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On View / Making senses of art

Ronald Ventura’s CAROUSEL

Images courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the artists; Therrien and Samaras photos by Tom Loonan, Samaras photo courtesy Pace Gallery


What do you see when you enter an art museum? Visual art, right? Our concept of artwork revolves around visual perception, the act of seeing. But in life, the human body relates to the world around us through an aggregate of the senses. Our brains are wired for multisensory perception. That’s why we may look at something we made years ago and recall a song that was playing at the time, or think of grandma when we smell fresh-baked cookies.


By the latter half of the twentieth century, a new breed of artist began engaging audiences in physical experiences involving multiple sensations. We expect to view art in a museum, and maybe hear sound. But it requires some cognitive reorientation when we’re invited to touch, smell, and even taste the art.


To fully immerse yourself in the pleasures of Out of Sight! Art of the Senses, now on exhibit through Sunday, January 28 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, it’s going to take six senses—the five usual ones, plus a sense of fun. The contemporary artists represented here create works that seduce the nostrils, charm the tongue, tingle the flesh, and captivate the ears, with plenty left to dazzle the eyes. About half the work assembled by museum director Janne Sirén, deputy director Joe Lin-Hill, and chief curator Cathleen Chaffee comes from the museum’s collection; the rest are on loan. Only three of the artists are American-born, reflecting the globalization of contemporary art and a move away from Western domination.


Robert Therrien, No title (folding table and chairs, beige)


From the very start of the show, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Valeska Soares’s ironically titled Fainting Couch invites visitors to lie down on a sleek, utilitarian stainless steel slab, permeated with tiny holes. Victorian era fainting couches were meant to accommodate “fragile” women who felt lightheaded, or experienced “hysteria.” In Soares’s version, fresh Stargazer lilies release a perfume from within the sculpture. I may be olfactory challenged, because I could only detect the faintest scent, but the hard surface (with pillow) was oddly comfortable and relaxing.


After curing themselves of hysteria, guests enter the exhibition proper through Felix Gonzalaz-Torres Untitled (Water), a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall curtain comprising blue and clear bead strands that suggest a waterfall. The effect is one of passing through a clattering membrane into another realm. On the other side, a visitor favorite awaits. The Mirrored Room, by Lucas Samaras, is a chamber of infinite reflections that envelop visitors amids innumerable gleaming shapes and angles. No title (folding table and chairs, beige) by Robert Therrien follows. It’s a gigantic card table set, stunning in its precise detail, that provides a new perspective on the familiar.


Lucas Samaras, The Mirrored Room


A softer kind of precision exists in Do Ho Suh’s Weilandstr, a diaphanous green full-scale reproduction of the hallway in a Berlin apartment where the artist previously lived. The elaborate detail stitched in polyester and shaped onto wire framing is remarkable. Walking through it is like recalling a fading memory. Soon you arrive at Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 1992 (cure). Tiravanija is a leader in “relational aesthetics,” which eschews art objects for artist-constructed social experiences. Here, Tiravanija provides a saffron tent in which visitors sit at a small table while an attendant makes them tea. My choice was green tea, which I sipped amid the warm glow of the cozy enclosure, along with a man from Long Island and a couple from Jamestown. We all chatted, and that’s the idea. Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, this art only exists when people are in it.


Nari Ward’s Jacuzzi Bed falls short of its goal of sending a warm Caribbean-like breeze out to visitors. The heater and fan arrangement don’t actually do the job, and the use of wooden bed frames as an enclosure feels awkward. However, from here you will be inexorably drawn to Piano Piece, by Nam June Paik, a delightful self-playing piano stacked with TV monitors flashing associated imagery. It’s owned by the museum, but seldom on display in recent years.


At its loftiest, the altar-like alles oder nichts (All or Nothing) aspires to reconcile the mind, body, and spirit, offering in the process a contemplative glimpse into our humanness, with a generous dollop of subversive humor. You can enjoy a drink of water or some museum-selected edibles, while pondering video that features a digitally manipulated pendulous penis. The kids may prefer Ronald Ventura’s working Carousel, which an attendant periodically runs while visitors gaze at the humorously imaginative sculptural fantasy characters.


Heri Dono, Bidadari (Flying Angels)


Without Beginning and Without End, by Wolfgang Laib, is a large flattened ziggurat made of wood, covered in beeswax. The wall text, which must have been written before the work was installed, states that “you might pick up a faint floral scent…” On the contrary, a heady sweet smell wallops you when you enter. To me, this was exceptionally pleasant, making this work the biggest hit with my nose in the exhibition.


Finally, guests should leave time to perceive James Turrell’s illusionistic Gap from the series Tiny Town.  It’s hard to explain, but a rectangle of soft light appears to be suspended in a very dark room. Classic Turrell, owned by the museum, but only on display for a limited time. Robert Irwin and Olaful Eliasson also have works that play delightful tricks with light.


There’s more not mentioned, and, as a bonus, partway through the show, you’ll pass through another exhibition of the jaw-dropping large-scale anime-and-manga-inspired murals by Takashi Murakami, making this perhaps the single most satisfying day you’ll spend at the museum with the whole family.    


Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor of Spree.


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