Posts Tagged 'Re-Seeing the Contemporary: Selected from the Collection'

What does art smell like?

This past Wednesday my colleague Hadly Clark and I took advantage of our great Spring Break crowds and tried an impromptu gallery experiment.   We spent time in Re-Seeing the Contemporary: Selected from the Collection exhibition, asking visitors to look at four artworks with us and to think deeply…with their noses!

For part one of our experiment, we asked participants:  If this artwork had a scent, what do you think it would smell like?  Why?   As someone who likes thinking with her nose, I had fun hearing visitor responses and considering how their creative associations helped me see familiar artworks in fresh ways.  Below are responses inspired by one of our stops, Robert Irwin’s Untitled:

Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1968-69, Fractional gift of The Rachofsky Collection, 2001.345

  • Coconut & banana, because it’s round
  • Money
  • Disinfectant, something very clean.  It reminds me of adventures of Buck Rogers.
  • Nothing!
  • Mint or toothpaste; it’s clear and transparent
  • It smells really clean, like clean linen or spring lilies

The slideshow below includes all four featured artworks, images of participants, and a few responses for another one of our stops, Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red and Red.   After the slideshow, Hadly explains part two of the experiment and some great opportunities to join in on other experiment-like experiences here at the DMA…

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The second half of our sensory experiment encouraged participants to actively engage their sense of smell.  We provided nine samples of scents tucked secretively inside cardboard boxes with conveniently located holes for ventilation.  Boxes held a variety of scents such as Ivory soap, leather, and cinnamon.  After smelling each box, participants selected their own “scent match” or a scent they associated closest with the work of art, and shared why that scent was evocative of the work.   Here are some scent matches inspired by John Chamberlain’s Dancing Duke:

John Chamberlain, Dancing Duke, 1974, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Harold J. Joseph in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Max Walen, 1975.69

  • Scent match #3 (peach tea) because, it smells bad! (This visitor thought of sweat and things that smell bad when he looked at the artwork, so he picked the scent he liked least).
  • Scent match #8 (leather) because it reminded me of my car
  • Scent match #9 (Clorox wipe) because it smells like paint
  • Scent match #4 (grass) because it smells green

Each week, the Center for Creative Connections (C3) hosts similar experimental, hands-on, artist-led workshops for adults. From 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. every Thursday evening, join C3 staff and a guest artist to explore what inspires them, play with new unexpected materials, or learn different techniques that can be applied to your work during a C3 Artist Encounter.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you smell when you look at Untitled or Dancing Duke.

Amy Copeland
Coordinator of Go van Gogh Outreach

Hadly Clark
Center for Creative Connections Coordinator

Playful Looking

What if the goal in looking at an artwork during a gallery experience wasn’t to learn everything about the object, or to arrive at “right ideas” about its meaning? 

Interpretive Play, one of my favorite models of gallery teaching, is based on this idea.  During an Interpretive Play experience, groups of visitors are guided by educators to look closely and make observations, “playing” with various possible interpretations and ideas about the artwork. Educators summarize, repeat, and connect visitor observations, weaving information into the conversation only as it is relevant to the group’s responses.  The goal of the experience is to provide an opportunity for visitors to look, think, and wonder together, coming to a shared and unique understanding of the artwork.

Two of our wonderful interns, Jackie Lincoln, McDermott Education Intern for Family Experiences, and Haley Berkman, McDermott Curatorial Intern for Contemporary Art, led a gallery talk last Wednesday in the current Re-Seeing the Contemporary: Selected from the Collection based in Interpretive Play.   They had a large group of participants and facilitated some meaty, dynamic conversations.  Jackie, a frequent blogger on the We Art Family! The DMA Family blog has graciously agreed to share her insights about the gallery talk with us.

See Jackie’s comments below the slideshow of gallery photos and featured artworks.

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Haley and I are both planners by nature, so we spent a couple of weeks preparing for our gallery talk.  We tried to prepare for all scenarios, leaving nothing up to chance.

We started our discussion with the painting Portrait and a Dream by Jackson Pollock, thinking that visitors might feel more comfortable discussing a work by an artist who might be more familiar to them. It was about two minutes into this discussion that I realized that the content of the conversation was largely out of mine and Haley’s control, and that it was up to the visitors to determine the course of the talk. It was a frightening moment for me, acknowledging that something that we spent so much time preparing for was in the hands of other people, but then, I took a deep breath and started to listen to what visitors were saying about the works of art. Many of the participants made observations about the works that Haley and I had not noticed before or brought up ideas or associations that we would have come up with on our own. I found that by listening to others’ ideas, I was gaining greater insight into the works, and I hope that the participants felt the same way.

Leading a group through an interpretive play exercise was much harder than I thought it was going to be, but it was also very rewarding. It was challenging guiding people through a new kind of gallery experience—an experience where they are actively participating instead of passively receiving information. Creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their observations and then finding a way to connect those (sometimes conflicting) observations is not an easy task for the facilitator. It was also challenging deciding when was the appropriate time to step away from a work or move on to a new topic or idea. However, I feel like with practice that many of these issues could be ameliorated.

Overall, this act should enhance their experience with a work of art and will hopefully make it more meaningful to them.  It was interesting and inspiring to me that a single piece of artwork can mean so many different things to so many people, and I definitely plan on incorporating this technique into more of my classes in the future!

Jackie Lincoln
McDermott Intern for Family Experiences

Amy Copeland
Coordinator of Go van Gogh Outreach


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