Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy: A World to See

In the fast paced world that we live in, where food can be delivered in less than 5 minutes and we can instantly access unlimited quantities of knowledge, it is all too easy to not recognise or appreciate the environment we live in: be it the building you work in, or the colour of that tree you always pass as you walk to Uni. As someone who feels deeply affected by the environment I live in, this is something that I am very aware of. Let me start by describing where I am from: the kind of place where you need transport to get to transport, where the sea (10 minutes’ walk away) can be tasted with every breath, and the fields and sky seemingly touch; I am definitely a country bumpkin.

As a third year Art History student at the University of Nottingham, I could not have gone to a more contrasting environment. Not that Nottingham is bad or ugly, I have loved being a student here and the history of the city is physically and visually felt, it is just that the visual and sensory feel of the city is different, no matter how you view it. It makes me acknowledge that although I love city life, I will always be someone that needs that element of freshness that country life delivers. As third year students in the midst of writing essays and dissertations, it is important to acknowledge this in order to allow yourself a respite from the University bubble, be it going to for a walk, visiting that quaint pub that you’ve always loved, or popping home for the weekend. Whether this is consciously or unconsciously done is another thing, and that is how I found myself (consciously) at the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensing Spaces (25 January — 06 April, 2014).

Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Sensing Spaces installation, 2014.  Photo: Royal Academy.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Sensing Spaces installation, 2014. Photo: Royal Academy.

The exhibition sets out to address this lack of awareness and to allow people to recognise how our environment affects our physical and mental wellbeing. Upon entering, I was immediately thrown into a highly positive environment, greeted with excited screams and exclamations from children running through the gallery space in awe of what they were seeing. They were completely enthralled by the ability to run, climb and engage with the intricate architectural structures that filled the rooms. Adults and children alike were required to bend, twist and weave through the various spaces: the designs were deliberately interactive. One particular room Diébédo Francis Kéré was filled with a white honeycomb structure which the viewer contributed to by placing long coloured straws into the frame: you became the architect.

Diébédo Francis Kéré, Sensing Spaces installation, 2014. Photo: Royal Academy.

Diébédo Francis Kéré, Sensing Spaces installation, 2014. Photo: Royal Academy.

The tactile nature of the exhibition was particularly evident- no formal red rope to be found, and the multitude of shapes, textures and colours invited you to involve yourself with the works, participating in the exhibition as part of the artwork yourself. The bustle and excitement was catching (I still have smile lines on my face), and it was great to see people of all ages engaging with the works: the exhibition supplementing a creative outlet that is often repressed. Through the lack of guidance purposefully given by the Academy, you became part of the creation of the exhibition inhabiting the role of curator by choosing your own path through the spaces. Colours, light and dark, evoked an instant physical and emotional response and resulted in a feeling of awe and nostalgia for the aesthetic beauty in our world. You literally ‘sense’ the space you occupied. These reactions, be them positive or negative, confirms the importance of our environment, and the film screened in the final room allowed you to reflect upon this.

Kengo Kuma, Sensing Spaces installation, 2014. Photo: Royal Academy.

Kengo Kuma, Sensing Spaces installation, 2014. Photo: Royal Academy.

For me, this beautifully chaotic exhibit is what art should be about: creating an environment that is accessible and engaging, be that emotionally or physically. Whether the structures can be seen as “art” is, and I’m sure will be, debated, but I will say that if art is about education and the engagement with a visual medium, then for me this exhibition succeeded well and truly as art, not only through the interaction with the works but by compelling the public to question how space affects them, literally providing a space in which to acknowledge this. As one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a while, I would encourage people to visit it in its last week. If not I ask you simply to look upwards as you make your way to work, and to take in the beautiful natural and man-made structures that form the fabric of our national environment. The exhibition provided me with a day away from the stress of University life, viewing a side of the art world that I love. It quite simply evoked one reaction, which one excited child summed up perfectly: “This is awesome!”

(Charlotte Keeble, BA Art History, 2011-)

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