Essay by Sandra Flores as part of Contextualising Practice course.



Contemporary Western thought has been gradually giving the body a more central role (Voparil & Giordano 2015). This somatic turn responds both to recent scientific discoveries and to the devastating consequences of our dualistic mindset. A mindset that creates oppositional categories that distance us from the world and bodies we inhabit. This essay will discuss the power of aesthetics as a tool for a whole-body lived experience, both within the arts and in life. The text is divided into a series of chapters where I navigate personal experiences and the resulting artwork through this lens. Initially, some historical context will be provided. The following first chapter will discuss John Dewey’s pivotal text Art as Experience. The second chapter will broaden the limits of our bodies and senses. The final chapter will discuss the concept of atmospheres as possible sites for shared embodied meaning, paying close attention to Olafur Eliasson’s work.



Mind-Body Dualism has a long history in Western thought, with roots in Platonism and René Descartes. In its most prevalent instance dualism argues that the mental and the physical are separate and unmixable. Under this belief, the mental (consciousness) can exist outside of the body, and bodies are incapable of thinking. Through philosophy and religion, this ideology has permeated many aspects of society creating hierarchies between humans, nature, individuals and society (Robinson 2020).

The destructive effects of such a way of thinking can be seen in fragmented, unequal societies (where some are seen as being more “primitive” than others) and in the extractive treatment of our environment. A contemporary reaction to this is epistemology is what has been called “the somatic turn”, where scientists, philosophers and artists alike are placing the body at the forefront. The most recent exponents of this turn to the body include those working within exciting new fields, such as New-Materialism, the Affective Turn and Posthumanism (Voparil 2015). This essay will focus on the more pragmatist versions of this somatic turn.




Black scribbles on a white background

Perú, dysfunctional and wonderful
A mess with hidden gems
A social project
our own
Art and music
Lots of shared moments
Experiences domain
Humanity is broader, expansive, effervescent
una sala, un salón


My reconnection of the power of art restarted with La Sala Salón, a social project I ran in my birthplace, Perú, from 2009 to 2012. The project’s goal was to ‘share humanity’. It did so through open music jams and art experiences, where we would gather goods and volunteers for other projects. It manifested the democratic potential that shared experiences have, especially when they involve co-creating art and music. So far it has been one of my most truly loved moments, and I believe it has stayed with me, permeating my work.

A group of people sit around tables. There is a motion blurr as if the event is very busy.
Figure 1: La Sala Salón by Sandra Flores, 2010, social practice.

The American philosopher John Dewey is a strong believer in the power of shared aesthetic experiences. His anti-dualism places embodied humans deeply within nature and society (Jeffcoat 2015). Here, art has a central role as the most universal and freest means of communication formed by the common qualities of the public world. Art, he says, extends the power of the ceremonial, bringing people (and nature) together through conviviality and shared celebration. Hence, he asserts, art makes humans aware of our union with each other both in origin and destiny (Dewey 1934). These observations were made in a series of lectures that ended up forming his opus magnum – Art as Experience (1934), a text that is crucial in the discussion of embodied aesthetic experience. The text’s main argument is that the concept of art should not limit itself to the fetishised. We should consider art as a dynamic aesthetic experience, part of everyday life (Shusterman 2000). According to Dewey with sufficient focus, art, skill and life could become a living being’s supreme artwork. This pursuit of the art of living would have the potential to improve the world by becoming a recipe to transform all activity into aesthetics (Stroud 2014). According to Dewey, this could also be expanded to the political realm – aesthetic experience could work as a model for lived democracy that has consummation, closure, fulfilment, and inclusion as its telos. But this would only be realised after three fundamental changes. First, art would have to renounce the elite world of private galleries and museums and join ordinary people in their daily lives. This is where an aesthetically lived life would “overcome the gap between means and ends and abet the inclusion of the many in the pleasures heretofore enjoyed only by the few” (Jay 2002, p. 56). Second, aesthetic experience would no longer be understood as being innately contemplative and spectatorial. Third and finally, aesthetic/artistic experience is a whole-body endeavour, not just for the mind (Jay 2002).

Richard Shusterman built on this to create somaesthetics, a multidisciplinary field of inquiry that places the body at its core. He defines it as “the critical study and meliorative cultivation of the body as the site of sensory appreciation (aesthesis) and creative self-fashioning ” (2018, p. 1).  According to somaesthetics the body is our site of sensorial experience, and we have the power to improve it by cultivating our somatic capacities, which include our sensorimotor skills and the potential of our consciousness (Shusterman 2018).  The philosopher Mark Johnson (2015) also reminds us that humans are (deeply complex, inherently social) embodied animals and consequently, all our sensorial aesthetic experiences are, in essence, visceral and animalistic.




A line drawing of a nude laying down on a pillow

A statue
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires
A statue
Down the basement, to the left
The statue
Had braille, said
Touch me you may


The division we have made between mind and body has also given rise to the privileging of sight above all other senses. Sight (and hearing to a lesser extent) belong to what has long been associated with the realm of the mind/spirit, whilst smell, taste and touch have been relegated to what’s material, animalistic and primitive. As Hegel elaborates in his 1975, Aesthetics: Lectures in Fine Art (p.35):

“[T]he sensuous aspect of art is related only to the two theoretical senses of sight and hearing, while smell, taste and touch remain excluded from the enjoyment of art. For smell, taste and touch have to do with matter as such and its immediately sensible qualities – smell with material volatility in air, taste with the material liquefaction of objects, touch with warm, cold, smoothness, etc.”

Textile balls and sticks hang from a white wall
Figure 2: Fruticetum by Sandra Flores, 2018, mixed-media sculpture.

However, if we want to discuss embodied art, we must broaden our understanding of our sensorial bodies even further. Sarah Robinson works in neuroarchitecture; an emerging field dedicated to applying neurosciences to built spaces. She co-edited the book Mind in Architecture with the eminent architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa. In her chapter Nested Bodies (2017), Robinson expands our concept of the body through quantum physics and neuroscience, exposing a permeable, overlapping and profoundly interconnected reality. We can find many mind-blowing (quite literally) pieces of scientific evidence for this. For instance, the biomagnetic field of our hearts expands indefinitely into space, growing dimmer but never measurably ending. Some instruments can detect the biomagnetic field of a human heart from 4.5 metres away.  And then, of course, there is our mind. Experts in many fields have come to the consensus that all our mental activities at least partly emerge from a myriad of electrochemical interplays within our bodies (Robinson 2017). But, to truly move away from “the disembodied mind of an isolated individual, toward the incarnation of meaning through the interaction of embodied beings actively engaged in their environments and with each other” (Robinson 2017, p. 141) we need to realise and reinstate the power of our bodies.

My piece Fruticetum (2018) was made with such intention in mind. It is a soft sculpture, meant to be experienced both with our eyes open and closed. It consists of a series of black interconnected spheres and cylinders with buttons and fabrics attached to their outer surface. More buttons and beads hang from threads. These spheres are attached to wool-covered sticks that hang from the gallery ceiling, placing the piece at body height. Yellow, white, gold and hot pink details give it chromatic cohesiveness. However, once visitors approach Fruticetum they find a sign inviting them to close their eyes and walk around the piece whilst touching, smelling and listening closely. This reveals other dimensions: the touch of nylon or silk, the crackling noises of its fillings (plastic, paper, aluminium foil), or the buttons’ various sizes and textures (wood, leather, metal, shell). If you get close enough you may smell orange, lemon or eucalyptus. You may accidentally bump into the piece and try to find your way back. Or you might feel observed or judged, whilst breaking the mould of what is expected to be done in an art gallery space.

Then, there is the sensation you get, the somersault in your guts, the electricity in the air, your friends, the wine heating your veins. When Robinson discusses our senses, she ends up listing a sixth one: atmospheric recognition, which according to Juhani Pallasmaa is our most primordial tool for (communal) experience and survival.




Black lines squiggled on a white background

And atmospheres
And being purely in the moment
Body pulsations, heat, sparks, connection
Tingling, soft
Bright and opaque and a smell you need to name
Everything and nothing
Nothing and no-one
Every-thing and no-thing at all


Gernot Böhme is a pivotal figure in the field of atmospheres. He defines them as spaces with a mood, or emotionally felt spaces (2014). They are, he asserts, entities that mediate objective aspects of the environment with human aesthetic feelings (2016). So, the way we bodily feel in an environment depends greatly on such an atmosphere. He uses weather atmospheres as an example. For instance, we can think about the feeling we get from the darkening sky when a thunderstorm approaches.

When discussing atmospheres in terms of embodied art experience there are few artists as articulate as Olafur Eliasson. In a conversation he has with both Böhme and Pallasmaa (as well as professor Christian Borch) he confirms the power of atmospheres as active and productive agents: “[w]hen you introduce atmosphere into a space, it becomes a reality machine” (2014, p. 93). In this, he confirms Böhme’s belief that atmospheres can be produced as stage settings for a myriad of purposes (Borch 2014). Amongst more pervasive uses (such as marketing and what is known as the “experience economy”) they have great potential within the arts. An example could be Eliasson’s 2006-2011 piece Your Rainbow Panorama where visitors are prompted to walk inside a rainbow-coloured 360-degree walkway, one colour at a time, whilst witnessing the cityscape morphing into distinct colour zones. As they walk around, the visitors quickly grasp with their entire bodies how the colours influence their experience. As Eliasson once declared: “the colours are not just something you see the city through. You also feel them with your body” (Bukdahl 2018, p. 61). Eliasson’s projects reflect a fresh understanding of both atmospheres and the body’s roles within the arts.

My piece Solace (2020) originated from a prompt to create a phenomenological stage, which soon evolved into an embodied atmosphere. The lights are out. From the outside, Solace resembles a cylindrical sheen purple tent. The tent is over 2.5 meters high and 6 meters in diameter. There is a path of pink dust and sand guiding you to the entrance, an open gap between two sheets of fabric. Once you are inside you follow the path toward a round purple cushion on the floor. After you sit down you can start focusing on the space around you. The floor is covered with sand, dust and gravel. On top of it, there are metal plains and spherical glass bowls, containing different mounds of dust. There are equidistant gelatinous (agar) spherical lights against the walls of the tent, creating shadows and a sense of warmth, like a futuristic open fire. To your right, there is a semi-transparent cube with a sphere inside it, steam rising from its top. The space smells familiar (chamomille); you feel at peace, whole, somehow both inside and outside, yet in communion with it all. Solace echoes Eliasson echoing Dewey: “[t]he experience of an artwork is part of the experience of the world and not autonomous. Ideally, stepping into a work of art means taking a step closer to the world, rather than stepping away from the world” (Bukdahl 2018, p. 66).

Bright lights sit on the ground lighting the side of a tent
Figure 3: Solace by Sandra Flores, 2020, mixed-media sculptural installation.

In a 2018 conversation with Else Marie Bukdahl, a specialist in the somaesthetics of visual art, Eliasson discusses the central place body consciousness and embodied experience have in his work. First, he shares the somaesthetic belief that bodies learn from various layers of experience where they both shape and are shaped. To illustrate this, he refers to his term ‘felt-feeling’, which the artist ascribes to our more primitive animal nature. Eliasson believes art has great potential if we are daring enough to trust that ‘felt-feeling’, or felt meaning, without trying to put it into words or quantify it. As he asserts: “[b]ut so much of it is experience that is strongly felt. It is not just how I personally feel about the artwork; it is also about what the feeling feels like” (Bukdahl 2018, p. 69). Once again this reverberates with Dewey’s description of aesthetic experiences as consummatory and in possession of a qualitative feeling which both makes them stand out from and merge with the everyday (Maleki 2014).

Perhaps a starting point to a truly embodied life would be to follow Eliasson’s advice (Bukdahl 2018, p. 59):

“It is necessary to unlearn space in order to embody space. It is necessary to unlearn how we see in order to see with our bodies. It is necessary to unlearn knowledge of our body in three dimensions in order to recover the real dimensionality of our body.”



The consequences of our western dualistic mindset are evident in society, politics, the environment and the way we experience our daily lives. This binary way of thinking actively reinforces the normative hegemony that advances inequalities in society. Embracing our embodied selves reveals how relative and permeable reality is, and how interdependent it is with its environment. Art can provide the opportunity for rich bodily aesthetic experiences that blur such binaries whilst bettering ourselves and society. In his seminal work Art as Experience, John Dewey provides a way of existing in a world that is filled with shared deep meaning. Richard Shusterman takes his approach even further with Somaesthetics, a multidisciplinary field of research that helps redefine embodied experience. If we broaden the boundaries of our bodies even further, we attune to atmospheres and how they affect us. Atmospheres can be staged for a myriad of purposes, but in the arts, they can be our accomplices towards powerful communal aesthetic encounters.  In this text, I have illustrated the power of the consequent ‘felt-feelings’ both in Olafur Eliasson’s art and my own.



Böhme, G 2016, ‘Introduction’ in JP Thibaud (ed.), The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, Taylor & Francis Group, London, pp.1-8.

Borch, C 2014, ‘Atmospheres, Art, Architecture A Conversation between Gernot Böhme, Christian Borch, Olafur Eliasson & Juhani Pallasmaa’, in C Borch (ed.), Architectural Atmospheres: On the Experience and Politics of Architecture. Birkhäuser, Basel, Switzerland, pp.90-107

Bukdahl, EM 2018, ‘Olafur Eliasson, Art as Embodied and Interdisciplinary Experience: In Dialogue with Else Marie Bukdahl’ in R Shusterman (ed.), Aesthetic Experience and Somaesthetics, BRILL, Leiden, The Netherlands, pp.59-70.

Dewey, J 1934, Art as Experience, Minton, Balch & Co, NY.

Eliasson, O 2006-2011, Your Rainbow Panorama, sculptural installation, Olafur Eliasson, viewed 4 June 2022, <>.

Flores, S 2018, Fruticetum, mixed-media sculpture, Sandra Flores, viewed 25 May 2022, <>.

Flores, S 2010, La Sala Salón, social practice, La Sala Salón, viewed 26 May 2022, <>.

Flores, S 2020, Solace, mixed-media sculptural installation, La Sala Salón, viewed 24 May 2022, <>.

Hegel, GWF 1975, Aesthetics: Lectures in Fine Art, Clarendon University Press, Oxford, p. 35.

Jay, M 2002, ‘Somaesthetics and Democracy: Dewey and Contemporary Body Art’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol.26, no. 4, pp. 55-69.

Jeffcoat, T 2015, ‘Ecological Embodiment, Tragic Consciousness, and the Aesthetics of Possibility: Creating an Art of Living’, in A Scarinzi (ed.), Aesthetics and the Embodied Mind: Beyond Art Theory and the Cartesian Mind-Body Dichotomy, 1st ed, Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, pp. 71-84

Johnson, M 2015, ‘The Aesthetics of Embodied Life ‘, in A Scarinzi (ed.), Aesthetics and the Embodied Mind: Beyond Art Theory and the Cartesian Mind-Body Dichotomy, 1st ed, Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, pp. 23-38.

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Perulla, N 2017,  ‘Can Cuisine Be Art? A Philosophical (and Heterodox) Proposal’, in S Bottinelli and VM d’Ayala (eds), The Taste of Art : Cooking, Food, and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices, University of Arkansas Press, AR, USA, pp. 23-44.

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Robinson, S 2017, ‘Nested Bodies’ in S Robinson and J Pallasmaa (eds), Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment and the Future of Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp.  137-159.

Shusterman, R 2018, ‘Introduction: Aesthetic Experience and Somaesthetics’ in R Shusterman (ed.), Aesthetic Experience and Somaesthetics, BRILL, Leiden, The Netherlands, pp. 1-12.

Shusterman, R 2000, Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Arts, Cornell University Press, NY, p. 22.

Stroud, SR 2014, ‘The Art of Experience: Dewey on the Aesthetic’, in W Małecki (ed.), Practicing Pragmatist Aesthetics : Critical Perspectives on the Arts, BRILL, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, pp. 33-46.

Studio Olafur Eliasson GmbH n.d., Your Rainbow Panorama, Studio Olafur Eliasson GmbH, viewed 3 June 2022, <>.

Voparil, CJ & Giordano, J 2015, ‘Pragmatism and the Somatic Turn: Shusterman’s Somaesthetics and Beyond’, Metaphilosophy, vol. 46, no.1, pp. 141–161.

Essay – My Art as Experience: embodied meaning within my practice