By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Your eyes strain; your sense of depth has gone; you feel suspended in a coloured mist; grey silhouettes emerge every now and then beside you. This is “yellowbluepink”, an immersive, dizzying new art installation by Ann Veronica Janssens at the Wellcome Collection, London, that aims to push the limits of how our brains interact with the world. Consciousness – meaning both whether we’re awake (or are we?) and what we’re awake to (our perceptions, thoughts and emotions) – continues to baffle us. Is my experience of being me really any different to your experience of being you? And how can I, or you, explain it? Well, here (at least some of it) goes . . . .
For me, wandering around the gallery the other day, panic mixed with euphoria. You can’t see where the walls are, where the doors are, where other people are. We were told not to lie down on the floor; you can imagine the problems with that. Janssens’s installation is simple – coloured lighting gels and a smoke machine – but not simplistic. Like Antony Gormley’s “Blind Light” at the Hayward Gallery in 2007, an interior space that you assume is safe and familiar is questioned; and so are your senses. You feel as though you’re up a mountain (below, for example, is a photograph I took a few years ago of a friend at high altitude in Munnar, India, where I had a similar experience) or under the sea – that’s certainly the response Gormley and Janssens want to prompt, with a little fun along the way.
In an accompanying leaflet, Professor Anil Seth suggests that our conscious sense of our surroundings is sometimes (always?) determined by our brain’s “best guess” of what’s causing such ambiguous signals. The museum’s curator, Emily Sargent, adds that during the installation “attention is focused on the process of perception itself”, for entering the gallery “is to submit to colour as a physical entity, to be subsumed by the experience of seeing”. This dense, coloured mist wrapping itself around you is almost touchable. Disorientating (your eyes continuously try to adjust themselves), but enjoyable and uplifting, partly thanks to the choice of bright colours. It's not often that we're forced to turn in on ourselves and be in the present moment like this. The space is real, the time is real; yet none of it feels quite real.
Janssens’s piece is a heady aperitif to the Wellcome’s forthcoming exhibition, States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness, which opens in February next year, exploring all those phenomena (such as sleepwalking, dream-states, synaesthesia, anaesthesia, memory loss) that are yet to be fully understood.
The Wellcome Collection doesn’t have much of a reputation for displaying cutting-edge artwork, but here we have a wondrous exception. (Indeed, at some points, the wait for Janssens’s piece, which is on until January 3, has been up to two hours – I suggest dropping in off-peak.) I hope it means there’s more to come, because, for a non-scientist like me, it’s a brilliant, instinctive way of understanding more about these complicated ideas. And isn’t that what art should do? Make you think, question yourself and help to explain the world around you.