“En-Light-ening”: A Synesthetic Experience with New York Art Semester

“En-Light-ening”: A Synesthetic Experience with New York Art Semester

The concept of synesthesia has been a facet of contemporary art since the nascency of artistic modernity. “The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body,” synesthesia has existed as a more covert influence to the progression of art, aiding in its advancement while not being greatly publicized.[1] Several acclaimed modern artists have both experienced and geared their art towards the synesthetic reaction, including the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and Carol Steen, and have explained their experiences quite vividly.[2] Synesthetic responses vary greatly, involving all five of the senses in different combinations, with different environmental triggers. In the canon of modern art, artists like Kandinsky have used such responses to their advantage by harnessing the inspiration they allowed.

            There is a difference however, between those who are diagnosed with synesthesia, and those who have a synesthetic experience. Art historians have often asserted that the term ‘synesthesia’ has been appropriated quite a bit in the discussion of modern art, and such appropriation often disregards that it is an actual neurological condition.[3] It has become used as a way to describe any strong interconnection of the senses when experiencing a work of art. Without risk of appropriating it further, I would like to focus on the synesthetic experience. More specifically, the synesthetic experience involving light. There are several synesthetic responses I could highlight from this semester’s travels, yet I feel that the ones involving light are the most intriguing and easiest to convey. I intend to examine one work in particular that we have seen this semester that I feel has evoked the greatest synesthetic response. The work in question is Bruce Nauman’s Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing, (1971). I will be presenting my findings with a supplemental animation, as I feel it would be the most expressive, and most genuine way to display the synesthetic effect, more so than just a static paper would. I intend for the animation to be somewhat of a guided tour through my synesthetic experience, while also giving background to the work and the artist’s intentions.

            The first time I stepped into this installation, I was immediately struck with the feeling that something was amiss. It was rather subversive, this feeling, and crept upon me the longer I remained within the room. Yet I could not verbalize at the time what was truly disconcerting me about this environment. Neuroscience scholars Avinoam B. Safran and Nicolae Sanda have proposed that “A conflict between the actual color of a stimulus and synesthetically induced percepts can generate discomfort, whereas ‘pleasantness’ is experienced when synesthetic and actual stimulus features match.”[4] Should a color be too saturated, too bright, or for some reason disagreeable to the synesthetic receptors that our environment places upon us, it can greatly affect our mood. Kandinsky himself, though leaning towards a more spiritual route than neurological, affirms this phenomenon of emotionally responding to color, referring to it as “only the material expressions of the soul.”[5] Such a concept seems almost believable when considering how it felt to be in Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing. It felt akin to an illness, and though the room itself was stationary, it may have very well have been moving. Dizziness accompanied the ill feeling, as well as a slight ache in the head. Such would not be relieved until I left the room, after which the uneasy emotions subsided.

            Nauman has expressed that he wants individuals to have these sorts of peculiar experiences within his installation works.[6] Some can be guided experiences, while others are more or less left to the visitor to conduct. In an environment such as the one that comprises Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing, Nauman essentially lets people loose in a synesthetic fever dream, like mice let out into a lit box. There is some instruction on the wall, a placard that delivers a brief limerick describing this environment as “a vaguely uncomfortable place.”[7] When questioned about creating these purposely synesthetically unbearable spaces, Nauman stated that he had many inquiries regarding how spaces made us feel uneasy and anxious. He then stated that he chose to confront those inquiries head on, declaring “I didn’t want to escape that condition. I wanted to go right into it.”[8] Several of Nauman’s later works would also incorporate sensory overload, often by this means of manipulating our ‘synesthetic percepts.’

            Though it is often appropriated as an umbrella term to diagnose a variety of sense-based experiences in modern art, the concept of synesthesia is just as relevant to art now as it was in the twentieth century. It also something that everyone experiences, even if in small, prompted doses. Artists like Bruce Nauman, who probe the level of intensity for interactions that we can have with art, manipulate a neurological response that has historically shown to affect people so strongly. Synesthesia is perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of modern art, as it invokes a connection like no other between the viewer and the art. Such connection unites and blends the senses, allowing us to not only view the art, but to feel it.

 

 

Bibliography

Berman, Greta. “Synesthesia and the Arts.” Leonardo 32, no. 1 (1999): 15-22.

Kandinsky, Wassily. “Concerning The Spiritual In Art,” Translated By Michael T. H. Sadler, (1912): 10-56.

Lewallen, Constance. Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters, (California: University of California Press) 2018.

Nauman, Bruce. Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews, (Massachusetts: MIT Press) 2003.

OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press.

Safran, Avinoam B. and Nicolae Sanda. “Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness.” Current opinion in neurology vol. 28,1 (2015): 36-44.

 

[1] “Synesthesia”. OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press.

[2] Avinoam B. Safran and Nicolae Sanda. “Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness.” Current opinion in neurology vol. 28,1 (2015): 36-44.

[3] Greta Berman. “Synesthesia and the Arts.” Leonardo 32, no. 1 (1999): 15.

[4] Avinoam B. Safran and Nicolae Sanda. “Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness,” 36-44.

[5] Wassily Kandinsky, “Concerning The Spiritual In Art,” Translated By Michael T. H. Sadler, (1912): 43.

[6] Bruce Nauman, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews, Massachusetts: MIT Press (2003): 32.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Constance Lewallen, Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters, California: University of California Press, (2018): 25.

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