What Does Art Smell Like?

An upcoming exhibit at Tate Britain experiments with sensory experiences to deepen the way visitors perceive different works.

Phil Noble/Reuters/The Atlantic

What does the color red smell like? How does it taste?

Imagine you’re in an art gallery, studying a portrait with a red background. Does your interpretation of it change if you taste ketchup while you look? Or smell blood? Or both? Tate Sensorium, an upcoming exhibition at the London museum Tate Britain, is attempting to answer these questions by using interactive technology to experiment with how senses change the way people interpret visual art.

The show, which opens later this year, is being put together by the London-based creative agency Flying Object, winners of the Tate’s second annual IK Prize for “innovative applications of digital technology that offer new ways to explore art."

The inspiration for Tate Sensorium comes from the world of neuroscience and its newly dominant notion that none of the senses work in isolation, say Flying Object founders Tom Pursey, Tim Partridge, and Peter Law.

Recent studies have confirmed a number of common beliefs—that colors have strong associations with smells, for instance (yellow with lemons, and turquoise with peppermint)—but they've also made more surprising findings, such as the discovery that eating food from a heavy bowl makes it taste richer, fattier and more expensive.

Restaurants were among the first to use such findings to create new aesthetic experiences. In 2007, diners at the British restaurant The Fat Duck were given iPods to enhance the flavor of their seafood with the sound of waves. Flying Object is applying these principles to the British art canon, with the help of an experimental psychologist, a binaural sound recordist, a visual designer, a theater designer, a multi-sensory interaction designer, and Odette Toilette, a self-styled “purveyor of olfactory adventures.”

“We’re still looking for a taste person,” explains Pursey. “It’s all slightly experimental, but that’s also why the scientists are really interested in being involved, because we’ll actually be doing a lot of measurements around how people react to everything. And from an artistic point of view … if we can complement your visual experience with these other four senses in a meaningful way, then maybe we can change how you feel about the art.”

Tate Sensorium will use fresh technologies like binaural sound, which is made by recording sounds through microphones buried in the replica ear canals of a dummy skull. Once played back for humans through stereo headphones, the sound creates an uncannily precise sense of space in listeners that exploits our ability to pinpoint where sounds are coming from. (One example is this virtual trip to a barber.)

“Binaural sound is very immersive,” says Pursey. “It really brings you into the artwork. Take a landscape: There’s a lot of space there. Take a Bridget Riley: They’re often flat. Binaural sound is a perfect way to explore that spatial dimension. It can also help us direct attention to different parts of the artwork, to make things feel very close or far away.”

“We have a sense that museums are a neutral space,” says Partridge, “but they already have sounds and smells. You’re already having your perception changed by your senses. We’re just changing it in a different way.”

The IK Prize 2015 winners, Flying Object (Tate Photography)

For visitors to be literally touched by the art, the brand new technology of “ultrahaptics” uses 256 small ultrasound speakers arrayed in a flat, laptop-sized square to project localized soundwaves through the air.

Holding your hands above them, the waves create the sensation of touch as they crash into visitors' skin. “A feeling of, for example, dry rain,” says Pursey. “Or a circle, or, as you move your hands down, the feeling of pushing them through a bubble.”

Noses are comparatively simple to cater for—treated paper or aerosols are the most likely vehicles for olfactory adventure—but may yet prove key to the project. Smells have strong, specific and emotional memory connotations. “To me,” says Pursey, “the smell of a car air freshener means taxis, but to other people it might mean holidays when they were a child.”

One of the main things Flying Object hope to give people is an awareness of the subjectivity of their interpretations. “We can take an artwork and try to bring to life what’s actually depicted,” says Partridge, “or we can acknowledge that artworks mean different things to different people, and use the other four senses to help people understand that there isn’t one universal interpretation they’re supposed to discover.”

“There could even be different sense experiences for the same work,” adds Pursey.

Part-exhibition, part-experiment, Tate Sensorium will nudge visitors in some new directions, therefore, but it won’t tell them what to think. As with so much great art, the experience is intended to be unique for everyone.