Ideasthesia: A Multisensory Installation by Owen Brown

August-September 2015
SOMArts (pop-up exhibition by Meridian Gallery), San Francisco

In this special fundraising exhibition, San Francisco artist Owen Brown explores the complexity of perception with a multi-sensory, interactive installation that asks, “How do ideas feel?”

Owen Brown, North 3, 2015

Owen Brown, North 4, 2015

Ideasthesia: A Multisensory Installation by Owen Brown

Ideasthesia: A Multisensory Installation by Owen Brown


Owen Brown’s North 3, one of twenty drawings to appear in Ideasthesia, is at first glance a simple image. Comprised mostly of untouched vellum, the drawing features a number of fine lines that guide my eye across the page in a visual loop, from top to bottom, left to right, around and around a circular path of red, purple, and yellow. But as I allow my eyes wander, to stray from this path, I notice more: more lines, more colors, more textures, more depth. Forms appear, ghostlike. Details surface. I soon realize that these lines are as crisp and confident as they are fine and delicate. Their colors are vibrant yet soft; bolder here, fainter there. As I hold the semi-transparent vellum up to the light of my window, it becomes bright yet hazy, vivid yet muted. With time, I see that this is not a simple image, but one that is imbued with the tension of duality. It is inherently multiple and layered; a filter of its surroundings, rather than a self-contained image. Even its title suggests multiplicity, as both a pairing (North/south) and a grouping (North 1North 2, and North 4).  

This layered multiplicity reverberates throughout Ideasthesia, Meridian Gallery’s first pop-up exhibition. The North series hangs alongside four other groups of vellum drawings whose titles, like North, evoke second halves: Birth/death, Breath/stillness, Known/unknown, Found/lost. These drawings are surrounded by their magnified reproductions, as Brown printed each image onto a transparency film so that they could be projected, in thin stacks, onto the expansive gallery walls to create immense composite images – murals made of light. Framed by the faint scents by nearby perfume accords (which can be combined by viewers into a variety of fragrances), and set against a poetic sound collage (comprised of viewers’ self-recorded vocals), the drawings are enveloped in a multisensory experience. 

By transforming his drawings into composite light images and complementing them with olfactory and auditory stimuli (with the help of his collaborators, perfumer Michael “Mik” Coyle and poet Emily Wolahan), Brown challenges the viewer to engage with his work in uncommon and unexpected ways. We are not asked to simply look at the vellum drawings; we are also asked to create new imagery by flipping, stacking, and rotating their corresponding groups of transparencies, manipulating the surface of the overhead projector to build new compositions on the walls in front of us. We do not simply smell the perfumes or listen to the sound collage; we create our own scents and record our own voices. We experience as we give shape to Ideasthesia.  

In this way, the exhibition enacts ideasthesia as a theory of perception.  Ideasthesia contends that sights, sounds, and smells are not simply interpreted by the brain; rather, the ways in which we experience these stimuli are informed by our understanding of the world. Thoughts and sensations are deeply intertwined. With Ideasthesia, the viewer does not passively interpret sensory stimuli, but rather interprets stimuli that s/he actively shapes.  

The interactive quality of this exhibition also opens up new possibilities of meaning and interpretation. As I flip, turn, stack and rearrange a group of transparencies, the resulting projections move at every flick of my wrist and every touch of my fingertip. The images pulse with life. I begin to see things I did not see before. My mind wanders. Brown expresses a desire to encourage storytelling with his work, and he does; as I layer North 3 on top of North 1, 2, and 4, I see the familiar and the strange, and my imagination ignites. 

North 3 is not a simple image. But Brown’s transformations of this image – multiplying it, layering it, framing it with sound and scent – position the viewer in a web of sensory experiences that may prompt complex mental associations and open up new modes of viewership. 

- Catalogue text by Pamela Grombacher