Independent Research, Research Practices

Affect: how do we communicate the ineffable?


Affect is something which is not easy to express in language, because it is a unique type occurrence. It is primary, visceral and happens before our cognitive powers have the time to rationalise. Affect is a bodily experience and seems to involve a certain exchange of energies over which we have no control.The affect of an object or work of art on a viewer operates outside cognition and can cause a physical as well as mental reaction.

discussing 'affect' at the Glucksman Gallery
Discussing ‘affect’ at the Glucksman Gallery, Cork

I have had two of these intense experiences with paintings to date, the most profound of which happened in 2006 when I visited the ‘Holbein in England’ exhibition at the Tate Britain. There was a long que, and when I finally got inside the exhibition space it was very full and bustling. I was fascinated by Holbein and was very glad to be there, despite the large numbers of other people, I was completely in awe of the huge accomplishment and skill of this artist.
It was when I found myself standing in front of the famous painting, ‘Christina of Denmark’ that I experienced absolute ‘affect’. It was an experience of an ‘in between state’ and I transported in time, as though I was face to face with a breathing soul, I physically felt a strong energy which made a connection with me on a very deep level, and its memory has remained with me ever since. I can only describe it as a sort of ‘knowing’, perhaps close to the experience of enlightenment.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538, oil on oak, 179.1 x 82.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)
Christina of Denmark, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538

In contrast, I was attracted to the Rothko exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2011.A large amount of media promotion surrounded the show and the ‘affect’ of Rothko’s work was almost advertised.  but  I wasn’t fully aware of the affect these paintings had on me until long after. I  went on the paint a huge Rothko inspired painting, which I called “don’t try to stop me”. 

Innern space, Mark Rothko
Inner space … the Mark Rothko room at London’s Tate Modern. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

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