The Art Sees Me, But I Don’t See It

Experiential art is the new black on the exhibition scene. It does everything it can to ensure its audience has fun, and tickles the narcissist in us all. Because it’s all about us, the viewers.

Carsten Höller, Test Site, 2006. ©Carsten Höller: ©Tate Photography. Installation view in Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

“Art degenerates when it turns into theatre,” said American critic and art historian Michael Fried in his essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ from 1968. While I’m not entirely convinced that an actual ‘degeneracy’ of art is involved here, nor whether the juxtaposition with theatre is entirely reasonable, there is something about Fried’s attitude to art in the 1960s that feels very relevant to our current climate – even though I have always regarded him as somewhat reactionary. The quote springs to mind uninvited whenever I’m confronted with the kind of art-as-experience efforts which have become so popular in the exhibition world in recent years.

A roller coaster, a swing, a roundabout, funhouse mirrors, an overnight stay, VR art, immersive multimedia installations (great for selfies), dance events: these are just a few examples of such experience-oriented presentations. All of them have one thing in common: they posit the viewer-as-subject at the very centre of things.

The problem is not that this type of art becomes grandiloquent (self-)experiential theatre where the viewer takes centre stage, but rather that it can contribute to the general instrumentalisation of art, making it something to be wielded in order to accommodate the efforts of art institutions to attract visitors. Thus, art is pressed into the service of political demands for greater attendance rates, user involvement and participatory activities – demands which are putting pressure on museums and exhibition venues everywhere today.

The phenomenon has been dubbed ‘experiential art’, not to be confused with experimental art. Experiential art focuses on the art experience as participation. It is an art form that posits viewers in a universe that they not only observe, but take part in. In a sense, the spectator ceases to be just a spectator, becoming a participant in the work instead.

All this sounds very much like participatory art as described by Claire Bishop in her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). She presents participatory art as a potentially socially committed and political art, one which ideally does not play along with the terms set by the art market and institutions, but instead interacts with the social realm, creating new understandings of art in different social environments. Often, participatory art is initiated as projects involving people outside the art world, and such projects are frequently contextual and serve some political purpose.

But participatory and experiential art are not the same; they differ fundamentally in their methodological approach. While participatory art engages with specific target groups, involving them directly in the production of the art project, experiential art only engages with the audiences which happen to visit the relevant exhibition venue. Experiential art is often produced directly for the relevant institution, frequently costing large sums. Many works of this kind are grandly orchestrated installations whose clear purpose is to cater to the audience that enters the museum. 

Experiential art is not new. It has its roots in the expansion of the entire concept of art during the 1960s, prompting extensive experimentation with new art forms in and outside the institution. In the 1960s and 1970s, such new art was hotly debated – with Michael Fried’s critique of theatricality as a prominent example. Performance art, Minimalism, land art, and early installation art (environmental art) were the main subjects of this debate because such art related directly to the viewer’s body as well as to their eyes. This position infused the entire (exhibition) space entered by the viewer, and changed their role in a phenomenological perception of the relationship between space and artwork.

This kind of art in “the expanded field” ushered in a new epoch in contemporary art from the 1960s onwards, causing a shift in our general understanding of art as two- or three-dimensional monoliths, and a concurrent reassessment of the faculty of sight (the gaze) as the dominant factor in the perception of art. The body became embedded in the art experience too. For Fried, this degenerating element – the physical, the bodily, the narrative, the staged – was the very aspect that distanced such art from the static existence of the modernist work, where all emotional affect resided in the art and in the gaze, not outside of it.

Sanne Kofod Olsen. Tegning: Jenz Koudahl.

We see, then, that the experiential art now unfolding itself so prominently on the world’s art scenes has a very clear art-historical genealogy.

Experiential art lets the audience take centre stage in a way that accommodates the political and economic demands imposed on exhibition institutions today. Willingly or not, it is an active part of the age of the experience economy, a time when many assume that what audiences really want are spectacular experiences: a trip to Disneyland or Tivoli.

As participants in such art set-ups, we will have experiences which may well be fierce and overwhelming, but which are unlikely to lodge themselves in us at a more existential level (like when I took a ride on the Space Mountain II roller coaster in Disneyland: it certainly made me think of death, but not in a very reflected manner). Experiential art does not ask impossible questions or create genuine wonder the way a lot of good art does. Instead, it panders to a supposedly experience-starved audience by providing phenomenological overstimulation similar to the experience of eating a bag of sweets, which, as we all know, does not satisfy real hunger and, moreover, provides no sustenance.

In many ways, experiential art is very typical of our day and age, particularly the way in which it posits the subject at the centre of the experience. The art sees me, but I don’t see it. Instead, I am in the art. The artwork seduces me, embraces me, stimulates me (as Ego) by lavishing me with attention and convincing me that the most important thing here is not the work of art itself, but my presence within it. The participating spectator is the ultimate maker of meaning. The end result is a kind of narcissistic surrender.

– Sanne Kofod Olsen holds an MA in art history. She is dean at Faculty Office for Fine and Applied Arts, University of Gothenburg. Former dean at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Visual Arts, Copenhagen. Former positions include director at Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde and head of Funen Art Academy, Odense