I walked down the stairs that connected the sun lit modern gallery to the darker contemporary gallery in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. My eyes had not yet completely adjusted and I found myself walking on something. I recall the sensations of walking on metal. Instinctually I stepped back to see what I had trod on. I then realised that I had walked onto a Carl Andre minimalist sculpture made of eight squares of plate steel laid out in a rectangle.
The rubber souls Dunlop Volleys would have had no effect on the plate steel. The gallery’s curator had probably intended such a sequence. Three distinct mental activities occurred in this interaction with Carl Andre’s sculpture: the sensations, the reaction to the sensations and an assessment of that reaction. The reaction to the stimuli, in this case was almost immediate, but distinctly different to my later neutral reaction to the sculpture.
To give another example, this time from contemporary dance. In the 2015 Chunky Moves dance production, Depth of Field choreographed by Anouk van Dijk these distinct mental activities were separated further. During the performance the audience was sitting at one end of the forecourt of the ACCA listening to the soundtrack on FM headphones and could see the forecourt, two roads and part the city sky line. Lots of visual sensations in the line of sight but which ones were part of the performance? The man who seemed to be watching from across the street, the two young women on bicycles, the man walking his dog , etc.? It was when the position of the man standing across the street matched the line of the dancers in the forecourt that I realised that the performance was larger than I had at first thought. My reaction to the sensations of the position of the man had changed, instead of extraneous sensations it was now being aesthetically assessed as part of the dance performance.
I cannot go further back to my initial sensations, or when I became aware that these sensations were a significant part of the performance. I cannot assess my reactions before I have the sensation, I cannot make an assessment before I react to the sensations. Analysing this progression from sensation, to reaction, to the aesthetic assessment I cannot go further back, because there is no reaction before a reaction, no assessment prior to assessment.
I also become aware that this progression is essential to understanding both minimalism and some conceptual art. The neutrality of Duchamp’s ‘anaesthetic’ readymades, trying to reduce the reaction and the aesthetic to zero. Considering neutral reactions to sensations, John Cage’s 3’44” asks the audience to consider the background sounds that they would normally ignore from their aesthetic assessment.
Most art jumps from sensation to assessment as fast as it can. From the shock jumps of horror movies to being turned on by porn to the visceral power of rhetoric to the near panic attack of a Stendhal syndrome (the last time I experience a Stendhal syndrome was sitting down watching Chunky Moves Mortal Engine). I am not making an aesthetic judgement about how fast you move from sensation to assessment because, I’m not a fan of minimalism, nor am I making a judgement about how powerful the experience. But it is interesting to break the experience down into the smallest units.