DEATH VALLEY, EVERYWHERE WE LOOKED, GENTLY WAVING STANDS OF GOLDEN DESERT
BLOSSOMS DANCED IN THE WIND, THEIR DAISY-LIKE FACES PUNCTUATED WITH VIBRANT
AN INSTALLATION BY MOTHERBOARD
MAY/ JUNE 2006
For Galleri F15's 40 year jubilee exhibition "Prosjektrommet 93-06". Moss Bryggeri Utstillingshallen, Norway.
Motherboard: Per Platou and Amanda Steggell.
Sound: Geir Jenssen/Biosphere.
Flower construction: Aslak Nygren.
Thanks to: Håkon Lindbäck, Jana Winderen, Greg Pope, Finn-Olaf Jones/NY Times, Amargosa Opera House, Dale Air UK, F15 crew, HC Gilje and Bodil Furu.
Support: Arts Council Norway
MP4 movie [640 x 480, 20.57 MB, 3.25 min] here
QT movie [320 x 240, 9.6 MB, 3.25 min] here
If I was to be totally honest I have to acknowledge a touch of artist distain. When I see exhibitions, theatre performances and concerts it is always with a feeling that the artist stands in the way of the experience of the work. I therefore generally give little thought to who has made the artworks I see. However, in this exhibition the apparent absence of the artists seems almost intrusive. It is very rare to see exhibitions where 80 artists are represented, and as there is very little supplementary information beyond the list of works, the job of matching the map to the terrain, so to speak, quickly becomes irritating ......
... There are moments when being an art critic feels like a burden, and the
act of describing and expressing opinions feels almost perverse in that it
is hard to do so without violating the actual experience. Per Platou and Amanda
Steggell have created a work that I am so intensely in love with that I am
actually a bit embarrassed to talk about it. It is as though the work is custom-made
for my private feelings and longings, however I can't put my finger on exactly
what or how. At the same time, it seems to be the exhibition's most universally
accessible work - because it is so instantaneously sensuous. Particularly
the use of aroma is so effective that several hours later I could still sense
it on me as an aftertouch of a lover's caress. To experience the work feels
like being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a cradle, and the memory
of the experience is almost stronger then the experience itself. The installation
has become a friend and it is the only artwork that I have ever attempted
to hug. It feels sad to have to have to say goodbye, but friends come and
go. The parting is endurable because there is hope that we may meet again
and everything that has happened in the meantime will generate new things
to talk about. It is through moments like these that the art circus proves
itself worthwhile after all.
Full review in Norwegian HERE (PDF)
The title of this work draws on a description of travelers who passed through Death Valley in North America after a period of exceptional winter rain. (1)
Death Valley is a land of extremes. It is one of the hottest places on the surface of the Earth with summer temperatures averaging well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. At 86 m below the level of the sea, it is the driest place in North America with an average rainfall of just under 5 cm a year. It is also a land of subtle beauties where morning light creeps across the eroded landscape to strike mountainous peaks beyond, the setting sun sends lengthening shadows over the sand dunes, and myriad wildflowers colour the golden hills on a warm spring day. Anything that shall survive such harsh conditions must learn to adapt, but even so, death is constantly lurking in the shadows. During years with favorable winter rains the golden desert sunflower may extend for miles, filling the air with the sweet aroma of fragrant blossoms.
It is not impossible to imagine the awe that these travelers felt when experiencing such an array of light, colour and aroma in an otherwise barren and threatening landscape. I have not been to Death Valley, but the description above evokes in me a surreal impression, a psycho-geographical landscape where I can almost hear the sound of the golden blossoms - life dancing in the face of death.
In Death Valley, everywhere we looked, gently waving stands of desert gold blossoms danced in the wind, their daisy-like faces punctuated with vibrant orange centers draws on notions of synaesthesia (also called synesthesia) to create an emotional, intersensory experience where undulating combinations of sound, colour, light and aroma are brought together in a kinetic, olfactory, auditory and visual sculpture to create a contemplative but uncanny atmosphere - an oasis for quiet thought, disrupted at times by the knowledge of its own temporality.
Synaesthesia is a rare clinical condition where the senses are cross-wired such that an impulse in one sensory mode can evoke unusual responses in other senses (for example, hearing colour or seeing sound). Some claim that we are all born with synaesthetic abilities that diminish as we grow older, but that these abilities have never the less shaped the way we perceive and describe the world around us. While synesthetes (2) often experience their condition as a gift, it can also be distracting and difficult to cope with, causing disturbances in their everyday lives.
According to neurologist Richard Cytowic's clinical diagnosis of the synaesthetic condition (3), synaesthesia is elicited and involuntary. It is something that happens to you. You can't turn it on or off at will. It is a projected experience occuring in peri-personal space (surrounding the body). Synaesthetic perceptions are durable and generic, never pictorial or elaborated. "Durable" means that the cross-sensory associations do not change over time. "Generic" means that while others might imagine a pastoral landscape while listening to Beethoven, what synesthetes experience is unelaborated: they see blobs, lines, spirals, and lattice shapes; feel smooth or rough textures; taste agreeable or disagreeable tastes such as salty, sweet, or metallic. Synaesthesia is emotional. The experience, or sensation, is accompanied by a sense of certitude (the "this is it" feeling) and a conviction that what synesthetes perceive is real and valid. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, even though they are hard to describe with words. As a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time. Synaesthesia is also memorable - experience rather than thought is primary (for example, first I saw the colour green, then I thought to my dog).
Synaesthesia and art
It is not surprising that for several centuries artists have been inspired by the phenomenon of synaesthesia and the potential of experiencing a dimension where everything is brought together - where each sense exists so closely to another that it seems to become the other. In early times this interest has resulted in attempts to build colour organs. Renowned artists, such as composer Alexander Scriabin and the pioneering abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky also applied synaesthetic strategies to their work. Today artists are mainly involved in experimenting with digital devices that mimic the synaesthetic experience in some way, such as Visual Music where sound is used to generate projected animated imagery, and vice versa.
There is a difference between true (personal) synaesthesia and synaesthetic art (created), described below in the words of Dr. Hugo Heyrman (who also maintains a comprehensive website on the subject):
For a synesthete, synesthesia is an integral part of his/her sense perception (a natural-born synesthete).
For an artist, synesthetic art is the result of an artistic intention (a human-made form of synesthesia).
He also provides examples of synaesthesia as applied to art:
Synesthetic art: a cross-sensory perception evocated by the experience of an artwork.
Synesthetic images: images that accumulate striking metaphorical resonance.
Literary synesthesia: a poetic expression or metaphorical articulation of a sensorial correspondence.
Synesthetic metaphor: a metaphor that exploits a similarity between experiences in different sense modalities.
Poetic synesthesia: a semantic metaphoric fusion, to create a virtual image.
Kinetic synesthesia: experiencing dance in multimedia scenographies.
Synesthetic canvas: an electronic screen:
Conceptual synesthesia: elicited from time, graph, grapheme, written word, personality, or thought/memory
Synesthetic cinema: translating consciousness and perception into sound and moving images:
Tele-synesthesia: a synesthetic experience evoked by a telematic use of new media; the 'travelling' senses.
Synaesthesia and culture
While synaesthesia has been the subject of research and debate for several centuries in the western world, it is interesting to note that in other cultures synaesthesia, as a perceptual phenomenon, is hardly known. Speaking particularly about olfactory synaesthesia in Japanese culture, neurologist Richard Cytowic writes that:
Japanese culture understands “synesthesia” as metaphoric (5) whereas it hardly knows the perceptual phenomenon. Possible explanations include a cultural attitude of interrelated experience, Buddhism, and Nishida Kitaro’s type of phenomenal philosophy. Taste and smell account for only a small percentage of synesthesiae, but hold important clues. Aroma distinctively modifies emotions and behavior unconsciously and automatically. Neural networks explain how fragrance–activated multisensory perceptions and memories can subsequently inspire creative associations, metaphors, and verbal concepts. The early engagement of limbic structures by olfaction (only three synapses removed from hippocampus instead of the usual five) stresses implicit processing, which is precisely what makes it a promising gateway to other cognitive domains. (6) (7)
The Japanese lunch box provides an example of emotional design philosophy where several sensory modes (gustatory, olfactory, visual) are combined to create an aesthetic experience that should enrich an everyday occurrence. Miles apart from the Norwegian "matpakke", it poses both functional and aesthetic challenges to the chef. The lunch box provides the hungry-on-the-move with a variety of miniature dishes, so there is something in them to suit most people's tastes. Paradoxically, the attention given to detail, form, colour and composition that evokes a sense of unity of the elements (despite the detail) and stimulates the taste buds through the eyes, is the cause of its destruction. However aesthetically appealing a lunch box may be, most people eventually succumb to the seduction of the visual feast. It is art meant to be consumed and simultaneously an exercise in philosophy. In a similar manner, our sculpture also presents us with aesthetic and functional challenges, but it is art to be absorbed, rather than consumed.
The design of our sculpture is aesthetically inspired by notions of synaesthesia. A metallic, rotating stalk supports "blooms" in the form of six phonograph horns. Six small speakers inside the horns emit six separate channels of sound. Synthetic (chemical) aromas are released from discreet electronic emitters, while several lamps provide changes in atmospheric light/colour. As the sculpture rotates, light is reflected on the metallic surface of the sculpture itself, changing the colour of the metallic blooms and throwing light around the space. In fact I think it is safe to say that spatial perceptions of all the media will be affected by the rotation of the sculpture.
Img: diagram of technical set-up by Per Platou (click on img for higher resolution)
Digital technology is employed to modify the output of the various media to create a subtle, cyclic environment (day passing into night, etc) where it seems as if each media responds to the other in ever-changing combinations and intensities. One could ask, is this sculpture interactive? And the answer is yes, and no. On the one hand, it is intangibly interactive - interacting with itself via the physical computing process that builds bridges between the different media and modifies the outputs. On the other hand, there are no tangible controls through which humans can modify its dynamic undulations. The intallation should act as a sensorium that allows it to "speak" directly to the public in a form of non-verbal communication. Our intention is to provide a dynamic and infinitely variable, yet uncontrollable mood-changing sculpture that generates an equally mood-changing environment - an intersensory experience and a temporal oasis in the midst of a large-scale, eclectic, celebratory art exhibition.
LINKS AND REFERENCES:
(1) Inspired by the article In Death Valley, A Technicolor Season, Finn-Olaf Jones, New York Times, 4th March, 2005.
(2) synesthete: someone who has the condition of synaesthesia
(3) Adaptated extract of Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology - A Review of Current Knowledge by Richard E. Cytowic, from PSYCHE: an interdisciplinary journal of research on consciousness, 2(10), July 1995
(4) Taken from Art and Synesthesia: in search of the synesthetic experience, by Dr. Hugo Heyrman, July 2005.
(5) With emphasis on "Meta": Latin prefix, "beyond" or "transcending".
(6) Abstract of the paper, Aromas Implicit gateway to cognition, Richard E. Cytowic, presented at various conferences since 2003.
(7) The Japanese art of incense took off during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The burning of fragrant incense sticks, pastes and boluses is used creatively for aromatic mood aesthetics, especially those connected to the seasons, literary references and so on.
Death Valley resource
Centre for Land Use Interpretation