Is Art Enough?

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (central panel) (1535-1550). Oil on wood, transferred to canvas, 182 x 168 cm, private collection. © Gropius Bau

By Julia Vasko 

 I walk into the first room of the Gropius Bau in Berlin, and I am confronted with an artwork from the School of Hieronymus Bosh, The Garden of Earthly Delights. It seems to set the tone for the exhibition of the same name, which explores the garden as a metaphor for the state of the world: 

“In addition to deliberate political positions, the Garden of Earthly Delights features works that also bring to life the sensual dimensions of gardens: immersive installations and video works show an intensive abundance of nature, but also the fragility of the paradise-like state.” [1]

Featuring a surreal landscape of flying fish, oversized birds, and naked human figures in bizarre and provocative positions, the triptych artwork is a sensual awakening and an invitation to explore the vast spectrum of the human experience. 

I move on to the next room and am flooded by the scent of jasmine flowers. An installation by artist, Hicham Berrada, the darkened room stimulates the natural rhythms of the night-blooming plant to exude its intense, fragrant smell. [2]

From there, I emerge into a plant-filled room, interspersed with TV screens positioned on the floor featuring short films on loop of the artist sensually and sexually engaging with plants [3]. We hear his groans as he receives the pleasure of each plant leaf – licking, smelling, even using the leaf to stimulate an erection. 

Zheng Bo, “Pteridophilia 2”, 2018. Still of video © Zheng Bo

Room after room, my senses continue to be stimulated and I begin to notice my own sensual nature emerging to meet the external experience. I can’t help but look around at the rest of the visitors and wonder, “Are they feeling it too?” 

My attention shifts from the artworks to the faces, bodies, and behaviours of those around me.

I begin to notice how long they are spending at each artwork. When they are invited to take off their shoes to explore an installation [4] with the intimacy of their bare flesh – do they? Do they come into stillness long enough to allow the overwhelming cacophony of sounds in Korakrit Arunanondchai’s 2012-2555 to penetrate into their nervous systems? 

Korakrit Arunanondchai, 2012-2555, 2012  © Mathias Voelzke

While each visitor’s behaviour was unique, and I’ll admit that I did not go so far in my investigation as to ask individuals about their experience, my observations were enough to provoke the question: is the Art enough? 

The exhibition was no doubt successful in curating an experience that had the potential to be deeply sensual and engaging, yet I began to wonder if the context of the Museum is supportive of this kind of experience. 

The Museum as an institution has been built upon the privileging of the conceptual, celebrating intellectual engagement over felt-experiencing. And while exhibitions like The Garden of Earthly Delights are clearly encouraging a more immersive engagement, do visitors feel safe enough to do so, or are they continuing to engage from the distance of their intellect? 

Is a text on the wall saying, “Touch me” enough to break down decades of controlled behaviour? To close the distance between Self and artwork such that we feel free to fully express our sensual selves, while “Don’t touch”, “Don’t be loud” continue to ring like sirens in our ears?  

Is it safe to feel turn-on, to feel grief, to feel anger – the vast spectrum of emotions that the Artworks have the potential to evoke – within the Institution, itself? With only a text on the wall to support it? 

As someone who has spent years sitting in intimate and carefully crafted spaces around the world with the intention of creating safety to support authentic expression, my generalised answer to these questions is…No, or only to a certain extent, without the establishment of a safe container and a supportive guide. 

Unfortunately, shame pervades many of our deepest, truthful expressions, especially when it comes to our innately sensual nature. It can take years of self-development to release this shame and to cultivate a sense of safety within ourselves: to fully embrace, celebrate, and express the vastness of our human experience. 

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 1-4, 2016–2019; Movements, 2016; Fern as Method , 2019; © Mathias Völzke

Art no doubt has the capacity to be deeply powerful and impactful. To serve as mirrors, reminders, and activators of all that we are. And I would like to see and experience spaces with Art where safety and intimacy are the frameworks established to enable this potentiality to be fully realized. 

Marina Abramovic’s highly successful performance piece The Artist is Present [5] at New York’s MoMA comes to mind. In this piece, the Artist was seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair. Visitors were invited to sit and engage in a simple act of eye-gazing for as little or as long as they wanted. Much to the surprise of the Artist and the Museum, visitors lined up for hours just to have a chance to sit. What revealed itself through the months was how deeply impactful and evocative this simple act was, with many participants brought to tears. The act of dropping into presence, into the space of intimacy, and deep engagement, was enough to awaken deep feeling and transformation. 

If we apply these same principles to the experience of Artworks in general, I believe the same effect can be had. With supportive facilitation, participants can be brought on a journey to connect with themselves, to connect with those sharing the experience, and to connect with the artworks. In creating a safe and intimate container, each artwork (whether it be immersive or not) can be received in a deep and activating way. As deeply as safety is created, as openly are we able to express. This is not to say there won’t still be discomfort, shame, or shyness, but these feelings can be held in a supportive space such that they can be leaned into and explored, rather than serve as a block to experiencing.  

In the opening activation of our first exhibition at Samata Soul, Meet me in my dreams, I was able to witness this firsthand. 

With the sound of binaural beats and the smell of sage burning, participants were guided into a meditative state. Through the breath, they were able to connect to themselves and from this space, begin to slowly explore the artworks. They were guided to tune in to their inner sensations while experiencing each piece. To notice any reactions and sensations. To stay in stillness beyond discomfort, to explore what was beyond it. 

When we came together at the end to sit in Circle and share with each other about the experience, I was amazed at the Feeling that was able to be engaged. Some cried, some were disturbed, some said they witnessed parts of themselves that they had long been out of touch with. 

Ultimately, the experience was moving- which brings me back to the original question: 

would the artworks alone have been enough to have this effect? 

(The depth of engagement with an Artwork will of course vary depending on the skill, concept, etc. of each artwork, but I’ll leave the highly complex subject of ‘What is good art’ to another day!)

For the sake of this exploration, I will say, yes – artworks are inherently enough. Rather, it is the disconnection to ourselves and to each other that is so pervasive in modern society, that makes it harder to receive them in their full potentiality. 

[1] Garden of Earthly Delights  Introduction text, curated by Stephanie Rosenthal with Clara Meister,

[2] Hicham Berrada, Mesk-ellil, 2015

[3] Zheng Bo, “Pteridophilia 1–4; Survival Manual II; Movements; Fern as Method”

[4] Renato Leotta, “La Notte di San Lorenzo”