Invisible Sculptures

Illustrated by Rui An

Artist Yeseul Song challenges sighted people's dependence on vision with a series of sculptures that can only be “seen” using senses other than sight.


Vision is the most dominant sense, for most sighted humans. And we have become even more dependent on our seeing with the advent of digital technologies. Computers, smartphones, and other technologies with a screen have become primary tools we most use when it comes to work, entertainment and social lives. We probably spend half our lives looking at digital displays. When we are in front of the screens for information or to interact with other people, our existence is simplified down to a pair of eyes, a set of fingers, and a brain. Even though hearing can occasionally assist the interaction with sound effects and background music, it is not as prominent as seeing. The other sensory abilities such as olfactory, tactile and gustatory seem to fall away or “disappear.”

What are we missing when seeing becomes our foremost sense in how we are perceiving the world? Sight leaves us a very small room for interpretation and imagination. When we see, it is easy to conclude that the visual reality of the world is the reality for everything that is. However, our vision is actually a limited ability. Sighted humans can only see a sliver of the whole electromagnetic spectrum (wavelengths from about 390 to 700 nanometers) and most of the waves around us including radio waves, microwaves, and X-rays are completely invisible to the human eye. According to evolutionary science(1), sight is the most recent acquisition in our sensory toolkit and mammals have lost their color acuity as we have adapted a nocturnal strategy.

Seeing is just one way of interpreting the world. When you close your eyes, you can feel the other senses waking up from a long sleep to allow you to perceive the world differently. The ambient sound in the room is recognized now, along with the warmth of the sunlight coming through a window and the subtle fragrance of clean laundry. While humans rely on sight as a primary door to perception, not all animals hold the same sensory bias. Elephants, for example, flap their ears and rumble at very low frequencies to communicate with each other. Their feet and trunks are sensitive enough to pick up the vibrations made by other elephants even from a distance. 

The reliance on seeing also dominates the art world. Visual art is the most prevailing form of expression in that world, and the way people engage with it is, obviously, by looking at it. As an artist, I have been wondering if there is a more sensory inclusive view of the world, by experiencing it through other senses such as olfactory, auditory, tactile, and gustatory senses. What if the act of seeing actually doesn’t say anything to the brain when interacting with an object? Is it possible to perceive an object that cannot be seen?

Invisible Sculptures 

My project, Invisible Sculptures, is an experiment that challenges human perception with sculptures that can only be “seen” using every sense except sight. The audience is invited to incorporate various sensory abilities to feel the space above a row of five plinths. They are encouraged to use their body and imagination to interact with the five invisible sculptures made of sound, heat, airflow, and smell.

Figure 1. Installation sketch for the five invisible sculptures made of invisible materials: sound, heat, airflow, and smell. Courtesy of the artist.

The first two sculptures are made of sound. I designed Sculpture I based on the shape of a hollow sphere floating in mid-air. To experience the work, the audience uses their hands to explore the area above the plinth as they listen to corresponding sounds through their headphones. They will soon learn to utilize all of their senses and discover the connection between where their hands are and what they hear. As a visitor’s hands touch and move through the surface of the invisible sphere, they hear a resonant sound of hands touching a hollow sphere made of thin and durable glass, defining the boundaries of the invisible sphere.

Sculpture II is a stack of three invisible discs of increasing size. The visitor hears a ringing sound when their hands touch or pass through the discs. In this piece, silence is meant to suggest negative space. When the visitor positions their hands in between two floating discs, the absence of audio through the headphones suggests that this particular space is not occupied by the sculpture. The audio is localized for the audience based on which hand they are using; when the sculpture is touched by the right hand, the sound plays from the right side of the headphones; when the left hand is used, it triggers the left channel; both hands trigger stereo sound.

Sculpture III is made of heat. The audience is invited to feel the heated air on top of a podium to discover the form of the sculpture. A thermal camera is installed to provide some visual information. When a physical surface comes in contact with the heated air, the camera registers the infrared energy into visual signals. As a visitor moves their hands around the heat sculpture, they can see different colors on their hands, based on which part of the sculpture they are interacting with. 

Sculpture IV is made of airflow. A continuous airflow is moving upward through a channel and emitted from an opening, creating a long, cylinder-shaped sculpture. 

Sculpture V exudes a horrible odor, which makes people want to stay away from it, creating a definite border that no one wants to cross. The audience, standing away from the sculpture to avoid the smell, is what makes the boundary of the sculpture perceivable. This sculpture was made as a remembrance of a large smell sculpture that I created in public with an open durian I brought to the Grand Central Station in New York (Figure 2). After carrying the durian fruit around for one and a half hours in the station, I was able to create a large sculpture—an empty space around me in the middle of the crowd which included several people who, at various moments, frowned at me and walked away.

Figure 2. Large smell sculpture made with a durian fruit at the Grand Central Station. Courtesy of the artist.
Video documentation of Invisible Sculptures. Courtesy of the artist.

Making Invisibles Visible

After the audience experienced Invisible Sculptures at a show, they were invited to make physical versions of the sculptures using clay (Figure 3). “Visible” sculptures collected from the participants filled an entire table (Figure 4). Although people experienced the same sculptures, they each had different shapes in their mind. The sculptures have been translated through each audience member’s perception, and each translation is unique.

Figure 3. An audience is making a clay version of one of the invisible sculptures. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 4. Clay versions of the invisible sculptures made by the audience. Courtesy of the artist.

More than one third of the people who made a clay version for Sculpture I shaped their clay into a sphere (Figure 5), which is close to what I had in mind when I made the invisible sculpture. Some people, on the other hand, made shapes that were drastically different from a sphere.

Figure 5. Some of the clay sculptures of Sculpture I made by the participants. Courtesy of the artist.

The trend was similar for the other sculptures in the series. Some participants made shapes similar to what I intended to make, while others had different forms in their minds. The representations of the smell sculpture showed the largest range of variety. Someone even bit into the clay to express the smell and taste they felt from the sculpture (Figure 6).

Figure 6. A clay version of Sculpture V made by an audience. Courtesy of the artist.

Sculptures That Are Alive

Unlike the familiar scene of people hustling through art on the wall at art museums, the audience at my show actively engaged with the sculptures for a significant amount of time. They activated their senses, brain and imagination to see the invisible sculptures. Many people kept their eyes closed while delicately waving their hands over the podiums, deducing that vision isn’t involved with “seeing” the invisible sculptures.

Each of my invisible sculptures became a living creature with its own life and autonomy. Each audience member was given the opportunity to interpret through their imagination how each sculpture “looked,” due in part, to the fact that I had none of the usual control over how an artwork might be presented. As a result, that unspoken trust in collaboration, made everyone a part of my artwork. In a way, while the idea for the art may have been mine, the collaboration means that is not only mine anymore. The sculptures are free, in that regard, independently interacting with the audience, like other living creatures do.

I remember, vividly, looking at each clay sculpture the audience created for a long time in the empty gallery after everyone left. Many of them were made with care and deliberation—inspired by the act of remembering, then representing what each participant saw with their own perception. The genuine and creative energy in the clay sculptures was extremely empowering. By relying on every sense except sight, everyone had a completely different experience with art that triggered new kinds of responses. The project has become a celebration of diversity evidenced by our biological, social, and cultural backgrounds, as well as the diversity of our perceptions.

More Experiments

Since my first set of invisible sculptures, I have been creating more sculptures in different sizes with various invisible materials. Invisible Sculptures VII is a large-scale sculpture made of sound. The audience is invited to explore a room-sized area by walking slowly in the space and moving their body in the illuminated area while listening to the sound through a wireless headphone (Figure 7). The sculpture is a large terrain with varying heights and curvy edges. The pitch and intensity of the sound gradually change along with the walking, indicating the shape of the terrain. While prototyping the sculpture, I learned that perceiving a sculpture is more difficult when the size of the sculpture is bigger. A spotlight was used to subtly indicate a deep hole I created with sound on the terrain. Instead of the audience creating their sculptures as a response to my previous show, I asked participants this time, to explain what they saw with verbal descriptions of the experience.

Figure 7. An audience experiencing the Invisible Sculptures VII. Courtesy of the artist.

While my previous invisible sculptures are perceptible by means of senses other than vision, Invisible Sculpture VIII is only accessible through the audience’s ability to listen and then reflect. I call this a “thought sculpture,” a sculpture that exists only when the audience reflects on it in their mind while listening to a recording describing the piece.

Invisible Sculptures #8 (voice recording). Courtesy of the artist.


Invisible Sculptures neither are visible to our eyes nor carry a physical form. The sculpture gains a form when the viewer experiences the state of synesthesia; when they “read” the sculpture using different sensory abilities and process multiple sensory inputs inside the brain. And the question remains, when an object does not have a form but is perceivable, does that object “exist”? 

Invisible Sculptures sheds a light on the human ability to integrate sensory stimulations to make sense of a phenomenon. Although most sighted people regard vision as the dominant sense for perception, what happens in our mind is a complex equation of every sense. The invisible sculptures and the subsequent sculpting in clay that enabled the viewers to turn what they perceived into physical forms, contain a vast amount of potential as artistic instruments to explore research questions on the human perception. Why do people perceive the same object differently? What are the internal and external factors that cause the differences in perception?

We believe what we see is real. We think we know the truth. But when we use senses other than vision, the truth can be obscure or a relative supposition. People saw a variety of shapes from the same invisible sculpture, but no one’s perception was considered wrong—each perception was seen as a creative response. Just like in an ideal world, where different ideas, skills and backgrounds are celebrated. I hope Invisible Sculptures makes everyone a little more aware of the creative possibilities considered in every sense, not just the sense of sight, and some understanding of a way to begin using materials that aren’t on the visible spectrum.


1. Caroline A. Jones, “The Mediated Sensorium”, Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, MIT Press, 2006.
Natalie Angier, “Some Blend In, Others Dazzle”, New York Times, July 20, 2004.

Yeseul Song

Yeseul Song (ITP 2018) is a South Korean born and New York based artist, researcher, and educator working with technology. She investigates the fluid nature of human perception and its relationship with the society and environment through her artwork and creative research practice. Her artwork offers novel perceptual experiences that encourage people to challenge how they normally perceive, think, and interact with the world. Yeseul is currently a Future Imagination Collaboratory Fellow at Tisch and Adjunct Faculty at ITP.