SPOILER ALERT! This review contains spoilers for Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, a magical experiential exhibition recently opened at the National Gallery of Art.
I add this warning as it is clear that the exhibition is best experienced with little expectations to be all the more wowed by its ingenuity. When approaching the Room 1 exhibition space, its contents remain a mystery. The introductory wall text only describes the painting featured, Jan Gossaert’s 1515 masterpiece The Adoration of the Kings, and the vaguely foreboding line “This exhibition was made differently.” When I asked the gallery attendant what this meant he simply said, “Come back in ten minutes and you will see for yourself.”
The 13 minute “experience” – perhaps a more appropriate definition than exhibition – is available every quarter hour for three to six visitors. One of my favorite things about Sensing the Unseen was its spontaneity. I saw it, was intrigued, and went in. No waiting in long, socially distanced lines or the need to book in advance. It felt like a revelation. Ah, the things that thrill us in the times of Covid.
Once inside, you view the painting for a few minutes while an attendant introduces it. You are then instructed to enter one of the three tent-like “pods,” which are structured for ideal social distancing. Standing on the center of the circle within your pod, a soundscape begins and the screen in front of you turns on. A disembodied voice instructs you on how to interact with the “experience” by waving your arm in front of you to zoom in as the video takes you through the painting. You also have the option to add sound descriptors to your screen; kudos to the National Gallery for prioritizing accessibility.
I’m not sure how long the film of the painting itself was, but it felt like a majestic eternity. I never wanted it to end. With extremely high definition, you slowly scan the painting, occasionally zooming in to a figure’s face or an angel’s wing to truly appreciate Gossaert’s incredible detail. The ability to activate this feature through the motion sensors keeps you engaged and attentive. The soundscape does an excellent job of taking you into the Biblical scene without being overbearing, as you hear the wind rustling and the whispers of the crowd around the infant Christ. The only aspect that bordered on kitsch was a few animations in the painting, such as weeds blowing in the wind or birds in the sky.
The exhibition takes Balthazar, the black king offering myrrh on the left hand side, as a focal point. As you lift your arm to zoom in on his face, a poem begins which expresses his thoughts on this crucial moment. This contemporary poem is by Theresa Lola, the 2019-2020 Young People’s Laureate for London. The use of the voice of a 26 year old woman to express the inner monologue of the aging king, rather than an actor reading Lola’s words, is surprising but exciting as it helps bring the painting into the 21st century. Furthermore, the choice of this painting and this specific figure, one of the very few black figures in the collection, and the collaboration with this British Nigerian poet shows that the National Gallery has recognized the importance of uplifting black voices. It was refreshing to see this social awareness in such a traditional institution.
The experience appropriately closes on the depiction of the Holy Spirit and the Star of Bethlehem at the top of the painting. As you exit the pods, you can take a few moments to relook at the painting itself. My only complaint is the lack of time at the end to get a good look at the painting itself and all the subtle elements that had just been revealed to you. I suppose in that way, however, Sensing the Unseen is very successful – you are left wanting more.
When I first heard about this exhibition , I immediately thought “here we go, another corny light show or movie.” But despite my initial reaction, I was pleasantly surprised. Sensing the Unseen is above all an experiment in close looking, totally immersing you in the world of The Adoration of the Kings as you see, listen, and move with the details of the painting. I would be excited to see this exhibition space remain in this format for some time, with revolving experimental exhibitions to see just how this new kind of viewing can be applied to various works in the permanent collection.
You can see Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’ at the National Gallery of Art (Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN), pending government regulations, from 9 December 2020 – 28 February 2021.
Artwork by Hollie Joiner