The Smell of Honey
Alison Jones, acclaimed visual artist, talks about her exploration of multisensory experience.
I started off as a painter. But in the middle of my BA degree at Camberwell School of Art, I started working with three-dimensional objects. These were hung compositions, which also worked in space. By the end of my degree in 1989, I became more interested in exploring real objects and simulating them through photography and Xeroxing, questioning illusion, reality and how we actually perceive the world. I was interested in our experience of looking at things that perhaps the natural eye doesn't perceive. I would home in on details of material to become aware of structures that we can't physically see.
My first major show was the New Contemporaries exhibition at the ICA in 1989 alongside Damien Hirst. I returned to London in 1993 to do my MA at Chelsea School of Art. It was at that time my work started to move away from two-dimensions and into the real space. I became interested in natural self-sustaining systems and how they go on regardless, and how man interferes with these systems. A lot of synthetic design is based on nature and its patterns. I researched into honeybees and their architecture, experimented with transferring honey into human space and architecture.
For my final MA show, I painted the four walls of a room at Chelsea with honey. I was initially fascinated by the intense amber glow, the tactile, sticky consistency of the material and the way it trickled down the walls. However, over the weeks of the exhibition the smell really hit me. It had started off sweet and sickly but soon became rancid with a smell that evoked men's urinals.
This made me aware of what a powerful sense smell is. It can involuntarily trigger memories and take us back to other times and places. I am particularly interested in the way we seem to have no control over this. I started looking for other strongly scented materials I could use to continue this research. The work became visually minimal. I was more interested in penetrating the subconscious rather than making the work visually exciting, because you can access this work even if you can't see it.
I took part in an exhibition at a space in Liverpool's Albert Docks. I wanted to use material associated with the docks, which by the early nineties had largely fallen into disuse. I chose coconut because of its pungency and the way it evoked the exchange of ideas with other cultures. It also evoked purity and potential contamination. I was interested in the pungency of the material and created a pure rectangular shape of sprinkled coconut through which you could still see the markings of the flagstone floor.
After that, I took part in a tactile exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum, which had water as its theme. Still concerned with self-sustaining systems, I used original sea salt crystals alongside refined table salt. I was interested in how man interferes with the original material and causes it to lose its important properties. This floor piece involved alternating connected stripes of sea salt crystals and table salt in a rectangle. Within the rectangle (17'x11'), there were 12" wide troughs of sea salt alternating with 6" stripes of table salt. This played visual tricks, drawing the viewer in, and questioning how it was made and with what materials.
A subsequent exhibition at Walsall Museum and Gallery featured a block of marzipan (2' cubed). Visitors were invited to touch this and leave their imprint. After a few days, it started to harden and became a solid yellow block covered with indentations; captured traces of the people who passed through the gallery.
Practice informed by disability
When I first started as an artist using paint in a more traditional way, I would mix tactile materials in with that paint. For example, I would mix flour with the oil or acrylic, as there always seemed to be a need to create something more textural and tactile. When I began to use real objects, a lot of the work involved taking enlarged details of certain parts of material. For example, I would stretch white velvet over canvas and use a macro photo lens to close up on the material, showing the individual strands and weft of the fabric. The point was to illustrate how it was made, by going beyond what could be seen with the natural eye. I was drawing people's attention to materials that they thought they knew well, but actually, when examined, were more complex than first imagined.
A lot of my work was based on enlargements and that was probably a subconscious way of making the work more visible to myself. This is something I only realised in retrospect.
I think that my installation work has come about because of the deterioration of my sight. The work is not as detailed as it used to be, but I usually use a technical assistant. A lot of my current work is informed by my sensory impairment. Smell and touch mean a lot more to me now than before.
Because a lot of your work is kinetic and ephemeral, is recording or filming important to you?
I always have slides made to show the transformation of materials over the course of an installation. I think film would be a fantastic medium to work in and would love to collaborate with a filmmaker to explore how materials change in real time.
You work for a major Disability Arts organisation, what does Disability Arts mean to you?
There are disabled artists who want to make art without reference to political issues. Then there's the Disability Arts movement, which is very much about issue-based work and educating the mainstream about disabled people and the barriers that we face within society. I probably fit into both camps. I've drawn ever since I was a child, but it's only now that I can see how much my work is informed by my impairment. Without my impairment, my work would be totally different.
I don't like to see Disability Arts being ghettoised. I believe there is a great potential audience for Disability Arts. Many disabled people are looking for something they can identify with and which reflects their life experiences. It can also be seen in the mainstream, where a lot of the work by disabled artists is brushed aside.
So many galleries are inaccessible. If mainstream galleries don't start programming work, which is relevant to deaf and disabled people, then why should deaf and disabled people go into these spaces?
Tell us about your future projects
I'm currently working on collaboration with playwright Kaite O'Reilly and Denise Armstrong. Denise is a Deaf dancer and the Artistic Director of Common Ground Sign Dance Theatre Company. The work is called Silent Rhythm and is informed by our sensory impairments. Working with a Deaf dancer who uses Deaf choreography and comes from a very visual culture is stimulating. We are exploring the physicality of smell. To Denise as a dancer, smell has a very distinct rhythm and tempo. I find this fascinating, the way smell can transport your mind; you're still in real time, but lost within yourself. Kaite is working on text based around our descriptions of different smells and what they evoke in us. This experimental performance will involve an installation and live art. (DAO: this was performed at the Bluecoat Arts Centre on 18 and 19 November as part of the Liverpool Live programme.)
While working on this collaboration, we came up with so many interesting ideas that we envisage it developing into a long-term partnership. Initially, we're looking at short live art pieces, although Denise is keen to do a longer performance piece around some of the ideas we've been exploring. We hope to tour this project nationally and, perhaps, internationally.