfying.

Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until the 6th April 2014.

Engulfed and in Motion

Regine Rapp, Art Laboratory Berlin: Some notes on the Phenomenon of Perception in Contemporary Installation art, Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1988 (from the exhibition "Ten Characters" at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York). Photo: D. James Dee // Image Courtesy of Ilya Kabakov: VG Bild Kunst Bonn

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1988 (from the exhibition “Ten Characters” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York). Photo: D. James Dee // Image Courtesy of Ilya Kabakov: VG Bild Kunst Bonn

In a continuation of this term’s investigations into the relationship between art and perception, this week’s Frank Davis Lecture concerned the spatial aesthetics of installation art. Central to the research of Dr Regine Rapp from the Art Laboratory Berlin is the application of reception theory in assessing the multisensory experience of the viewer when entering the spaces shaped by artists. Combining the physical with the conceptual, this lecture aired new experiments into age-old issues of reactions both to illusion in art and to the authority of exhibition spaces.

With multiple visual and audio examples, Dr Rapp’s talk examined how the viewer’s presence in and motion through an installation both completes the work and also induces a sense of being engulfed by an environment.  Depending on the situation, the response can be a kinaesthetic one, brought about by the body’s physical engagement with an environment, and/or a synaesthetic one that mixes sight and sound to disorientate and to distort the expected sensation of space and time. The former effect was exploited by the subversive strategies of Russian artist Ilya Kabokov working around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His Total Installations worked by constructing an oppressive atmosphere that in one example took the form of a cramped artist’s room in a soviet communal flat, the chaotic pressure below contrasting with the sense of relief where the occupant had catapulted his or herself through the ceiling and into space. Dr Rapp commented on the 3-D trompe l’oeil effect of such works and their references to a controlled state environment, as illustrated for instance by the same artist’s hanging sculpture of flies arranged to form the outline of a Russian orthodox onion dome, itself position in a roped-off space.

frankdavisThere is an interesting element of institutional and consumer critique to the Transformation Installations in which Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl stages the deadening non-site environments of airports and trade fairs. While the audience would no doubt have agreed with the alienating effect of these carefully composed ‘still-lifes’ of the everyday commercial landscape, the productive insights to be gained from the splicing of illusion and disenchantment in cavernous expo halls were less convincing. Perhaps one had to be there …  Where I would like to have been is in the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin for the experience of the Ghost Machine, a guided solo walk behind the scenes and back in time mediated by audiovisual technology. Describing the physiological surround effects achieved by the artist’s recording of a script through a dummy head, Regine Rapp suggested that Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures-Miller’s interactive walks present a new form of art work that might be characterised as a ‘trompe l’oreille’. Certainly, in expanding the embodied aspects of exhibition and performance, this last example illustrated very well the project’s focus on the physiological response at the heart of reception studies. If there was something missing from the equation however, perhaps it was the weight of scientific evidence that, conversely, has been the prime concern of previous lectures. For more on this side, go to the  for information on recent collaborative research into the phenomenon of synaesthesia.