Emotional Exposures, Or: When Art Met Science at the Gallery

Essay by Mira Shah and Christine A. Knoop


It is scarcely possible to conceive of art without emotion. Art can grip and excite, bore and irritate, move and sadden its recipients. Beyond the audience’s experience, however, emotions also play a role in the production of art. The artist’s personal experiences, relationships, tastes, feelings and affective responses to other artistic influences are assumed to feed into his or her own artistic output. Indeed, many artists, like Mattias Härenstam, who is represented in the present exhibition, explicitly relate their work to their own emotional experiences. Isaac Bashevis Singer said of literature that without emotion, it becomes “sterile, silly, and actually without substance.“ The same can be said about artworks in general: even though no one is affected emotionally by each and every artwork they encounter, and even though most people’s involvement in artworks is intellectual as well as affective, one can safely assume that the emotional content of art forms a large part of both its purpose and its appeal. Non-figurative art in particular seems to be drawing mostly on affect; in the absence of a clear semiotic message, it directly appeals to individual associations, tastes, and affective responses. Similarly, Härenstam’s sculptures of trees carved into distinctly human forms, spilling entrails or providing a surrealist panoply of eyes and genitals, privilege affective comprehension over aesthetic reasoning. The same is true of Jessie Kleemann’s and Iben Mondrup’s performances which draw on imagery evoked by the moving body rather than on narrative causality.

Notably though, the emotions that play a role in art contexts are, in the majority, negative ones. Feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and isolation, anger and irritation, disgust und repulsion, sadness and shock are frequently experienced in the reception of art, and, if we are to go by the self-descriptions of artists, in its creation as well. These negative emotions, however, are mingled with other, more rewarding, pleasurable emotions. Art offers us the rare possibility to experience negative feelings in a positive way, whether they are evoked by romanticism’s vast landscapes that convey saturated loneliness and charming melancholia, by the dark and disquieting atmosphere of symbolism, or by the intriguing shock value pertaining to a lot of modernist and postmodernist art. The knowledge that “this is art”, and the personal safety guaranteed by this distancing thought, allow for a pleasurable experience of feelings, atmospheres or impressions which are avoided in everyday life. Recognizing and appreciating these emotions can be a rewarding feeling in itself, and, irrespective of its (positive or negative) valence, the affective response is a stimulating exercise of one’s emotional faculties. Hence, as much as art can make us suffer, we still seek and even enjoy the experience.

Due to the prominence of negative emotions in the creation and experience of art, as well as in the thematic focus of many artworks, science, too, tends to focus on negative emotions when it strives to find out more about affective reactions to art. In experimental settings, test persons are presented with aesthetic objects that are meant to induce negative emotions. In an ideal experiment, these negative emotions should be analogous to those people experience when faced with art in a more conventional, ‘real’ setting, such as a museum or a theatre. The artefacts presented may be actual artworks or just visual material expressly created for the purpose of a study, but in any case, they are first and foremost basic implements with a clear purpose: serving as ‘stimulus’ objects in experiments. In order to be able to serve this purpose, they need to fulfil certain aesthetic criteria. Therefore, the so-called ‘stimuli’ have a double meaning. Firstly, they are scientific material, art stand-ins that can be reproduced in similar fashion over and over, so that a statistically relevant result can be achieved. Secondly, they are the results of the experimenters’ creative abilities (or lack thereof), which shape the response to an as yet uncharted extent. Since they are reproducible and meant to evoke certain reactions, the ‘stimuli’ are neither original nor artistically innovative, but they remain the outcome of a creative mind; however, their meaning is not in the message, but in the precise reaction they are meant to trigger.

This exhibition plays with the artistic side of scientific exploration: it presents stimulus material gathered to measure the effect of negative emotions alongside artworks that deal with, are created from, or might induce negative emotions in their viewers. By juxtaposing these two different approaches, this exhibition makes their complex relation more evident. The scientific material is framed thrice: as an aesthetic artefact that is really a scientific stimulus meant to be taken for an aesthetic artefact. The purpose it serves in the lab (inducing very specific emotions) is annihilated here, as the scientific design itself is exposed to the viewer. Scientific designs always shape the observation, at least to some extent: the question you ask determines the answer you get. If science itself becomes the object of aesthetic observation – if ‘fake’ art is exhibited alongside ‘real’ art –, however, the rules change. On the one hand, the scientific prerequisite of trying to control the circumstances of reception in the experiment becomes impossible to uphold; the implements are turned into ready-mades. On the other hand, the topic of this exhibition makes it evident that art, like science, can experiment with its recipients, though perhaps less systematically and with a more open outlook. Perttu Saksa’s ape images, for instance, tell a striking tale of the harshness of a human obsession with and treatment of our next of kin, the other primates, and are therefore prone to evoking empathic indignation. Yet at the same time, they play with the notion of the uncanny by realizing and simultaneously defamiliarizing human features in animals. In so doing, they breach boundaries that are conventionally part of human identity and usually safeguarded by a repertoire of affective distancing reactions. One might argue that his artworks are likely to evoke reactions similar as well as complementary to the also displayed scientific material, which shows images of furry humans and naked animals.

By exhibiting art alongside scientific ‘stimuli’, the line between artistic experience and experimenting with art is blurred, while raising the question to what extent art, like science, might be able, or indeed willing, to determine the reactions of the audience. At the same time, the exhibition itself supports the hypothesis that in art, averse affective reactions become pleasurable if experienced in the supposedly safe realm of aesthetic experience. However, this realm can be rendered less safe if the ‘real’ finds its way into the experience. This seems to be the case in this exhibition, owing to the form (performance art), implications (colonial appropriation of animal beings), material (plants and animals on medical photographs), or intent (reconstruction of a loved one’s death) of the artworks. It seems possible that blurring the boundaries between so-called aesthetic and ‘real’ experiences might shift the frame to produce yet another experimental layer – art that denies the recipients their withdrawal to the safety of aesthetic distance and therefore holds the potential for an emotional exposure of an unsettling and involuntary but deeply affecting kind.

Christine A. Knoop was born in Munich, Germany, and studied German and French Literature and Theatre Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and the Sorbonne in Paris. After receiving her PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, she worked as a researcher and lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin. Currently, she is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt, where she is involved in a number of empirical research projects investigating aesthetic properties of literature. She is the author of „Kundera and the Ambiguity of Authorship“ (London: Maney 2011) and co-editor of „Cumaná 1799. Alexander von Humboldt’s Voyage Between Europe and the Americas“ (Bielefeld: Aisthesis 2013), and has published a number of articles on works by Milan Kundera, Jean Genet, Paul Scheerbart, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Abbé Prévost.

Mira Shah was born in Berlin, Germany, and studied Comparative Literature, Theater and Cultural Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität. She then joined the Cluster “Languages of Emotion” as research assistant in the project “Aesthetic Modulation of Affective Valence” and is currently writing a dissertation on “Apes and Affect. The Rhetorics of Primatology” as member of the research group “The Reseachers’ Affects” (funded by the Volkswagen-Stiftung) at the University of Bern, Switzerland. So far she has published on modernity’s anxieties and identity construction in travel writing, violence as constituent in modern interpretations of the classic Medea myths, and on the correlation of monkeys and figurations of femininity in J.W. Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften.