It was not for nothing that the seminal 1997 Royal Academy show of Young British Artists was called Sensation; contemporary art is, in so many cases, a physical experience as much as a conceptual one, tugging on our nostrils, prickling our skin and pouring down our ears. It is what Edgar Allen Poe cautiously called ‘the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' And here are some of the artists doing it best:
The artist, sculptor and Siouxsie Sioux fan, Sue Webster, turned her hand to cooking with her 2014 edition of Folly Acres Cookbook. With epicurean gems like Squirrell Salad and the poetic Sausage Theft, the book is part cookery book, part memoir, part art book – with a litany of recipes that resemble temporary sculptures as much as meals. The book grew, like hedgerow rocket, out of Sue’s experiences of cooking in her country house, Folly Acres, for pals like PJ Harvey and chef Mark Hix. Full of illustrations, photos and unlikely instructions all typed out on a 1940s Nazi typewriter. Less British Rubbish and more Roadside Dinner, with all the egg shells, smells and entertaining anecdotes you would expect from the better half of the punk art duo
The 2015 Carsten Höller show Decision, at the Hayward Gallery, collected to a euphoric finale of gravity, disorientation and movement with the piece Isometric Slides. It was, as the name implies, a set of four-storey high parallel slides that whooped visitors out of the gallery and through the air, in a solid, metallic tube. More moving than frightening, these were twinned with the Two Flying Machines; a set of giant triangular harnesses that hung visitors, suspended, in the air above the gallery, overlooking The Thames. Imagine Centre Parcs, but with all the conceptual theory of a scientist-turned-contemporary artist behind it, rather than the smell of chips and flailing limbs of a family of four from Nottingham thudding up your arse on a slide.
Since its inception in 2013, Amy Sharrocks' Museum of Water has collected over 700 bottles of water, donated by members of the public, including tears, condensation, tidal flows and the water used to clean a paintbrush. Each time, this collaborative, community-minded artists asks people to bring her any amount of 'significant water' collected in any vessel, and then interviews them about their donation. Sharrocks isn't just interested in water as a sensual product - to be bathed in, spat out, travelled through or splashed across - but as a physical manifestation of emotions; of grief, love, sorrow, joy. In her earlier show drift, Sharrocks explored our sensual experience of movement, encouraging people to drift, one at a time, across swimming pools on an inflatable boat, while for her project Invitation to Fall, Sharrocks invited exhibition visitors to fall backwards, into the arms of strangers, to explore the sensation of movement, weight and loss of control.
James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a concentration of light and sight, brought into focus by blank walls and silence. Walking into the 18th Century deer shelter in this huge, landscaped park, you are immediately struck by the quiet, grey stone seat and tall, bare walls that climb straight upwards, to a hole in the roof. Literally a hole. From here, visitors can sit, head tilted back, and watch the sun rise or feel the rain fall like a sheet in front of them. It is far from Turrell’s only foray into the sensation of light – the American artist has built Skyspaces all over the world, from the circular Third Breath in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Twilight Epiphany of Houston, Texas, the floor cushioned Gathered Sky square in Beijing to the geometric Within Without in Canberra Australia.
In her 2010 Turner Prize-winning sound piece Lowlands, Susan Philipsz created a haunting, selkie-like chorus under the George V bridge in Glasgow. Human voices bounced off the River Clyde just a few miles from where Govan once rang out with the clanking, screeching, wailing sounds of the Clydeside shipyards. To mark the centenary of the First World War, Philipsz filled the Duveen gallery of the Tate Britain with speakers playing fragments of the last post on instruments damaged, mangled and broken by war. These included the bugle that signalled the charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea, a coronet from the Boer War and a cavalry trumpet found on the wreck of ship torpedoed off Portland Bill, Dorset in 1918. In her adopted city of Berlin, in 2014, she filled the great arched station of Hamburger Bahnhof with three compositions by Hanns Eisler, a musician and composer denounced first by the Nazis for his Jewish heritage and then by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his communism. In each case, Philipsz uses sound to express something of a specific space - not merely site specific but site sounding, too.