Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

According to recent opinions and research, experiences and not objects are the preferred type of consumerism among young adults, who are more interested in spending their money on (to name a few) cooking classes, cultural festivals, quilting workshops, indoor rock climbing, yoga at sunrise followed by an early morning dance party, and so on; than physical objects (gadgets, gizmos, etc.).

Contemporary art has also experienced a shift towards art that is more experientially focused. Instead of an interest in making traditional art objects that would exist on gallery walls (or in the market place), artists like Tino Sehgal and James Turrell produce artworks that offer a unique interactive visual, physical, and cognitive experience for the viewer. Their art makes the viewer a part of the work by engaging them through a range of social and emotional stimuli, whether it is changing a physical environment like Turrell does, or constructing social situations like Sehgal does.

If you’ve visited a work of art by Turrell such as Meeting at PS1, and were wondering where he derived his inspiration from, I highly recommended hopping on the 7 train and going up to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House one Sunday morning. Meeting is a site specific installation, where Turrell altered the museum’s ceiling to provide an unobstructed view of the sky. Viewers sit on wooden benches that face one another and can share in conversation or a silent reflection, while natural light and the elements are filtered in from above.

Having experienced Quaker church at different points in my life, I can say that James Turrell is one of the most profound artists for me personally. I don’t think I would have been able to engage in his work as repletely, had it not been for my reflective moments in these meeting houses. That said, Turrell makes work that everyone can make significant based on their own unique experiences and engagement, so whatever you choose to bring to it will be truly unique.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell, a Quaker, draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community.

Tino Sehgal goes even further outside the traditional role that we typically attribute to an artist. Sehgal’s art is focused on the creation of ephemeral social and emotional situations. For many of his museum scale exhibitions, the artist works with a population of non-artists to produce multi-disciplinary situations that are aimed at bringing the viewer directly into the piece. The basis for these interactive pieces is rooted in a social choreography, where Sehgal’s non-artist performers are trained to move about the physical space and engage the viewers in movement, song, or inquiry based communication. Experiencing a piece by Sehgal is an exemplar of embodied learning, where issues and investigations are explored through both cognitive and kinesthetic means. The pieces themselves are fleeting moments in time (besides being documented through film or photography, no physical trace is left at the end), however, the viewer’s memory of their experience remains long after the exhibition ends.

The phenomenon of experiential art does not replace the effect that viewing more traditional art has, it simply adds another dimension to what we can perceive as art and engage in as artists, educators, and appreciators. Analyzing, interpreting, and presenting all varieties of art (cf.: Ways of Seeing and Art as Therapy) has an enormous value on our everyday experiences. For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s bold and enlarged paintings of flowers might prompt the viewer to be more in tune to their natural surroundings. The next time they’re out for a walk in the park, they might see and respond to the flora with a heightened sense of awareness and respect. O’Keefe realized that art has a profound way of reminding us to slow down and appreciate life’s experiences more greatly, when she stated:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

There are many reasons why contemporary art, which is divorced from the traditional studio based art discipline, is beneficial in an educational environment. The first and foremost is that it enables students think outside of the realm of using traditional materials in order to solve aesthetic problems and express themselves and their collective identity. Producing artistic experiences allows students to engage in a social and emotional experience without relying on formulaic rules that often (when used solely as a means to develop artistic skill or technique) stagnate personal style and communication. When coupled with more traditional modes of creating, experiential based art provides a greater vocabulary and expanded set of tools to communicate one’s ideas and vision effectively. It also allows for many opportunities to introduce collaborative projects that can lead to multi-disciplinary partnerships with other students, faculty, and the local community. You don’t need to be a skilled draughtsman to create art in the contemporary era, which means that art education needs to embrace this facet (and develop curriculum for a multi-disciplinary visual arts program) with as much certainty as it has embraced the traditional canon of instruction.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

de Botton, Alain and Armstrong, John. 2013. Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon.

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