Total Eclipse of the Senses: Experiencing a Gesamtkunstwerk

Total Eclipse of the Senses: Experiencing a Gesamtkunstwerk

Art is experienced through the body as it is through the mind. Exhibitions and performances which are intended to engage one’s whole sensory apparatus have been around since at least the 19th century, and the number of cultural producers designing for this sort of total-sense-experience has only increased as mediums become exponentially more sophisticated with time and technological advancement. The idea that a work of art could be designed to be experienced as a composite of artforms working together to produce a cohesive artistic whole holds a great deal of fascination for both creators and audiences. The word for this concept is Gesamtkunstwerk, a German term that roughly translated to mean “total work of art”, “total artwork,” or “total design,” and generally refers to the synthesis of many artforms within one object, place, or performance.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are walking down a long pier towards a low-hanging cloud above the waters of a lake. It’s a grey day: the sky overcast, the water hammered pewter, and the air heavy with the promise of rain. Tendrils of mist eddy and drift, reaching towards you as you get closer to the end of the pier. A slight shift in the wind drags some of the cloud-cover away, revealing the underlaying lattice of steel beams that compose the building under the cloud; the building that is creating the cloud. You keep walking towards it, and see other people are on the structure. The wind shifts again, this time dragging the mist back over the building and the closer you get the less you see until, suddenly, you are inside the cloud. The noise of the fog nozzles creating the mist is a powerful static in your ears, foreclosing almost all other sound. The haze thickens and you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you. The bodies of the other people are unreliable blurs fazing in and out of sight. The air inside the cloud is heavy and wet where it touches you. This space affects your senses: sight, sound, touch. You are completely disoriented, your fundamental understanding of how your bodily senses operate has been undone.

Figure 2  – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Storm Room, Sept. 10, 2009, taken by Tomomi Sasaki, Permission: License CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Or: imagine, for a moment, that you are inside a gallery, and as you turn a corner you find a small house inside the next white room. Fascinated, you step inside the small building-within-a-building and it’s like stepping into another world. The space is a tiled room, with opaque, paned, windows with curtains along the walls and a sink at the far end. It’s subtle, but suddenly you notice that the light seems dimmer. You are moving deeper into the room when a flicker of light illuminates the space and, startled, you pause uncertain what just happened. That is, until the bone-deep rumble of thunder echoes around you. Then the rain starts: water starts to drip from the ceiling, and beads of rain trace the windows. You, and any other gallery-goers stop—some will lean against the back wall, some will slink down to the crouch on the floor—and watch avidly as the storm builds around you, the lightning always followed by thunder, each flicker and crack iteratively closer and closer together. The atmosphere inside the tiny room is hushed; if anyone speaks, it’s a whisper. You know this is simulated, you do, but as the storm builds in intensity there’s real rain cascading down the walls and real leaks in the ceiling, and as the thought of this room is very small strays through your head, the razor-thin edge of unease you feel is very real.

Both scenarios I described above are real, the first an amalgamation of contemporary accounts from visitors to the Swiss Pavilion at the 2002 World Expo hosted in Neuenberg, Blur, designed by the art-architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The second scenario is my first-hand experience at the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installation, Storm Room (2009), shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2014. Both are strong examples of the gesamtkunstwerk, which is a wide enough conceptual umbrella to house both an exposition pavilion and a gallery installation because, at their core, both experiences are about a space where a total aesthetic system activates the imagination.

Aside from the poetic parallels, what Blur and Storm Room have in common is the way in which they make a concentrated effort to direct the viewer’s senses through a synthesis of various artistic forms, aided at times by environmental systems of control. Through this exertion of control, both installations create a larger aesthetic framework for the artwork to reside within.

The term was first popularized by the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner, when he used it in several of his essays to discuss his ideas surrounding the unification of the arts, in response to the mass consumer culture that was developing out of Industrialization of the late 1800s. The idea became integral to the way he staged his operas, which became total storytelling environments, and is something we still see influencing modern Operatic productions like those at the Bregenz Festival in Austria, which has become known for its elaborate stage environments and sumptuous narrative spectacle.

Figure 3 – Carmen 2017, Bregenz festival, Austria, August 20, 2017, taken by wolf4maxm, Permission: License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Though now at a significant remove from these operatic roots, the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk has evolved alongside contemporary mass culture production of the 20th and 21st century. It is now most often used within an arts context to refer artistic productions which use a wide range of different styles, mediums and processes to produce the final cultural product. Examples of this can be found in architecture, film, mass media installations, and entertainment complexes. In NGX’s own oeuvre many of our works would fall under the concept, and a particularly good example is our work on the recent Hamilton: The Exhibition, which, with its mix of digital interactives, media and art installations, and musical theater elements, is an excellent example of a modern-day gesamtkunstwerk.

Figure 4 – Hamilton: The Exhibition, Interactive table installation

Typically, gesamtkunstwerk are not solitary experiences, but rather designed to be experienced by the audience as a collective: think the opera or theme park; public artwork or building; exhibition or cinema. All of these spaces can encourage a sense of interconnection within the audience, and act on the senses first. As such, the gesamtkunstwerk can also be translated as the “communal work of art,” a translation which foregrounds the connection between art and mass culture. This aspect discussed by Matthew Wilson Smith, and his 2007 book The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace, where he argues that the significance of the total work of art lies in how “the concept includes all of these ideas, for it is an art-form as much about collectivity as about unity, about community as about totality.” (Smith, pp. 8-9)

However, totality can be a double-edged blade. In constantly striving for unity among the assemblage of many different parts and mediums, the gesamtkunstwerk risks flattening or absorbing any elements that refuse to fit into this aesthetic framework. Therefore, the total work of art occupies both the best and the worst aspects of an ideological aesthetic system while it continually strives for a unification of disparate parts. On the one hand, when done with care, it can create experiences of astounding beauty and impact. On the other hand, when done carelessly (or callously) it can slide all too quickly from a total aesthetic system, into a totalizing system of control which precludes the individualistic nature of experience, flattening it across groups, to promote a single unified ideological view.

The gesamtkunstwerk is a system always in tension: it can be humane or oppressive, but the total artwork is never a solution to the problems of technology, ideology, mass culture and modernization, but rather a symptom of those tensions. While it is undeniable that the gesamtkunstwerk is a system of tensions, it is still a powerful organizing framework for creating meaningful engagement with cultural and artistic productions.

Figure 5 – The Montreal Biosphere

You can see an example of this in action in the work NGX produced for the Montreal Biosphere. Working closely with the museum, NGX and our partners helped to produce an exhibition that introduced the audience to the interconnectedness of urban environments, but created an interpretive exhibition space that was immersive and experiential through the use of graphic art, projection animation, and interactive digital media. Each component of the exhibition demands that the other rise to meet it, and together, all these individual parts created a richness of experience that they could not alone: total work of art, total work of design.

There is no denying the gesamtkunstwerk is an incredibly powerful framework for the production of experiential art. As has been amply demonstrated by the examples above, the total work of art provides a scaffolding for a wide range of artistic forms, from exposition pavilion to gallery installation to musical performance. The total work of art allows for immersive, imaginative experiences. Human fascination with total bodily experience will only increase as our access to technologies and techniques which make sensory immersion more complete, and more easily accessible. As such, it becomes the responsibility of artists to produce total artworks consciously and contentiously. Ultimately, gesamtkunstwerk are an opportunity to bring to our audiences’ experiences that they have never encountered, and possibly never even imagined they could encounter.


Esme Cunningham

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