Senses are scientific, but also strange and alchemical. Through them we engage with the world around us, but also with the past – and other realities. Disparities in experience and perception call attention to the subjectivity of what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, and undermine notions of an absolute reality. Unsurprisingly, artists through history have drawn on sensory phenomena as a well of inspiration for their work.
Synaesthesia is a condition in which stimulating one sense can trigger a seemingly-unrelated sensation in another. For example, a specific colour conjured by a sound or word.
Canonical figures have channelled these sensory leaps into their paintings. Art historians suspect that Vincent Van Gogh experienced chromesthesia, citing his abandonment of learning the piano after being overwhelmed by the colours summoned by every note he played. Departures from literal observation in his paintings, paired with a disorientating use of colour, suggest a mutable relationship with his senses. Wassily Kandinsky, while not necessarily synaesthetic, devoted much of his practice to translating music into painted forms. Investigations of how instrumentation might be transposed to image established him as a pioneer of abstract painting.
During an interview, Ali Banisadr explained the symbiotic relationship between sound and sight in his practice. In his New York City studio, music and sound become a conduit through which personal and cultural histories are transformed into epic abstract compositions.
The sounds I hear from the painting itself are what helps me compose the work, and know where to go. When a work is finished is when it quiets down.Ali Banisadr
Many artists have created work based on things that only they can see. Hallucinations are experienced as vision, but without its usual prerequisites. Dreams, meanwhile, reconfigure real-world sensations into subconscious imaginings. In both cases, art provides a means to expose our inner machinations. Artists like Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst transposed images from their subconscious to canvas, while Yayoi Kusama extrapolates her polka-dot hallucinations into a thesis on infinity.
My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.Yayoi Kusama
Informed by absence
In some cases, a limit imposed to one sense can enhance another. The ability of many blind people to judge distances using short clicks (echolocation) approaches that of near-sightless nocturnal mammals. For artists, as in many other contexts, restriction fosters possibility.
If you can't hear, you somehow see.David Hockney
Works by Edgar Degas created after 1900 include few discernible features or details on faces or clothing. All the same, posture, movement and proportion are deftly captured. As his vision deteriorated, Degas moved around his stationary subjects to build a more complete image in his mind. Obscured, but nonetheless alive. David Hockney, meanwhile, draws forth colours from landscapes that others might overlook. He credits his breadth of vision to impaired hearing – a condition charted by increasingly abstract and saturated works in his late oeuvre.
A restricted diet compels Anicka Yi to focus with heightened sensitivity on what she is still able to taste and smell. With sensory installations, she highlights the emphasis placed on vision at the expense of other, overlooked senses. In Love With The World, her installation at Tate Modern on London’s Southbank, saw AI-guided ‘aerobes’ float through carefully configured scentscapes – inspired by hidden histories of the surrounding area.
Humans are capable of detecting a vast array of odours but we have completely dulled our senses. I think that would give us a very different relationship to our environment. It would impact our microbiome in immeasurable ways.Anicka Yi
As well as responding to sensory glitches, artists have studied them. James Turrell, trained in perceptual psychology, creates immersive and illusory works which toy with light, space and colour. He began making art in 1960s California alongside Light and Space contemporaries like Larry Bell. In his work, sensory phenomena become as much a medium as a source of inspiration. Recent installations employ phosphene as an extension of their structure, encouraging participants to close their eyes periodically to expand the artwork’s impact.
My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing.James Turrell
Acting on instinct
What about when making art is not a response to a sensory experience, but a sensory experience in of itself?
José Parlá joins a lineage of artists who reject literal translations of their senses in favour of ‘automatic’ modes of making. Working in the orbit of Surrealism, Joan Miró channelled his subconscious into shapes and symbols – following his instincts, rather than interrogating them. Later, Abstract Expressionists like Lee Krasner tapped human intuition to compose artworks which, though abstract, capture the essence of life.
I think, if one is a painter, all you experience does come out when you’re painting.Lee Krasner
Parlá employs a similar logic to create his abstract calligraphy, drawing en-masse on fluid recollections from years gone by. The influence of music is manifold – informing the rhythm and motion of his strokes, as well as the moments they allude to.
Seeing in Phosphene
A time-limited print edition, launching 17 May 2023, focuses on José Parlá’s experience of phosphene. Caused by light, sound or pressure, phosphene describes illusory colours and shapes that come from inside the eye. For Parlá, abstract forms conjured by looking at the sun through the skylight of his Brooklyn studio summon moments from his storied past.
Layered to a point of wilful illegibility, Seeing in Phosphene completes a cycle – pulling from a cacophony of sensory experiences to create a singular one. Stepping away from the work, Parlá invites his viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Listen to José Parlá’s Phosphene Sound playlist on Spotify, compiled to accompany our collaboration.
Take part in the Dreamachine Perception Census, then learn more about their immersive experience – designed to probe the limits of your mind and embarking on a worldwide tour in 2023.
Watch scientist Vincent Walsh’s TED Talk on the neurological origins of creativity.
In New York? Enter the Shed’s Sonic Sphere – a spherical concert hall suspended in mid-air.
In London? Visit BIGGER AND CLOSER (not smaller & further away) – an immersive exhibition chronicling David Hockney's six decade career.