We sit down with the experts behind the Tate Sensorium, as they share how they allow the audience to hear, smell and taste some of the most exciting works in the Tate collection...
Odette Toilette, Scent Expert
‘What does this artwork smell like?’ is a question I’ve been asking for the last few months, to myself and also anyone who’ll listen – including strangers on the gallery floor – and resulting in me whipping out bottles containing such intriguingly named fragrance materials as Suederal (soft leather), Ethyl Fenchol (freshly raked earth) and Troenan KAO (oily hedge). I’m one of the team members behind the IK Prize-winning Tate Sensorium, and have the particular task of interpreting paintings into scents that will heighten or affect our experience of the visual, in conjunction with sound, touch and taste.
My job, under the name Odette Toilette, is to create olfactory events and installations - both self-produced and commissioned by brands, organisations and festivals. I got into this bizarre, and totally engrossing world, by accident. I’d certainly never trained in the fragrance industry, yet had such a strong fascination with the sense of smell, which manifested itself in an out-of-control scent shopping habit. And, while it’s risky to put this on the Tate blog of all places, I was often frustrated by the predominance of visual culture at the expense of the other senses. Smells, so important, so emotive, yet so utterly eel-like in the way they can slip through our attempts at verbalising what they remind us of, were waiting to be brought to life in the right way.
So in 2010 I started hosting public sociable evenings about scent, featuring guest speakers, interesting themes and ‘things to do’ with smell. These resulted in collaborations like The Scent of Space with Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and the UK’s first Japanese Kōdō incense ceremony in living memory, based on a centuries old tradition of olfactory games and discernment. Or I’ll produce an event about the scents of an era, say the 1950s, linking commercial products and perfumes with the wider cultural scene to elucidate why certain styles became the olfactory echo of a generation.
In animating scent, I’m asked to delivery anything from talks to master classes, editorial and curation, and often commission new fragrances from individual perfumers or fragrance houses, including International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF) for Tate Sensorium which can produce smells like ‘Diesel’ and ‘Living Stallion’.
Five years into my business, I’m even more helplessly addicted to scents, and suspect I may have hooked in a few more people in the process. Once you start thinking about it, enjoying it, trying new things, it can be very, very hard to stop.
Nick Ryan, Composer and sound designer
I find myself involved in lots of multi-sensory work, because I’m interested in synaesthesia. A lot of my work explores sound as the connection between different sensations so this was a dream project - I’ve not worked with a chocolatier before!
To work with images was really exciting - because they are two-dimensional. They have so much potential by being reduced to a two-dimensional plane; I love the idea of exploding them into their narrative and structural elements. The most prominent example of this was last year at the Roundhouse – commissioned by Imogen Heap, called Synaesthesia. For that piece I worked with the London Contemporary Orchestra and collaborated with the visual artist Quayola & Sinigaglia, to interpret images into sound. It was an attempt to describe what my own synaesthesia was like. I’ve also worked with Nick Knight and Danny Brown on a piece called Synaesthesia – using a still photograph by Nick Knight, the idea was to create a photograph that can be interpreted by a blind person.
Given a lot of my work is soundtracking film and documentary, the process of translating one form into another comes natural for me. In terms of Tate Sensorium, it’s key to both my interest and technique in terms of interpreting these paintings, but it’s not the whole story. Having a synaesthesic impression of what the image sounds like is an instantaneous response; it’s instinctive, i don’t have to think about it. But then I discover cognitive details – like what the artwork is about - and creating sound from them requires a different approach.
David Bomberg’s In the Hold is the most sensationally exciting picture; it’s an itchy painting, it’s spiky, it pokes me in my visual cortex - the colours and the angles. They provoke a strong reaction in my mind, and in my mind’s ear. Initially I asked not to know what the painting was about. I wanted to focus on the non-cognitive, sensory reaction I had to it. That provoked me to build an instrument to sonify the shapes and colours. What I actually wanted to do was to cut the painting up into lots of jagged shapes – in a process sometimes referred to as audification, when you directly transcribe one form into sound by playing it. (An example would be by dragging a stylus across the surface of the painting). Clearly I wasn’t allowed to do that, so I built a scale representation in Perspex of the geometry of the painting, cut it up, and that gave me over 100 “slices” of the painting which I hung up and played as a percussion instrument.
I then created lots of different recordings of that instrument. The second part of the process was to understand what the image was about, the subject matter; the hold of the ship. That led me to want to create something more real. The result is that you hear two planes of sound – the first is the process, the second is the subject. You have to walk through this process of abstraction to get to the subject matter of the work. The whole show uses a mixture of different audio playback techniques. The Hypersound directional speakers allow us to create very slim beams of sound, enabling us to set up a staging that would otherwise not be possible. We have two very different sound stages in one space.
I think we’re moving away from a traditional idea of a gallery guide. There are projects exploring how to augment the guide, using technology like positioning and headtracking. The audio then doesn’t need to instruct visitors to move around: it knows where they are. That very simple change has massive implications, as it allows people to go on their own, completely personalised journey around the gallery. They can get extra information about particular pieces but they can also be given a richer experience which isn’t just information. The audio could even be an extension that the artist has created around their work. And it doesn’t need to stop at the gallery – it can be relevant outside, in the wider world.
Paul A. Young, Chocolatier
I’ve been involved in sensory projects many times in my career especially since I started my chocolate business ten years ago. Chocolate fulfils every sense; sound with its snap, its intoxicating smell, complex and fulfilling taste, it melts at body temperature and stimulates sight – as we eat with our eyes.
In March 2015, food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye and I built the sweet shop of the future at this year’s Futurefest where visitors could experience our predictions for chocolate and sweets in 2025. Unbeknownst to me, two of my now colleagues from Flying Object had visited the shop, and got in touch after the event with an exciting proposition to take part in the Tate Sensorium. Of course I said yes, how could I not be part of something so enticing and challenging?
Our first Sensorium meeting could not have been more thought provoking. So many ideas, concepts, and initial decisions to edit into a cohesive experience for the launch. The idea of taking over a gallery space in Tate Britain is a huge undertaking so the pressure was on for us to deliver something captivating, exciting and that would fully immerse visitors into each painting. I’ll never forget standing in Tate’s storage facility in South London surrounded by the worlds most talked about pieces of art including a huge Jackson Pollock. It’s a strange experience; the silence of the paintings, yet they noise the produce is tangible from the textures, colour and smell. I was immediately drawn to Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape. Initially it looks dark, harsh and metallic, but standing in front of this huge piece I notice, orange flowers, flashes of green behind the darker tones, a vivid blue sky and the heat of a hot sunny day.
Blown away I’m about to create something edible in relation to this work, I head back to my Soho production kitchen early the next morning to transpose my thoughts, the teams discussions and any ingredients that trigger the memories of the painting. In front of me I had cocoa nibs (broken cocoa beans), sea salt, 85% raw Ecuadorian chocolate, edible Japanese charcoal, cocoa powder and dried mandarin peel all of which represent elements of the painting - but they are pretty uninviting at this stage. The painting has an overriding hot, dusty, smoky feel so I ground the ingredients together to create a dust which becomes an edible powder and also filled chocolate spheres and enrobed them in a coating of charcoal powder.
At our next meeting, the wonderfully fragrant Odette Toilette brought along the fragrances to complement my gritty and challenging tastes – and which will complete the full sensory experience of evoking elements the work. We tasted and tested the flavours and ingredients until the balance was perfect. With the lights, sounds, smells and tastes all in place, the production team and other collaborators have created something truly thrilling. I won’t share my experience of the Sensorium with you, as I want to experience it for yourself. It’s not what you will expect: It’s not sensationalistic, it’s not trying to make you love art, but it is going to reengage you with your senses in a way that will simply make you smile, talk and reimagine.