Ann Veronica Janssens’ ‘yellowbluepink’ is the latest immersive exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. It is a room filled with an artificial mist coloured by light boxes around the edge of the space. By overwhelming the primary sense of sight the work plays with our ideas of perception - how you look at something and how you see it. ‘yellowbluepink’ does not overawe the viewer by pictographically depicting the sublime - it turns the participant’s eye inward to focus on an ‘inner immensity’, to borrow a phrase from Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’. The curators suggest that once our senses are tuned into our inner lives, we will learn something new, profound and great about how our own minds work. ‘yellowbluepink’ is a work without edges contained within a defined space, as our minds defy the confinement of our brains.
On a truly miserable winter morning there is nothing lovelier than entering this giant misty womb, though the effect of the artwork is initially overwhelming. As I enter the room through the double door ‘airlock’ the mist feels like it’s pressing on my eyeballs. I am enveloped in a world of suspended animation and the beautiful diffused light gets all my photosensitive neurons snapping. The bodily change of colour as I move through the space is extraordinary - I’m cool in the blue, warm in the lush apricot. I feel the artwork rather than look at it. Shadowy figures materialise or disappear and there is a sense of being suspended in this mist in much the same way scientific specimens are preserved in glass jars of fluid. There is a disorientation and lightness that comes from feeling completely un-anchored, even if the skirting board comes into view as I drift towards the wall. The problem for me at these immersive works, ones that generate queues and Instagram hashtags, is always other people. Janssens is asking us to examine the difference between being conscious and having a consciousness. And, perhaps I would have found a totally different state of mind, if others hadn’t been so loud about accessing theirs.
Janssens’ interactive sculptures investigate the porous borders between inside and out, she plays with rules of architecture, questioning what can be and what it means to be ‘housed’. And, her work often takes inspiration from the technical or scientific. The Wellcome hosts many works that agitate the definitions between art and science - you only have to think of the discovery of the prism to realise that light and colour are as emotive as they are scientific. And deeper than that, science is never simply pragmatic, art is never simply emotive, both disciplines seek to gain ontological understanding of human experience. We might be able to locate consciousness in a mass of tissue and membrane (which, by the way, you can view dissected and preserved as you explore the permanent collection), but, as Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘The Brain - is wider than the Sky’.