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smelling the sun, breathing a river

lizzie muller: new works by joyce hinterding & david haines

Lizzie Muller is a curator and writer specialising in interaction and audience experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Design Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Immaterial’s (detail), Joyce Hinterding and David Haines Immaterial’s (detail), Joyce Hinterding and David Haines
photo Vanessa Van Emerick
WRITING THIS ARTICLE IN THE STERILE AIR CONDITIONING OF MY OFFICE IN SYDNEY I AM STRANGELY CLOSE TO THE ARTWORKS I AM REVIEWING. A SCENT DESCRIBED BY ARTISTS DAVID HAINES AND JOYCE HINTERDING AS “THE MOMENTS BEFORE A THUNDERSTORM” WAFTS OUT FROM MY NOTEBOOK. THIS PERFUME, IONISATION, IS AN INTERPRETATION OF THE SMELL OF THE SUN, OR MORE PRECISELY THE SMELL OF THE INTERACTION BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE AIR. IT IS ONE OF TWO FRAGRANCES IN THE INSTALLATION EARTHSTAR. WHEN I VISITED THE WORK WEEKS AGO IN BRISBANE, I STUCK A PAPER STRIP STEEPED IN THE FRAGRANCE AMONGST MY NOTES. IT IS 34 DEGREES OUTSIDE TODAY, AND I LONG FOR A THUNDERSTORM. THE SKY IS AN INTENSE BLUE THAT SHOWS NO SIGN OF CRACKING, BUT THIS STOWAWAY SMELL BYPASSES THE EVIDENCE OF MY EYES AND TELLS MY BODY SOMETHING DIFFERENT. IT IS A HARD, METALLIC, ELECTRICAL SCENT CHARGED WITH LATENT POWER. IT STIRS THE HAIRS ON THE BACK OF MY NECK AND TELLS MY EARS TO LISTEN FOR THUNDER.

Earthstar is one of two new collaborative works by Haines and Hinterding that include manufactured scents. If I turn back several pages in my notebook I come to another smell. This one is murkier—a combination of grass, mildew and a hint of car tyre. Ozone Rubber is the artists’ Eau de (and ode to the) Parramatta River. It aims to capture and intensify the olfactory experience of the salt-water part of the river below the weir, while a companion scent, Ghost Leaves, captures the subtly different scent of the river’s fresh-water upper section.

Two small bottles of the fragrances form part of a collection of objects in a boxed edition called The Immaterial’s: Language, Molecules, Vibrations. It was commissioned by Parramatta City Council as part of their outdoor sculpture programme Current 08 and is an imaginative and compelling interpretation of the idea of public art. The collection offers three different ways of recording and expressing the landscape of the river: a book containing notes, photographs and essays (language); the two perfumes (molecules) and a CD of electromagnetic field recordings (vibrations). The title’s ambiguous apostrophe suggests that this assemblage represents a set of things which are, or belong to “the immaterial”—a recurring theme in Haines and Hinterding’s solo and collaborative practices. Much of their previous work has used digital and technological structures to harness, transduce and reveal the imperceptible forces that saturate our world.

Their inclusion of scent within the category of the immaterial raises tricky questions. While art, particularly public sculpture, is often yoked to the idea of a material object, it nevertheless tends to privilege the immaterial sense of vision, which processes information that reaches us remotely through light. Smell on the other hand, is a proximal sense that requires physical contact with the thing that we are sensing. In fact smelling requires us to incorporate parts of a thing (the “molecules” of Haines and Hinterding’s title) within our own bodies. So while scent may be invisible and diffuse it is far from immaterial. In fact it is the visceral materiality of smell that makes it such an intriguing focus for art.

In their work with the electromagnetic spectrum, in both these new installations and in past works, Haines and Hinterding translate frequencies beyond normal human perception into forms that we can experience directly. With scent they are doing something subtly different—they are concentrating and intensifying an everyday experience which our senses can access, but which we rarely pay attention to. Both strategies have similar outcomes—a heightened awareness of the intimacy and complexity of our relationship to the world around us.

Richard Shusterman has argued, through a framework he calls “somaesthetics”, that the development of our perceptual and physical abilities to finely appreciate our surroundings should be central to our pursuit of the aesthetic (Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics, Cambridge University Press, 2008). One of the reasons that smell is rarely used in art is that, unlike our eyes or our ears, the nose is a rather blunt perceptual instrument. Most noses, excepting those belonging to sommeliers and perfumiers, have not had the practice to enable them to discerningly appreciate (or interpret) the information they receive. Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who, after receiving a bump on the head, develops an almost canine sensitivity to smell and is flooded by a wealth of new information about the world around him. The Parramatta smell compositions are intricate, alchemical creations that deliver an exaggerated sensual experience of the mundane. The perfumes combine aromas of the area’s vegetation—mangrove, fennel, lantana and the “green grass of suburbia”—with hints of the rubber tyre plant next to the river. Haines’ assessment (emailed to me) of the Ghost Leaves fragrance gives an insight into the subtle, arcane process of perfume creation, and the sensitivity to our everyday experience which it requires: “I like its urinous aspects in the top note, a bit of suburban football oval toilet block in that…the watery part uses a chemical similar to Valium… it’s marine, ozone, stagnant pond all in one.”

While The Immaterial’s presents three different ways of representing the landscape of the Parramatta River, Earthstar offers three different, and extraordinary ways of experiencing the sun. I saw (heard and smelled) the work as part of the Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. The exhibition demonstrates the facts that, whatever the recent controversy over the term, the best “new media” artists are an avant-garde, combining scientific experimentation with new forms of art experience.

In Haines and Hinterding’s installation huge coiled antennas pick up the electromagnetic activity of the sun, which is amplified and played back in real time. During my visit this live sun sound-track sounded rather like a perpetual low hiss, with occasional fizzes and pops—like a soft drink being opened or an air conditioning system. A large screen shows pre-recorded images of the solar chromosphere—a layer of the sun’s atmosphere that is only visible with the naked eye as the aura at the edge of a total eclipse. Captured using a Hydrogen-Alpha telescope that filters out visible solar light, the glowing orb resembles a bloody post-apocalyptic sun with a short comet’s tail. A large refrigerator contains bottles of two “ozonic” smell compositions. These scents are made with chemicals that resemble the smell of ozone, which would itself be harmful if inhaled. Both are relational smells. The first, Ionisation, describes the interaction of the sun with the air around us, and has the sharp acridity of fried electrical wire. The second, Terrestrial, draws from the interaction of sun and earth, and has the smoky tang of campfires. The artificiality of these fragrances is made pointedly clear in labels that detail their composition. Terrestrial, for example, includes such mysterious ingredients as Helional (3-1, 3-benzodoxol-5-yl)-methyl propanol.

The installation speaks the performative language of a former age of scientific discovery. It has the theatricality of Faraday demonstrating the first electric dynamo to the rapt 19th century audiences of the Royal Institution. The work is both wonder-full and at the same time, physically and emotionally cold. Sunlight itself—as we directly experience it through the pleasurable sensations of light and warmth—is noticeably absent from the dark interior of the gallery. The work dismembers the sun into its component parts. Like Swift’s satire of the scientists of Brobdingnag, who extract sunlight from cucumbers, Haines and Hinterding’s installation can be read as a critique—perhaps of the hermetically sealed, inward looking nature of art galleries, where real world experiences are filtered and abstracted, or perhaps of a techno-scientific world view that sees natural phenomena as resources to be split apart and re-purposed.

Within the science-lab atmosphere of the installation the fragrances were presented clinically as synthetic simulations of real experience. They formed part of a collection of intellectual propositions that caused me to think a great deal, but feel somewhat less. Weeks later, however, I realise that scent has another property that makes it a particularly interesting medium for art—it lingers. Here in my notebook the ersatz smell of the sun persists, and transforms my memory of the work into something warm, visceral and alive. Weeks later, with my fingers on the keys of my computer and my eyes on the screen, the lingering scent in my notebook has a resonance that touches me as, perhaps, only a scent can. I hold the pages close to my face, close my eyes to my notes of analysis and evaluation, and inhale a different kind of record of the installation. Something in that smell triggers a rush of anticipation, memories that seem both personal and genetic—a coming storm.


Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, The Immaterial’s: language molecules vibrations (2008), Current 08: Sculpture Projects in the River City, curator Tia McIntyre, Riverbeats Festival, Paramatta, Nov 7-23; Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, Earthstar (2008), Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award Exhibition, curators Jose Da Silva, Nicholas Chambers, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Nov 1, 2008-Feb 8, 2009

Lizzie Muller is a curator and writer specialising in interaction and audience experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Design Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 27

© Lizzie Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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