When I first heard about “Synaesthesia/ I: The Orange Smell of November,” I did not hesitate before heading over to Art Laboratory Berlin to take a closer sniff. After all, I’ve always considered synesthesia to be somewhat of a superpower and synesthetes to be amongst the luckiest people in the world. I mean, just imagine possessing the ability to perceive sounds from colors and vice versa: what would a vanilla-colored sunset sound like? What mix of hues would the laugh of your best friend have? While not exactly the type of questions that Barbara Ryan and Annette Stahmer answer in this exhibition, nor being a synesthete myself (though I can fake it quite well), I wanted to get a feel for what it must be like to experience life in such a manner.
I’ve listened to famed neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran eloquently talk about the condition in one of his TED talks, and he explains it may be the result of accidental cross wiring at the angular gyrus, a key area of the brain nestled between the regions responsible for touch, vision, and hearing. But scientific explanations tend to deprive phenomena of their sense of mystery or wonder. I, however, being all about mystery and wonder, naturally felt inclined to see this peculiar exhibition with works from such unique artists. Granted, synesthesia, according to Ramachandran, is eight times more common among artists, poets, and other creative people than in the general population, but how often is this the very topic of an art exhibition? What follows is an account of my visit to Art Laboratory Berlin, my disappointment with the artwork on display and the unexpected revelation that turned this initial disappointment into a long-lasting satisfaction.
The Mellow Yellow Disappointment
I barely set foot inside the gallery space and I’m already thrown out of orbit into Ryan’s installation That can’t be September- it smells like the August of 1985! Suspended from the ceiling are the remnants of the artist’s memory of her time spent in Berlin during the 1990s. Using photography, text, and self-made fragrances, Ryan has created a constellation of Berlin in which each point of reference carries its own visuals and exudes its own odor. It didn’t take long before I felt like I was embodying my favorite explorer, The Little Prince, as I made my journey across the gallery space stopping at each floating station following Ryan’s multi-sensorial footprints.
But once the joy ride was over—once I had seen what I had seen and smelled what I had smelled—a subtle feeling of disappointment began to manifest within me, forming a bridge between the artwork and myself. Indeed, there was an invisible distance between what I had expected to see and what I was seeing. Was it that the particular aesthetics of the work did not appeal to my visual palette? No, such thing has never stopped me from appreciating a work of art in the past. Was it that the work did not succeed in giving me a synesthetic experience? Perhaps, but I needed to continue looking at the rest of the exhibition if I were to define my reaction.
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