Natalie Toren explores ancient aroma cultures, environmental transformation through fragrance and the daily rituals employing scent as a marker for time, occasion and expansive living. For this feature, artist Se Young Au created four vignettes, each with their own transportive quality. "Scent exists within the duality of ephemeral moments and memories carefully preserved," she explains. "I created a specific tactile, vibrational and evocative colour story taking us to layered places that we have experienced before."
Some years ago, I sent my daughter to a preschool in the basement floor of a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. Every morning at nine, she would gather in Hondo, the temple's main hall. The kids would chant and then line up for Oshoko in front of the shrine, where they would each take a pinch of the traditional powdered incense offering and scatter it in a central burner, plumes of fragrant smoke rising to meet their small faces. This act represented mindfulness and gratitude within a larger context, as well as in its very choreography: the bowing, offering, and inhaling a completely different atmosphere that they had a hand in creating. At three years old, she was lucky to experience a formalised daily ritual employing scent, enabling a multi-sensory imprint of marking time and occasion, reorienting of a physical space, and a way of reflecting on our true natures.
Sensorial pleasure is profoundly linked to scent. This you probably know if you've hunted down a special perfume, or stood beneath a jasmine bush or tasted offerings at an ice cream shop (where tantalising flavours are more indebted to their fragrance than most realise). Beyond providing or enhancing pleasure, however, the important role scent plays has been diminished in the vision of modernity we inherited. Just think of all the scentless hallmarks of technology we interact with regularly: audio, visual, and tactile--the internet, iPhones, VRbut none olfactive. History is filled with examples of prominent aroma cultures that harnessed scent in elemental ways and held olfaction as a focus for expansive living. But it would seem that outside of a cosmetic realm, our sense of smell's utility is too ephemeral to be an organising principle, too subjective to be trusted.
For much of early human history, our sense of smell has been of central functional importance in our human needs. The olfactory bulb that registers scent is located in the limbic system of the brain, the ancient part of the brain that was present in the first mammals. It is responsible for our psyche, emotions, memory, behavioural response and self preservation functions. Our smell sense located safety and comfort: clean air, nourishing food and protection from toxins. In indigenous Oceania traditions, smell was tracked and mapped as a key component in ocean navigation; scented winds provided orientation between islands. The smell of different flowers in bloom defined the calendar months for the Ongee people of the Andaman Islands. In Chinese tradition, incense was used as a timekeeper; measuring the passage of time with intricate systems and a codified incense rotation. Different times of the day would be demarcated by different scents: a marvellous olfactory alarm clock.
Flipping the coin on function, our sense of smell has also been the most enigmatic. There is, to this day, controversy in the scientific community about the inner workings of smell and how our olfactory receptors work (there is a molecular shape theory and a vibrational theory at odds). No such murkiness exists around the mechanics of vision, hearing or of touch. Scent eludes much of our rational underpinnings: it is ephemeral, ever changing and extremely challenging to describe. Grasping for words to translate smell into language, certainly English, is beguiling to downright boggling. It is no surprise that language used by experts to describe scent and fragrant materials draws from other aesthetic vernaculars: colour, texture, taste, sound and rhythm. There is something at work in our brain mapping out and making connections that extends beyond the bounds of our rational understanding.
It is precisely this enigmatic quality that has entwined scent with spirituality in ancient cultures. The ancient Egyptians are credited with being the first to discover how to extract fragrance from natural materials that could be worn in balms or bouquets of aromatic materials that could be burned into fragrant smoke (early incense). According to Egyptian scholar Robyn Price, an atmosphere of scent indicated the invisible presence of the divine, quite literally filling up the space. This act of environmental transformation, through the agent of fragrance, was a purifying act. Spaces became something other than the way they were physically experienced, some place expansive and resonant and inhabited. Cultures across the globe, throughout history and today employ scent to mark spaces or ceremonies as sacred, redefining boundaries in tangible ways and orientation towards an effort, be it incense, swinging censers, or the smudging of medicinal herbs.
So too can we introduce personal daily rites with scent to bring an aliveness into spaces where there existed before only familiar containers: a corner, a room, a home. Much has been written about the properties of scent to improve focus or modulate mood, the terrain of aromatherapy, herbal medicine and passed-down wisdom. Scent can also be used as a daily, intentional routine that offers insight into the self. Take for example kd, the ritual code of conduct and appreciation of incense that developed in 16th century Japan. It is considered one of the three classical arts (alongside flower arranging and tea). One is challenged to listen to incense, a slow, mindful and wholly present experience precisely because of how elusive it is. The ten virtues of kd, passed down over centuries, represent the full complexity of how this scent practice replenishes the body and spirit, while offering a sustainable ritual for life.
Setting an intent to pay deep attention to scent, just as we pursue visual beauty around us, leads to a more immersive, multi-sensory experience of life as we have a hand in creating it. Fragrance can be employed to carve out character and tone in emptiness, the lonely hours dictated by a quarantine, for example. It can be a force for expansion in small spaces, or intentionally mapped to create invisible architecture and olfactive poetry that flows through a space. Scent can codify habits, allow for flow of deep thought, or simply transform air into something else worth experiencing. Scent exists somewhere between the embodied and the intangible, forging a bridge between these two understandings.
Words by Natalie Toren.
Images by Se Young Au.
Natalie Toren is a Los Angeles-based writer with a special interest in olfactive culture and the narratives of scent. She has studied at The Institute for Art and Olfaction alongside multimedia artist Se Young Au. Natalie's writing spans food, beverage, and scent spheres, often highlighting the intersection of all three.
Se Young Au is a multi-disciplinary artist living and working in Los Angeles. Se Young's varied strengths utilise both stylistic and formal elements, which facilitate the composition of vivid and atmospheric imagery. Her interests lie in creating visual experiences and her work dissects notions of displacement, quantifies the intangible, and explores beauty as the sublime.