“Nothing is more beautiful than a person’s own perception. I try to push it to its limits,” says Ann Veronica Janssens, the Brussels-based artist behind the new installation at Wellcome Collection in London.
Continuing experiments in perception, using light and colour, Janssens has filled the white walled upstairs gallery with a dense mist, brightly lit in various colours throughout the space.
The installation aims to deliberately disorientate, but also challenges the very process of perception and the way we interact with our external environment. Becoming active participants in the experiment, visitors are invited to experience a mix of emotions, or as the title of the longer term research project suggests, various states of mind.
“To step inside the space is to leave the regular world behind, and to encounter a space in which all experience of surface, depth, even time is obscured by a curtain of colour made physical,” says curator Emily Sargent. “While neuroscience is great about telling us about the relationship between brain activity and some cognitive function, it hasn’t yet come up with an explanation of how the activity of neurons can give rise to the experience of colour, as we enter into this installation. And yet without really knowing how or why, we are all experts in that personal experience. And Ann Veronica’s beautiful installation reminds of the richness of our interaction with the world.”
The mist is unscented and dry – unlike Gormley’s humid Bright Light (2007) – and plays with colour as an enveloping form, with the trippy power of illusion similar to James Turrell’s coloured light installations. It completely surrounds you and intensely disrupts vision, almost like a temporary blindness, especially if visiting alone. Voices of others can be heard around the space, and figures drift into view if within a few metres. Watching silhouettes walk away from you out of sight is particularly satisfying, as they fade into spectral forms and disappear.
Confusing as this all might seem at first, go with it, and let the unease dissolve, because the idea behind the work is, in part, about having a conscious experience. Well-known for her mist sculptures and experiments with light, Janssens’ work aims to remove us from daily life, and return us to a state where we become aware of actually being conscious (reminding us of the difference between being awake or being in a dreamless sleep; and the experience of being me, or you).
Supposedly, understanding the conscious content around us is all down to the brain’s ‘best guess’ of the sensory signals we receive. I often found myself searching for any detail of surface or depth in the space (found only slightly above in the lighting and up close to the surrounding walls). But with coloured mist veiling the room, at times yellowbluepink alters perception so strongly so that we end up focusing on perception itself. Janssens hopes that participants will slowly, happily be subsumed by the experience of seeing, and I too eventually submitted myself to the sweetly tranquilising effect of the room.
Just outside the main space books and iPads help provide further context, including an interactive learning app of optical illusions created by Studio Hato, (in association with the Wellcome, neuroscientist David Schwartzman and Anil Seth from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science).
Studio Hato also designed a bespoke typeface for the catalogue crafted into the entrance signage by We Made That. “The font plays with Gestalt theory and so the concepts of the negative space and subtle movements were developed from this,” Ken Kirton of Hato explains, referring to a theory of psychology relating to visual perception.
The installation launches a year-long investigation into the experience of human consciousness, including major new exhibition to follow in February 2016, exploring phenomena such as synesthesia, sleepwalking, memory loss and anesthesia, exploring what can happen when conscious experience is interrupted, damaged or undermined.
Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink runs from 15 October 2015 – 3 January 2016. States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness runs from 4 February to 16 October 2016.