On the 16th of September, I set out with a group of young friends to catch the ‘exciting’ new exhibition called Tate Sensorium at the Tate Britain. It was more the company of such interesting and nice people rather than the exhibition that made me agree to their plan. And, the fact that I have never visited the Tate Britain added a bit to the curiosity.
My mind was blank, I hadn’t read up anything about the gallery or the exhibition and was completely dependent on my friends for directions. I had come to trust Praneti’s judgment by then and looked forward to her ideas. So we went to the Tate Britain. I was welcome to all new sensations, news, and experiences – waiting for a small adventure.
It was a cold and wet morning, quite gloomy and grey. We tried to brighten it up with our colourful umbrellas and incessant jokes and retorts from Jyotirmoy and Ishita. Onema added to the warmth of the conversation with her smart quips. In spite of trying to be happy through the cold raindrops on us we reached the Tube station only to realise that you could not enter it till 10 am and could only exit from it till then. I was surprised to learn that unlike ‘Hotel California’ where Eagles were blaring out “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!” there were places from where you could always leave. We waited outside the Tube station for the clock to turn 10, shivering patiently in the cold wind for 15 minutes. I thought to myself that this Sense whatever exhibition better be a nice one else the entire effort would be such a waste.
The walk from Pimlico station to Tate Britain is pretty straightforward with quiet houses and a lovely pub, nothing very different from other parts of London. The houses have pretty bright coloured floral displays, that day they seemed to be greeting us with a lot of happiness. It gave me the feeling the trip wouldn’t be that bad, even though I was already pretty cold.
We entered the large grey stone building; another of typical old stone London buildings through a ramp, nothing unusual still and then once inside the reaction was “wow”. So this is the Tate Britain, no wonder everyone insisted that I should visit it at least once during my entire trip.
After returning from the trip to the museum I learned from the Gallery website that the Tate Britain building stood on what had actually been the Millbank Penitentiary. It was originally a prison and the departure point from where prisoners were sent off to Australia. It had been demolished in 1890. It had been selected as the site for the new National Gallery of British Art, under the Directorship of the huge National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. The architect for this new building project was to be Sidney R.J. Smith. What a transformation – from a dark history to a bright welcoming space for the arts!
But what necessitated the creation of a new building for the display and storage of artworks when the National Gallery already existed? The sugar baron Henry Tate wanted to donate his entire collection to the nation in 1889 and the National Gallery did not have enough space to accommodate them. Hence, this building was to serve as an extension to the existing gallery.
The new building opened to the public in 1897 with 245 artworks in eight rooms from British artists dating back to 1790. Apparently, since its opening there have been 7 new extensions to the building and its size doubled in the first 15 years of its opening! Today it’s 70, 000 artworks are located at four sites – Millbank, St Ives, Liverpool and the Tate Modern at Bankside, London.
It was late as 1955 that the Tate Gallery became independent from the National Gallery, though it had already gained popularity with the public as the Tate. In 1979, the spectacular extension designed by Richard Llewelyn-Davies opened to the public. And, here I was walking through this historic building reinvented with one of the most modern display systems.
The exhibition, Tate Sensorium, was finally found after happily getting lost in the Henry Moore sculpture galleries. One of my favourite artists, Henry Moore’s large sculptures along with their maquettes were displayed through three large galleries. It was such a treat to walk around them, looking up at them, wondering at their scale and the meaning behind them.
The Sensorium exhibition is a new experiment between the Tate Britain gallery and the University of Sussex. The main objective behind this exhibition is to “stimulate your sense of taste, touch, smell and hearing”. It is part of the contemporary discussion to bring out art from a single sense to a multiple sensed approach. Should we just see an artwork or hear, smell, feel and touch it as a holistic immersive experience?
The question beneath the experiment is “can taste, touch, smell and sound change the way we ‘see’ art?”
Some of the questions that always come to me when I look at any work of art are: What do the artists intend when they try to capture a fragment of life and present it in one small canvas? Why do they use the colours they do? Why are brush strokes in one painting different from the other? Why do some artists use brushes while others use a palette knife? Why this, why that? Artists wouldn’t like to be bothered about these questions, if they are present, am sure. Will experiments of these kind help in arriving at a solution or maybe a near enough answer to the thoughts in the artists’ brain when the artwork was being created?
Only 4 people were allowed to enter the exhibition at a pre allotted time. We were explained that we would be asked to listen, touch and eat some stuff so if we were not up to it we could walk out. But the excitement went beyond any apprehension. We were given wrist bands that would measure our perspiration and heartbeat which would translate to our immediate response to the artwork we were looking at.
The artworks on view were:
Richard Hamilton Interior II
While viewing this painting, we had to listen to music and smell some bottles off the wall.
John Latham Full Stop
For this painting we had to listen to some music and the put the right hand in a small machine through which air was flowing. The flow of air was regulated with strong waves and less strong ones.
David Bomberg In The Hold
For this painting also, we had to smell small bottles of scented powder, and we were told that if we walked across the space in front of the painting the sound from the speakers would change.
Francis Bacon Figure in a Landscape
This was the last painting where we not only heard some music but were given a delicious looking chocolate to eat, but looks are deceptive and I nearly gagged over it! All this was a part of the experiment.
After we saw the 4 paintings our wristbands were taken from us and were asked to fill in a basic questionnaire on an Ipad. The wristbands were plugged to a computer and the printout showed our reactions to the different paintings. On the basis of these readings, we were informed which paintings in the rest of the Tate Britain Gallery would be to our liking and taste. We compared our results and Ishita’s turned out to be the most dynamic, with the graph going haywire with her reactions.
It was a unique experience, one that I won’t ever forget. Maybe a small step in the direction of understanding the snapshots of life and experiences of other people that hang in aesthetically designed galleries.
The day didn’t seem gloomy at all; though it was still raining we were so absorbed in sharing our experiences that we didn’t even know when we returned home. The experiment and the visit were successful J