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...Sensorium... Supplies A Stimulating Stench

Smell of Human Sweat Presented to Public

By Ken Johnson
THE BOSTON GLOBE

The smell of fear hangs in the air at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. It comes from an exhibition called “Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art.”

In one of the galleries, the Berlin-based Norwegian conceptualist Sissel Tolaas coated wall sections with off-white paints infused with the scientifically reproduced scents of human sweat, based on samples taken from men who were afraid of someone or something. Because the chemistry of sweat reflects the emotional state of the sweater, when you rub and sniff the walls, as you are invited to do, you take in the pungent bouquet of fearful male perspiration.

The point of Tolaas’s project and of “Sensorium” as a whole is partly to prompt thought about how new technologies are influencing sensory experience and, in turn, contemporary consciousness. But the show is also an argument about art. Against the traditional notion of art as a primarily visual experience, it proposes that for art to be relevant today, it needs to engage all our senses and address all the ways that our senses have been extended, amplified, and otherwise altered by new technologies.

The French artist Mathieu Briand’s project has visitors enter the gallery through a white room derived from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and don futuristic headsets. The headsets have built-in video cameras and little video monitors placed right in front of your eyes; as you walk around the gallery, you see where you are going through the monitors. By pushing a button, you can momentarily switch channels and see what other headset-equipped viewers are seeing.

The machinery does not actually work very well — more often than not you get static when you try to switch channels. But you get the idea: It’s about how modern technology is constantly giving us access to what other people in other places are seeing, and it asks us to think about how that multiplication of perspectives affects our sense of who and what we are as individuals and as members of a global human hive.

Some forms of technology make things visible that are otherwise invisible to ordinary vision. Bruce Nauman set up an infrared video camera in his studio to record what went on there in the darkness of night. A segment of the grainy, spectral recording projected at MIT shows the artist’s desk and chair and the occasional mouse, moth, and cat. It’s like a ghost hunter’s surveillance tape.

Artists also use new technologies to create new, hybrid art forms. Ryoji Ikeda, one of Japan’s most prominent electronic music composers, has created a walk-in Minimalist installation that combines sound, light, and space. Pass through the black curtains and you find yourself in a dark, narrow, 90-foot-long corridor with a horizontal red laser line projected on the far-end wall. As you make your way gingerly along the hall, you hear hissing and jingling sounds, and are intermittently startled by bursts of strobe light. If nothing else, it puts you on full sensory alert.

Technology is also commonly used to enhance forms of entertainment, and the exhibition’s most immediately entertaining effort is an elaborately automated surround-sound piece of musical theater by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The widely exhibited Canadians have constructed a rustic one-room cabin filled with thousands of old vinyl records, a half-dozen turntables, and many different sorts of old speakers on shelves.

You look in through a wide front window. The set evokes a reclusive character whose story of lost love, grief, and guilt is conveyed by an intricate collage of music and words intoned by a raspy-voiced male narrator. Over its 20-minute duration, the show builds to a melodramatic rock-opera climax with lights in the cabin blinking in time to the pounding beat.

“Sensorium” is accompanied by a thick volume of essays about art, science, and technology by many writers, including the show’s curators Bill Arning, Jane Farver, Yuko Hasegawa, and Marjory Jacobson. The book was edited by MIT art historian Caroline A. Jones, who proffers her own densely written theoretical essay.

Jones argues that focusing exclusively on just one sense, as visual art traditionally has done, reinforces the distinctively modern drive to compartmentalize human experience and behavior and thereby make people more amenable to bureaucratic, industrial, and military control. To embrace multisensory art might be a way to defy the powers that try to break us down into manageable units. Or, as Jones suggests more modestly, it can be a way to “buy us time” to figure out what we think and feel about our brave new technologically mediated world.

“Sensorium” certainly gives us much to think and talk about. (It is perfect for a place like MIT.) But though they are all interesting in one way or another, the individual pieces it presents are not all so effective as art, which is to say not as unpredictably gripping or revelatory as they should be. Tolaas’s olfactory installation and Briand’s headset piece are too much like interactive teaching productions for a children’s science museum. For all its Minimalist elegance and sonic sophistication, Ikeda’s shock corridor resembles an amusement park funhouse attraction. And Cardiff and Miller’s mechanical theater doesn’t do enough to change our ideas about technology and popular entertainment or to refresh the clich of the weird hermit’s eccentric lair.

Only Nauman’s comparatively boring video of his studio has the kind of hard-to-explain contrariness you want from contemporary art. The other artists are so eager to impress you with their technological and conceptual know-how that his deadpan understatement comes as a relief. The way he uses a relatively common technology to play suggestively between the visible and the invisible, the present and the absent, the animate and the inanimate, and the natural and the supernatural is slyly funny and surprisingly poetic.

This will not be the last word on or from “Sensorium.” Part II, opening Feb. 8, will bring new works by four more artists and a team called R&Sie(n). Stay tuned.