Viola Odorata

An artwork by Nathan Cohen and Reiko Kubota created for an exhibition in Kyoto, Japan in July 2017.
Authors:  Nathan Cohen and Reiko Kubota

   
  
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    Image 1: Viola Odorata installation- Forum Kyoto Gallery

Image 1: Viola Odorata installation- Forum Kyoto Gallery

Petite Balade exhibition - evolution and context

Between 7 - 9 July 2017 an exhibition titled Petite Balade was publically displayed at the Forum Kyoto gallery in Kyoto, Japan. This was the first presentation by the group of international artists engaged in the olfactory art and science research project funded by KAKENHI (Grants-in-Aid for  Scientific Research) in Japan. The exhibiting artists are: Yasuaki Matsumoto (Japan), Yoko Iwasaki and Takumi Tsukahara (Japan), Boris Raux (France), Ansiqi Li (China), Reiko Kubota and Nathan Cohen (UK).

The project was initiated by Dr. Yuriko Sugihara, Doshisha Womens’ University, with collaborating researchers from diverse specialist areas ranging from universal design to psychology and received a KAKENHI grant in the neo-gerontology category which approved funding over 3 years (2016/2017/2018).

The Forum Kyoto is centrally located near the historic Gion district of Kyoto and is a focal point for cultural and social activities in the neighbourhood, established by the artist Alexandre Maubert. It is a flexible and engaging space with several floors connected by a central open plan staircase offering different ways to engage with its architecture in the location of the artworks.

This text is an account of the artwork presented by us for this exhibition and the thinking behind its creation. This was the first time we have created an artwork collaboratively although we have exhibited our own work together in earlier exhibitions.

Process for creating artworks for the exhibition

When commencing a project that will ultimately lead to the creation of new artwork it can be challenging to determine how best to proceed. This is particularly the case when the parameters for the choices being made are in part determined by a desire to evolve a way of working that embraces the wider project aims and the inclusion of smell as a medium.

The participating artists had discussions over a period of months leading up to the exhibition to determine that there should be a focus on creating artworks that would explore the theme of natsukashisa, a Japanese term to describe the invoking of memories that may also impart a sense of well being. The artworks were each quite different and worked with a range of media including video projection (Yasuaki Matsumoto), installation with audio components (Yoko Iwasaki and Takumi Tsukahara; Boris Raux), film (Ansiqi Li), and interactive installation (Nathan Cohen and Reiko Kubota).

At the initial stage of planning the exhibition it was decided that there should be a single smell that all of the artists should include as part of their artwork, although this proved to be one of the most challenging issues to resolve. Our response to smell is personal and sourcing just one smell that all of the participants could agree to feeling natsukashisa required discussion and the sampling of different smells.

As part of this process it was  decided that we should collectively agree on a context for natsukashisa which a particular smell might invoke and this resulted in choosing a type of place where this might be encountered and which all the participating artists would have some experience of. The final choice was for a wooded space that could be found by walking in hills or mountains, which may illustrate how subjective memories of olfactory experiences can be. It is also interesting that all of the participating artists live and work in cities yet selected for this project a smell that would invoke memories of more pastoral spaces.

As we had already determined that we would be using an additional smell, violet syrup, for our installation we actually displayed two smell samples which offered a broader olfactory experience while being in keeping with the theme and content for the exhibition.

The artwork - Viola Odorata

   
  
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      Image 2: Viola Odorata installation

Image 2: Viola Odorata installation

To begin the process of making this artwork we had to consider various factors including what the contents should be and the logistics for installation.

We felt that the requirements of the project brief should be reflected in the choices we make and that there should be a sense of intimacy evoked by the artwork and how people would encounter it. This then led to considering objects we encounter in our lives that could invoke memories and that appear to have a history.

   Image 3: Viola Odorata installation - letter (1673) and map of Staffordshire (1666)

Image 3: Viola Odorata installation - letter (1673) and map of Staffordshire (1666)

Some months earlier we had acquired the first letter in what has subsequently become a collection of early postal history. We were intrigued by the content written in 1673 by a husband from the family estate in Staffordshire to his wife, the Lady Gerard, who was visiting London at the time. While the central part of the letter's text concerns matters relating to the family there is an interesting additional section written by their physician who is treating her son with violet syrup. Being derived from the flowers of the plant (Viola Odorata) this has a distinctive smell and offers an interesting connection between a natural herbal source of smell that is also curative for human health and the landscape.

With this as a starting point we wished to develop a narrative that was personal and could be related to by others. The letter itself offered a means by which we are able to relate to the thoughts and experiences of the letter writer and his family despite the span of time. Violet syrup is still available and used today and this allowed us to bring the experience into the present, with a sample presented in a period crystal glass with floral engraving, as part of the exhibition display.

   Image 4: Viola Odorata installation - violet syrup smell sample

Image 4: Viola Odorata installation - violet syrup smell sample

We also wished to make a connection with a specific place, in keeping with the theme for the show (the title Petite Balade is a French term for a stroll or short walk) and as the letter originated in Staffordshire we found a map of the county that was printed in London during the same period. These were framed together for the exhibition (see Image 3).

Maps evoke a sense of a place with details of landscape and geography noted. Old maps also imbue a sense of nostalgia, their form imparting an intimacy with a region that can resonate even if we are not familiar with the place depicted. This particular map is small and would have been included in an atlas of the British Isles. Interestingly, it was published in 1666 by Roger Rea*, the year of the Great Fire of London that devastated much of the city. Drury Lane, the location in London where Lady Gerard was residing when she received the letter was spared from the fire.

   Image 5: Viola Odorata installation - woodland smell sample pot

Image 5: Viola Odorata installation - woodland smell sample pot

To create a complimentary symmetry in the installation we therefore placed a wax sample of the woodland smell we had collectively chosen as being common to all of the exhibits in a small lidded red glass pot that was decorated with a gilt pattern. This gave the sense of a period piece in keeping with the time of the letter although this pot dates from the late 19th century.

This describes the objects and images that viewers could interact with as one part of our display. But we also wished to take the content and develop it within a contemporary context, and to this end we worked with two other contributors.

   Image 6: Viola Odorata installation - Hiromi Ito letter

Image 6: Viola Odorata installation - Hiromi Ito letter

Hiromi Itō is a well known Japanese poet and novelist who we invited to interpret the original letter contents by writing her own version of what she imagined the letter Lady Gerard may have received from her husband might have been.

This required producing a transcript of the 1673 letter in modern English together with a translation into Japanese, and then engaging in a dialogue with Hiromi regarding the letter content, theme for the exhibition and context within which her letter would be presented. As part of this process Hiromi researched the social, cultural and historical background and how plants and landscape were cultivated in rural 17th century England. The resulting text presents her own interpretation of the source materials and was then printed by us onto handmade paper sheets of letter size for the exhibition display.

   Image 7: Viola Odorata installation - interacting with Yu bi Yomu digital display

Image 7: Viola Odorata installation - interacting with Yu bi Yomu digital display

Above this viewers could interact with a digital display on an iPad that depicted the final page of Hiromi Itō's letter. This was provided by Dr. Junji Watanabe, who developed the interactive digital interface with Dr. Kazushi Maruya, and was displayed in the exhibition with permission from NTT Communication Science Laboratories , Japan. This is a unique haptic display format called Yu bi Yomu (which translates approximately in English as 'finger-reading') where text on the iPad screen is palely visible until touched by a finger, when it then becomes bold enough to read before fading after a few seconds. This requires the viewer to physically interact with the screen to read the text imparting a sense of writing the words as you follow them with your finger. The gradual fading suggests the moment passing with time.

Conclusion and future development

There are a number of ways in this artwork in which we have explored notions of memory, time and place in the context of smell, encouraging viewers to immerse themselves in a narrative that we hoped would resonate at a personal level and that might also evoke a sense of well being, in keeping with the project aims. As a first step we wished to learn more about how people would respond to the different elements and from observation we noted that many chose to spend some time reading, touching and smelling the exhibits as they navigated their way around the installation.

This interaction between different elements and the engagement encouraged through visual, haptic and olfactory experiences we feel offers the potential for developing interactive objects the content of which can be personalised with their own or their family's memory associations . This could address the overarching project brief, to design a form that induces natsukashii feelings that an individual with memory impairment can associate with, and to this end we will next be exploring how this may be achieved with an intimacy of scale.

We are grateful to the following for their contributions to the organization of the exhibition:

  • Dr Yoko Iwasaki - Project Arts Director
  • Prof Yasuaki Matsumoto - Professor Media Art, Kyoto Saga University of Arts
  • Dr Yuriko Sugihara - Olfactory Art and Science Project Director, Doushisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts
  • Hiromi Itō - Poet, Novelist
  • Dr Kazushi Maruya  and Dr Junji Watanabe - Creators of Yu bi Yomu
  • Alexandre Maubert -  Director, Forum Kyoto
  • Hila Yamada - Assistant to Dr Yoko Iwasaki
  • Akio Tsuji - Videographer and Photographer
  • Ismael Franco Alvarez - Olfactory Art and Science Research website designer
  • and the team of students from Kyoto Saga University of Arts who helped with the exhibition installation and invigilation.

We would also like to thank NTT Communication Science Laboratories , Japan, for permission to display Yu bi Yomu as part of our installation.

Photography and video credits:

  • Images 1 - 3; Video clips 1, 2 - Akio Tsuji
  • Images 4- 7 - Nathan Cohen

References:

  • Yu bi Yomu display: http://www.kecl.ntt.co.jp/people/maruya.kazushi/Yubiyomu/
  • Hiromi Itō, poet and novelist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiromi_It%C5%8D
  • *Map of STAFFORDSHIRE, published by Roger Rea, London 1666 in: "England Wales Scotland and Ireland Described and abridged with ye historie relation of things worthy memory from a farr larger volume done by John Speed"
  • A 17th century copper engraved miniature map of Staffordshire by Peter Van Den Keere, from a pocket edition of Speed's atlas which survived the 1666 Great Fire of London that destroyed the heart of the capital city and badly damaged important landmarks including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Exchange.

© 2017 Nathan Cohen, Reiko Kubota

All rights of reproduction reserved.

De Pictura: Journeys through Painting

Author: Nathan Cohen

Published: Cohen, Nathan. ‘De Pictura: Journeys Through Painting.’ OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 2 (2017), http://www.oarplatform.com/de-pictura-journeys-painting/

The search for understanding validates and gives purpose to our existence. It defines who we are and what we may become. It is a source of invention and enables us to find expression in many and varied forms of creative and intellectual endeavour leaving traces of our journeys for others to learn from and enjoy.

The following are a collection of thoughts on some of the paintings that I have been inspired by as an artist. All of the paintings I refer to can be seen by visiting the National Gallery in London, a place I have been to many times in search of inspiration and reflection and a home to many more paintings that offer all who take the time to visit the enjoyment of the experience of looking.

Each artwork captures a moment in time and speaks of humanity through the intimacy of their subject matter and form - a validation of the human spirit in a dynamic world of change. When encountering the reality of these paintings their existence as tangible forms are defined and reshaped in the imagination and the memory of them.

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In considering the question of what makes painting a valid means of expression I am reminded of those images I return to for inspiration as I seek to create my own pictures.

There is a space that we know of that we can imagine and that also exists but we can never see. It resides within each of us and yet we need to apply our mind to comprehend it and is a constant as we navigate our journey through the world around us.

 Figure 1:  St Jerome in his Study   ( c.1475 )    ANTONELLO da Messina     (National Gallery London)

Figure 1: St Jerome in his Study (c.1475) ANTONELLO da Messina (National Gallery London)

In Antonello da Messina’s painting St. Jerome sits contemplating a text he is reading set within a mind like architecture. We look in but always from the outside. His space is within. In searching this small painting our eyes can wander as the lion does through corridors that recede into different perspectives of the window framed landscapes beyond, as if we look through the eyes of the building. Above birds alight silhouetted by the blue of the sky, their movements of flight and repose caught as saccade like moments in time.

The keys hang silently from a nail behind him supported by a structure that is encapsulated by the architecture that surrounds it. And elsewhere within the space objects, animals and birds reside. The painting is replete with metaphorical references and the more you look the more you find. There is a hidden geometry that places each form within its given space enabling the narrative to unfold. Of necessity this is a painting that invites interpretation, for without curiosity there would be no questioning, and without questioning there would be no intellectual pursuit.

While we live now in a different age, and the historical and cultural context that informed the creation of this artwork may have changed, it still speaks of ideas that we relate to today. The painting invites us to wonder and to reflect and it rewards our patience in contemplating what we see by discovering new dimensions within its intimate form.

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 Figure 2:  The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)  Jan van EYCK (National Gallery London)

Figure 2: The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) Jan van EYCK (National Gallery London)

 Figure 3:  The Arnolfini Portrait - detail of mirror and rosary (1434)

Figure 3: The Arnolfini Portrait - detail of mirror and rosary (1434)

The more I see the more I question what I am looking at and what relevance this may hold for others. Artists have explored different practical means to both comprehend and extend their means of observation including optical, mechanical and graphic instruments and the use of mathematics, geometry and proportion to construct their images.

Both the lens and the mirror refract and reflect light, as does a painting whose construction may consist of layers of colour upon a reflective background. The couple in the Arnolfini Portrait (1434) hold hands before the painter Jan van Eyck, and his reflection is to be found in the illusion of the mirror behind them.

This plays with our understanding of where the paintings surface resides for while we know this to be an illusion yet we can be convinced by the seeming reality of its construction. Physicists and neuroscientists have come to appreciate the profound nature of the complexities that lay at the heart of our existence and our ability to understand it, whether contemplating a multi-dimensional universe or comprehending the way our brain interprets what we observe.

Paradox lies at the heart of painting and artists find ways to depict spatial forms that challenge interpretation. Painting is essentially abstract, whether seeking to represent a likeness of things seen or imagined and we can be intrigued by the play with spatial expectation to be found in many works of art that explore the encounter between the second and third dimensions.

In questioning what we see we also reaffirm our comprehension of the reality of the space we exist within. We sense we are looking at an illusion and where this meets the reality of our physical world we can derive pleasure from the experience, a reward for our intellectual engagement in seeking to ‘resolve’ this intriguing spatial conundrum.

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 Figure 4: A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2)  Johannes VERMEER (National Gallery London)

Figure 4:A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) Johannes VERMEER (National Gallery London)

Light filters through the window illuminating a room and its contents. References to a world outside can be seen in the landscape painted on the instrument lid that mirrors the window at the left of the painting, and in the picture that hangs high on the wall behind, a reminder that this interior is part of a larger world. A chair awaits and she looks toward you, her hands resting on the keyboard of the virginal.

In contrast to our witnessing of St. Jerome we are invited to be a part of this scene and the painting's composition suggests we are present as a participant. The three-dimensional properties of the space are depicted in the geometries of this painting, a dialogue between the architecture and furniture and the viewer and the viewed. This a moment of encounter and we are welcomed into the painting both by its subject and its construction.

Where there is detail so there is also questioning of what we really see, the surfaces dissolving into flecks and dots of colour as you approach to inspect more closely. This is most clear in the depiction of the human form, the face and hands appearing almost out of focus in comparison with the other surfaces in the painting, as if in an early photograph where movement blurs the image during a long exposure.

The question of where to locate focus is significant in the composition of an image, for in the choice the painter articulates intention. There may be one or many foci and they offer a means to comprehend what is depicted and how the space within the painting can be interpreted. 

The viewer brings their own perspective, both literally and in terms of experience. We project our own thoughts upon what we see in a painting and seek to compare and relate the visual sensation to memories of other things seen and felt. This is a multi-layered process which can stimulate associations across time and place, the painting providing a catalyst for the imagination.

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 Figure 5:  Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-2)  Giovanni BELLINI (National Gallery London)

Figure 5: Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-2) Giovanni BELLINI (National Gallery London)

The Doge Loredan has gazed serenely from the painting by Giovanni Bellini for centuries, a picture of calm repose reflecting all of the painters' skill in the creation of a work of art that appears timeless and yet of the moment. There is both a distance and an intimacy in the form of this image, with a human scale that invites closer inspection.

He sits within an atmospheric blue that appears to modulate his figure with an embracing subtlety, complementing and encompassing, and suggesting a depth of space within the picture's surface. It is a depiction of light and its ability to pervade our space, a medium without which the painter's art could not exist and we could not see. It is a surface that is simultaneously ethereal and tangible.

Mask like, the Doge looks beyond the viewer and the impression is of a reflective man of experience. The sculptural quality of the picture's construction both dignifies and renders emblematic the role of the sitter. Yet while it may have been commissioned to validate the role of public office being celebrated, the sitter's humanity is presented in a way that all can comprehend and relate to.

Upon the stone base an illusory piece of paper is painted with the author's name inscribed, a mark of his achievement and an indication that he is deemed worthy of patronage to create this artwork at this time.

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 Figure 6: Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669)  REMBRANDT van Rijn (National Gallery London)

Figure 6:Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) REMBRANDT van Rijn (National Gallery London)

In contrast to the Doge the sitter's eyes meet our own in Rembrandt’s self portrait of 1669, the year of his death. In this painting the calling card left by Bellini is replaced with a direct encounter with the artist himself. Except he would have been examining his reflection in a mirror to make this painting and we are seeing him as he would be seen by himself.

The light that pervades the canvas suggests an internal space, the shadows capturing the luminosity that bathes the head of the artist rendering the rest of his form as if slipping quietly into the embrace of an encroaching darkness. The intense blackness of the eyes invites contemplation of the space within, a space of which we all may be aware but must spend our lives to comprehend, a moment of self awareness and doubt.

The artist as subject offers insight into the creators’ mind but also presents us with the challenge of truly comprehending what we see. At one level it is a picture of another person, and yet the intimacy invited by the immediacy of contact invites a more personal emotional response. We begin to wonder what it is that he sees as he looks upon himself, what he wishes to impart by creating this painting. Rembrandt painted several self-portraits over his lifetime and we can see his progression from a young man enjoying the success of recognition to his later paintings that reveal the experiences of a life lived and coming to its end. We can make this journey with him through time and the portraits also speak to us across the centuries of our own mortality and experience.

For an artist there is always the next painting to be painted that continues the journey and there is the sense there is never enough time, but in the act of pushing the boulder each time to the top of the mountain there are the moments of completion that validate the effort made. In this painting we are offered a rare moment of communion with one who has lived that experience and who, still now, can share this with us as we live ours.

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© Nathan Cohen 2017 (Text)

All images © 2017 National Gallery London and are reproduced here under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0): http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/image-download-terms-of-use?img=n-1418-00-000032-wz-pyr.tif&invno=NG1418

Video ergo sum: an artist’s thoughts on inventing with computer technology in the creation of artworks

The computer, while not a new concept, has in its modern form transformed the way we disseminate ideas, interact with one another and enhanced our capacity to acquire information. From the artist’s perspective digital imaging presents opportunities for visual invention and challenges in how visual form is mediated. In my artwork I use the computer as a means to create imagery that would not be possible without its use, and that enables exploration of an artificially created space that enhances spatial awareness and challenges our perception of what we encounter. The computer enables the use of real time and recorded moving and still images to be embedded within artwork previously limited to still imagery and makes possible the fragmentation and reconstruction of the picture plane into multiple moving images with a remarkably high degree of resolution.

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Memory Box

Memory Box is the second artwork we have made as part of our contribution to the Kakenhi funded Olfactory Art and Science Research project. This follows our first piece Viola Odorata (exhibited in Kyoto, June 2017 URL: http://olfactoryresearch.net/index.php/viola-odorata/ ).

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Visual Perception, Abstraction and Invention: an Exploration

In questioning what we see we must inevitably have recourse to our experience of the physical world around us. The pictorial offers us a way to explore these experiences and reinvent the world we see. While the picture plane may be viewed as a window onto an illusion of space, it is also the surface upon which spatial reality may be rebuilt. 

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Illuminating Thought: Imagining Reality

The difference between the ‘real’ world of the viewer and that of an image offers potential for pictorial spatial invention, which in turn can raise questions about how we see and interpret the world around us.

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