A confessional, hidden behind a gallery’s wall; a forest of withered white trees; a public ritual of mourning, illuminated by candlelight. In 2021, artists transcended conventional museum presentations to engage the full spectrum of senses. Instead of merely looking at paintings, visitors to exhibitions worldwide were invited to touch—and in some cases, play—the art. Odors of bygone plagues suffused gallery spaces, a ghost of the past or portent of what’s ahead. Below, a look at a few standout works that engaged our senses.
Anicka Yi, In Love With The World
In the last decade, the conceptual artist Anicka Yi has foregrounded the olfactory in several installations, suffusing galleries with biological agents that inhabit space as memorably as any tangible art object. Or, as she describes it, “sculpting the air.” This year, she turned the industrial Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London into her own petri dish. In the solo presentation, giant jellyfish-like creatures—“aerobes,” or “biologized machines,” as she has called them—floated above the crowds. Sometimes the drones descended toward visitors, drawn by their heat. Each week a new scent profile was released in the hall, some of which evoked periods of disease and extreme inequality in the city’s history, like the odor of the bubonic plague.
“The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
This summer, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond presented a super-charged showcase, organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, that made explicit how sound was key to innovations by Black artists in the visual arts, particularly in the American South One standout in an exhibition that included the work of 120 artists, was a piece by the New Orleans–based artist Richard Fiend Jones. Taking a 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’ Elegance he has decked it out with a booming stereo system and art objects, including a custom Virginia license plate, reading DRTYSTH. Elsewhere, a sonic sculpture by Nadine Robinson comprised of 30 speakers stacked in the shape of a church organ play an audio collage of dogs barking and people praying; religion, hip-hop, and politics abound, showcasing the fullness of Black life in America.
Naama Tsabar, Perimeters
For her latest show, now on view at The Bass in Miami, Naama Tsabar transformed the museum with her site-specific works that spanned sculpture, performance, and architecture. Sound and touch informed the experience, as the gallery itself became a playable instrument. In the first work, viewers were invited to pluck the strings of Melody of Certain Damage (2021), scattered fragments of a smashed guitar that Tsabar restrung with piano and guitar wires. In an adjacent room, audiences could sing, shout, or whisper into innocuous holes in the walls that contain string elements and motion sensors. The total effect is a symphony of singing and strumming conducted by strangers.
Maya Lin, Ghost Forest
Between May and November, a ghost forest of Atlantic white cedar trees stood amid the vibrant greenery of the Madison Square Park Conservatory in Midtown Manhattan. Maya Lin, an activist whose art practice revolves around environmental vulnerability, brought the salvaged grove to the city as a climate cautionary tale. The trees were once common on the East Coast, but the population has drastically dwindled due to logging practices, windstorms, and unprecedented wildfires. Passersby could touch the sterile bark and listen to a soundscape created by Lin to honor the native species once plentiful to the island.
Kevin Beasley, The Sound of Mourning
A small crowd waited at the intersection of Orchard and Rivington streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the start of Kevin Beasley’s commission for this year’s Performa Biennial, though few knew what form the piece would take. It’s one of the busiest cross streets downtown; sirens wailed nearby somewhere in the distance, and bicyclists and pedestrians pushed through throngs of spectators. Some watched from restaurant windows, caught up in the air of expectation. Then a group of Black young women and men, outfitted with body mics, walked into the intersection, and spread out to its four corners. They idly interacted with found or prepared objects, shredded a newspaper, crumbled a paper bag, dragged a metal can across the asphalt. Beasley, working from a DJ booth nearby, mixed the noises and broadcast them along the street. The texture of the scene was amplified to discomfiting levels—the popping of a Chapstick cap broke overhead like a gunshot. All the while, phones were trained on the performers surveilling their every innocuous move.
Candy Chang and James A. Reeves, After the End
The process of After the End, a participatory ritual in the Historic Chapel at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, was simple but affecting: contemplate loss. Then describe what helps you endure. Paper and pens were provided. After visitors recorded their thoughts, they were invited to place the pieces of paper onto an illuminated alter. Afterward, you could sit in the chapel’s apse, in the soft heat of the candlelight, and listen to a gentle ambient composition piped through the room. Messages pulled from the anonymous submissions were projected on the ceiling, revealing all form of loss experienced this year. “Grief changed who I am,” read one. It was an elegant commiseration of isolation—together.