Fluid perception: 

ann veronica janssens 

By Serafina Lee 

Multidisciplinary artist Ann Veronica Janssens interests me because she is yet another example of our gravitation towards sensory and experiential art. She declares that her ‘main material is light’ as she ‘explores properties of matter (gloss, lightness, transparency, fluidity) and physical phenomena (reflection, refraction, perspective, balance, waves)’ in order to illustrate the indeterminacy of sensory perception. Rather than simply viewing her artwork, you become implicated within it. Janssens requires her work to be viscerally felt as subjective perception is the focal point of her vision. 

 

Janssens is most known for her light room installations, such as Blue, Red, and Yellow (2001), where she plays with the physicality of colour. The installation consists of a box filled with artificial mist and different coloured lights attached to the ceiling which then refracts through the mist and creates the effect of a thick wall of colour. The viewer enters and is absorbed into an impenetrable, dense fog that shifts into different tones. You cannot see more than a metre ahead of you. Janssens is fixated on the sensory effect of such purposeful blindness, illustrating that ‘it’s a perceptive space where the sensation of limits disappears’. Of course, such light alterations and sensation as artistic experience can be traced back to the Californian Light and Space Movement in the 1960s and has also been adopted by Antony Gormley, Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, to name a few. However, with rapid technological advancement that prioritises striking visuals for views, the reach of such artwork is expanded. Powerful aesthetic experiences appeal to us now more than ever because of how readily documentable they are.

Most people will be familiar with the light room concept due to Olafur Eliasson’s spectacularly popular Tate Modern exhibition that ran until January 2020. He created a 45 metre tunnel titled Your Blind Passenger which was similarly filled with fog and hazy orange light. I remember going on my birthday last year and was most struck by how such an emphasis on experience altered the gallery dynamic. Usually, there is an interpretive gap between the viewer and an exhibited two-dimensional artwork. For example, a painting hangs on the wall, separate from the viewer. We stare and try to untangle some kind of meaning that is often elusively unattainable, like a mirage in the far distance. We feel immersed within a painting only once we have traversed this interpretive gap, once the artwork focuses into recognition. This is not the case with experiential art - it is immediate and abruptly immersive, requiring no prior knowledge or conceptual understanding. It surrounds the viewer and raises questions about their instinctual systems of knowledge.

(Hot Pink Turquoise (2019), Musée de l'Orangerie - photo by Serafina Lee) 

 

This can have very positive impacts, such as widening accessibility. Experiential art resounds throughout more and more people, pervading into the personal through digital channels. My sisters (at the time aged 12 and 15) who usually have an aversion to galleries were immediately taken with Eliasson’s work. They, like countless others, took photos and later uploaded them to social media. Because sensory experience is (mostly) universal, this form of artwork can be understood by anyone. It is not tied down to any specific cultural context, and therefore the only prior knowledge needed is the ability to perceive. Eliasson’s Tate exhibition alone has 190,000 Instagram tags and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms has 85,000.  This allows the artistic reach to be far greater and also acts as an advertisement, encouraging others to participate in the artistic experience. 

 

However, on Instagram, the artwork is decontextualised, becoming a background to a smiling selfie cropped away from its intended meaning. This process of appropriation is a natural part of our lives - I often only remember snippets of books I have read or only take a photo of a detail of a painting I like. These unrelated extracts will then surface sporadically, their original contexts dissipating to acquire a new, relevant meaning to the present. Janssens’ visuals are luringly appealing, inviting documentation. I saw Hot Pink Turquoise (2019) at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and I was taking a photo before I had even read the description. The artwork consists of two projectors, each equipped with a halogen lamp and a dichroic filter. They project a wide spectrum of light on the wall, ‘unveiling combinations of several halos of saturated colours.’ Of course, such light experimentation lends itself perfectly to photography, which captures the light through yet another lens. The photographic process is another embodiment of subjective perception as we frame our sight through the eyes of a camera. 

Such a social media presence therefore adds another expansive dimension to her work, becoming a cultural externalisation of perception. The immediate aesthetic impact of Janssens’ installations is a fundamental component of her exploration. She navigates our relationship to the pictorial, emphasising art as a bodily experience. We, the viewer, become integral to her artistic vision as without a person to experience her art, it is void. This dependant relationship is fascinating because the gallery becomes a site of spectacle. The terms of the pictorial are changed as instead of questioning the aesthetics of a piece of artwork, we are investigating how we perceive those aesthetics in the first place. The boundaries of sight crumble and we start to create new images from the fog, materialising shapes from abstract colour. As we stumble blindly through Janssens’ room, colour seems to vibrate and hum, transitioning into new shades almost imperceptibly. It’s similar to trying to locate the exact moment the sky shifts from pink to orange. As we look and decipher, we become increasingly aware of our own visual limitations and irregularities. 

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© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol