Updated: Apr 19, 2021
I thought it would be a good time to start with a recap on what I've discovered so far:
Materiality in art is a relatively new concept. It wasn't until the mid-19th Century that artists began to draw attention to the material characteristics of their work. Initially, this was part of a general self-consciousness; an attempt to destroy the verisimilitude that had defined Western art.
In the early 20th Century, artists began exploring non-traditional media, creating art from found objects or recycling items like newspaper or metal, within sculpture, collage and assemblages.
A key characteristic of conceptual art is its rejection of formalism (and materiality) in favour of 'the idea' - artists often created instructions that could be repeated infinitely, or works that were purposefully ephemeral.
Art criticism is generally resistant to materiality as a concept, preferring to focus on meaning, aesthetic, or technique. Western art criticism tends to be ocular-centric, overlooking the importance of our other senses when experiencing art. We also lack an objective, critical vocabulary to discuss embodied experiences of art.
Toward the late 20th Century, artists began to use materials for their symbolic value within their artwork. Within an increasingly digitalised society, material choices have taken on an enhanced significance for artists.
There is a general lack of research or interest in the role of the audience member/viewer/end user within visual art (it's even hard to find the right word). Response to art is rarely documented, and art that's interactive is often seen as tokenistic.
One thing I've noticed through much of my research, is even when discussing materiality within art, the role of the end user/audience is often overlooked. Materiality has become another conduit for artistic intention, a way to add another layer of meaning. None of the artwork I researched actually encouraged an embodied experience. They were all still meant to be looked at. Like so much art, despite their materiality being intrinsic to their meaning, I have little doubt a subtle or not so subtle 'DO NOT TOUCH' sign would be an ever-present party-pooper.
While often this is about conservation or hygiene - obviously you can't go around licking a Monet, or scrunching up a Da Vinci just to see what the paper feels like - part of the reason is a millennium strong tradition of ocular centrism. Of overstating the importance of sight. Because there are ways to engage our other senses, without literally damaging the integrity of an artwork. For example, I was thinking about the El Anatsui works I discussed in a previous blog post. While they look very tactile (which is itself a paradox) I was thinking... I wonder if they smell of anything? Like a metallic tang resonant of blood, or like that sour beer smell you get in a pub, or even the sweet cloy of a landfill? Or what do you think they sound like when they're moved. What noise would occur if a gentle breeze trickled across them, would they sound like a rain stick, or maybe more creaky, like trees in the wind? What about how they actually feel? Would they be cold to the touch, smooth or jagged? And most importantly, what would all this mean to your experience of the pieces? How would it effect the way you remembered them?
You often have to tell children not to touch things in shops, or not put everything in their mouths/up their noses/in their ears. But they are engaging in an inherent behaviour. Tasting or touching isn't just a base sensual activity, it's directly linked to our cognitive processes. Some of our strongest memories or experiences are defined by our taste, touch, hearing or smell, not just our sight. The high emotional value of sensory experience has a substantial influence on our cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory and reasoning. I bet that by smelling the stench of stale beer and hearing the gentle clanking of a thousand bits of metal you'd take away a whole new tranche of meanings and resonance. And what if (madness), you got to attach a new bottle cap to the piece. You got to pick up the thread and sew it through a tiny hole; to understand the experience of being part of that creation; to be complicit in the act of recycling and to know you were part of the giant swathe of material hanging on the wall?
I'm approaching this from the perspective of the audience/end user, but it's interesting to think of the conceptual effect on the artist. If art is fundamentally about expression or communication, then wouldn't it be cool to have someone who doesn't just stare vacantly or comment coldly at your life's work, but someone who talks back or really listens and takes part in your idea? Or just someone who remembers it, rather than someone who shrugs their shoulders at the big sign telling them not to touch.
I realise interactive art does exist; art that invites you to write something pithy on a notecard so it can form part on an exhibition, but it's often little more than a gimmick and rarely seriously engaged with. But that's kind of the problem. A bit like practice-based research, we don't seem to have a satisfactory vocabulary or research structure to understand and communicate this kind of engagement with art. Like 'affective criticism' in literature, which attempts to evaluate why you like one book more than another, rather than why one book should hold some kind of innate merit due to its experimental nature, or mastery of form, it's really difficult to talk about embodied or emotional experiences of art in a critical manner.
However, there is one field of artistic practice that has, since its inception in the mid-20th century, continuously relied upon physical interaction with an audience to fulfil its meaning: artists' books. By their very nature, artists' books are meant to be held, touched, turned, closed; they defy the conventions of gallery art, while they must be displayed, they also require a certain amount of intimate engagement in order to be viewed in their entirety. Over the next few blog posts I'm going to explore examples of creative practice within book art and how this unique media has an important role within visual art.
Update 8th April:
As part of my research I discovered an interesting paper on a Tate exhibition from 2015, called Tate Sensorium. Tate Sensorium was an immersive six-week exhibition, featuring four paintings from the Tate collection. Visitors experienced sounds, smells, tastes and physical forms inspired by the artworks, and were asked to record and review their physiological responses through sophisticated measurement devices.
One of the paintings was Francis Bacon's Figure in a Landscape, which was accompanied by edible charcoal, sea salt, cocoa nibs and smokey lapsang souchong tea, smells of grass, soil and horse manure, and mechanised sounds recalling the industrialised subject matter.
Another was John Latham's Full Stop, which alongside audio recordings specifically designed to aurally describe the image, included an innovative mid-air haptic experience. Visitors were asked to place their hand above a plinth, which, using ultra sound waves, gave them a tactile understanding of the painting they saw.
The results of the exhibition were recorded by a team and published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. The results were as you would expect, with a general consensus of increased engagement and effectiveness, critical comments tended to refer to the need for a more immersive - perhaps whole body - experience.
You can find info about Tate Sensorium here: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/ik-prize-2015-tate-sensorium and the paper with the results here:https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/83956649.pdf.