Isabel Lewis: The scent of Berghain and talking plants.

If Berghain was a scent, what would it smell like? And how is club culture connected to the idea of a garden? With the desire to change the code of the theater and exhibition space, Berlin-based artist Isabel Lewis developed a unique format addressing the whole human sensorium by using plants, smell, sound, and words.

Lewis was born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in Florida. She lived in New York City, where she danced for many choreographers and showed her own commissioned works at The Kitchen, New Museum, and Judson Church, among others. Trained in literary criticism, dance, and philosophy, her work takes the form of hosted occasions. Coined by Lewis, the Occasion is a format situated between the exhibition and the theater formats. Lewis’s work has been presented by Serpentine Gallery, Frieze London, and Kunsthalle Basel.

The further the artist delved into contemporary arts, the more she felt the need to balance the dominance of the visual and heighten olfactory senses and bodily awareness. Linking scent and architecture, she created three distinct situations with Scandinavian chemist and smell expert Sissel Tolaas: the club; the site of intellectual culture; and the garden — each an experience where all sensations mix.

The interview was conducted by our contributor Celina Basra.

Celina is a Berlin-based curator and writer, currently curating the space of Galerie im Turm, Berlin. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Alighiero e Boetti’s One Hotel. Just like Alighiero, she is interested in art as a dialogue, a space of hospitality and encounter, multiplying the worlds inside a museum.

Portraits of Isabel Lewis: Joanna Seitz.


Being a host rather than only a performer.


Celina Basra:With the Occasion, you DJ a live situation addressing all human senses. How did your unique format evolve?

Isabel Lewis: The Occasions are the result of a long process. They come out of my interest in dance and a wish to find a way to integrate aspects of my life that felt divided. I used to make dances for the stage, DJ in a club, produce texts for a journal, etc. These divisions felt so outmoded, like I was living out the hangover of modernity’s segregation of the senses. My solo Strange Action in 2009 was a turning point for me. There I started to develop the idea of being a host rather than only a performer.

The division between myself and the public was less pronounced. Things were more fluid. There was direct exchange at times, and while dancing or speaking I was reacting to immediate feedback from the public. From then on I continued working with this notion of the host, and the idea of assembling people in ways that had more of a liberal feel than a theater usually does. And I wanted to find a way to deliver content in a non-linear way that could offer a range of presences and engagements with the public, a situation where one could come and go, pay attention and not pay attention, be social and be on one’s own.

CB:In your Occasions, the audience is not grouped around a center stage, but seated freely around the room. There is no directed gaze, but instead the feeling of a garden, or a field.

IL: Exactly. And you can also come in at any moment. Of course, when you are there the whole time you have a very different experience than if you are only there for fifteen minutes, but in both cases you have experienced the work.

CB: What intrigues me most is your use of scent in your Occasions. Did you address olfactory senses from the beginning?

IL: Yes, I fantasized about using smell, but didn’t know how to approach it. It wasn’t until two years ago that I started to develop the idea further. I was giving a lecture about dance and bodily memory for the Memory Marathon at Serpentine Gallery, and I met Sissel Tolaas. She is a renowned smell artist and chemist and gave a presentation about smell and memory.


Meeting Sissel Tolaas.


CB: Why did you feel the need to include smell?

IL: I have been fascinated with the idea and the history of the garden for a long time. The garden is a very sensual experience, as there are all these sensations at play: touch, look, smell, sound. Taking the idea of the garden as a starting point, I wanted to address the whole human sensorium in my Occasions. It was also an attempt to balance the dominance of the visual. Instead of the visual being the primary way through which we read an artwork, I wanted to balance it by heightening the other senses. Looking at the history of the museum, it is designed for an objective and distant point of view — where you are not a body anymore, but a set of eyes. A set of eyes that observes and critiques.

CB: No bodily functions inside the museum space.

IL: Dance on the other hand is very bodily. But in theater, it is also a predominantly visual experience. You don’t smell the sweat, you don’t feel much of all the bodily. Sissel and I met on the journey back to Berlin, and once we realized we both lived in Berlin, I asked her a bunch of questions and then we started meeting. Over the course of a year, we were meeting and just talking.

CB: So you studied scent.

IL: Yes, a bit. Sissel does not refer to scents in terms of good or bad as we usually do in our culture. She criticizes Western culture’s judgment and repression of certain smells and tries to articulate and develop a different language for talking about smells. She has a lab, with all these tiny vials and different molecules. An encyclopedia of smells. Sissel doesn’t use extracts, she works entirely on the level of molecules. She can chemically reproduce smells from the world around us, analyze their molecular structure, and recreate them.


Generating a sense of place through smell.


CB:The smells you use in your Occasions, how did you create them?

IL: Through my conversations with Sissel, I started to develop a very different awareness of smells. I began to see them as something to compose with. I am interested in the idea of generating a sense of place without actually building up a space. My hope was that with smell I could actually generate a sense of place without using materials, energy, and resources to build a set that is shipped around from place to place when I show my work. To start with, Sissel and I worked on three smells. They are quite abstract.

One is the site of scientific or intellectual culture. The second smell is the site of bodily culture, the nightclub. The third smell we developed was actually the first one that came to my mind: the garden. The garden is a place where all these modalities mix: science, intellect, and the body. Historically, the garden has always been used for medical purposes, or for pleasure, romantic meetings, or agriculture; all these things are present and overlap inside the garden. Once I identified the three ideas, I very much relied on Sissel’s expertise, her background in chemistry, and her years of experience and knowledge of different molecules and smells.


How to create an intellectual smell.


CB: But how do you make an intellectual smell? What does that even mean?

IL: What are the places in our society that house and preserve knowledge? And then, how do we compose that smell? We started by just smelling things. Sissel gave me vials to smell and asked: could that be the smell of a library, a university, or a hospital?

CB: How did the smelling sessions with Sissel work?

IL: She told me to come ready to focus. So I came and I had eaten, I was hydrated, and I was ready to smell. She would ask me to just smell, write, and speak out loud the first words that came to mind. It was a long process. We would dip cardstock in vials and try out different combinations, combining different molecules. With many different vials and many different dips, we arrived at our final stages bit by bit. We were like: it should smell cold; it could have a sort of metallic nuance maybe. For the site of bodily culture, I would say: it still needs a hint of tobacco, etc.

This is how it worked. Actually, I should get some vials for you. No matter how thickly wrapped up they are, they still spread the smell. I have not been able to contain it, so I keep them in the hallway, in a suitcase, wrapped in plastic bags.

Isabel unwraps the small vials and hands me a final version of the smell of the club, the site of bodily culture.

CB: This is hot, deep, and quite heavy. Which molecules did you combine for the smell of the club?

IL: The basic elements for the smell of the club were body sweat, alcohol, and tobacco — which was really fun, because it was a question of choosing between lighter or darker beer, whiskey, and the syrupy smell of mixed drinks. We also combined different kinds of sweat to get a more nuanced result. Sissel has a variety of body odor smells. Not only the smell of human sweat, but different facets of human sweat, the sweat of different people, the sweat of fear, etc.

CB: Did you think of a certain club?

IL: I actually went to Berghain the night before we worked on the smell. It was intense to experience that place with my sense of smell in the center of my focus. I brought the shirt I wore to Sissel’s the next day as a trigger for my memory. By then the smell had faded a bit, but it still helped.

Isabel hands me another vial.

This was the one of the three versions that was most polarizing. They either loved it or hated it.

CB: This is the one I remember from the Frieze Occasion at Old Selfridges Hotel. Very sharp. Sweat, cold smoke. A bit off-putting.

IL: Yes. This is a second variation of the club. A cheap cologne kind of smell is in there, too.

I will show you another one.

CB: Now the alcohol is very strong. Quite good actually. Whiskey. The feel of a party, with sweet sticky floors and humid air.

IL: It had a very strong effect on the room when I used it in the Occasion. Things would get intense. You could feel almost a sexual charge happen in the room when I used that smell. Combining it with whatever music I was playing. Some people were very curious about this smell, but others were freaked out by the bodily aspect of it.

Now try this one.

CB: This smells like a perfume. Green, light, and soft; quite appealing.

IL: This is the garden before we got to the final version. The final version has more earth in it. I would smell scents individually and then we would combine them on different sticks and smell them. I would take them home and see how the smell developed, and then we arrived at the final versions. The whole process was a joy.


“Plants give a palpable energy to a space.”


CB: The garden, as an idea, an image, and a smell, has a particular significance for you. You also use plants as a set.

IL: Yes. For one, I just find plants beautiful as sculptural forms. Also, they give a palpable energy to a space. You can use plants to create zones of intimacy and shape the room. Between human life and object, there is a range of different agencies and capacities. Can we come down from our pedestal and understand ourselves to be part of a larger network, along with objects and plants? A plant offers this great bridge; if you can start to become sensitive to a plant, then maybe that is a good start.

Now this is the garden in its final stage.

CB: Grass. Full on. And then something a little sharper on top. Do your smells work the same way a perfume does, with heart notes, base notes, etc.?[/qstn]

IL: Yes. It is the same idea. I was using the terms louder and quieter, like in sound. We arrived at a combination of things that we liked, but then I would say, I want this tone to be a little louder, and this one brought down a little. Like, can we up the earth smell, and turn down the jasmine, and turn up the grass. I wanted it to have undertones of citrus and jasmine, so it was sort of evoking a Mediterranean garden. The smell of wet earth and green were the stronger notes — I wanted them to be very present.

CB: It is visual and sensual at the same time. Like walking into a tropical greenhouse, a waft of plants, growing thickly. It is overwhelming in this concentrated version. Did you ever wear the garden on your skin?

IL: The funny thing is, for at least a year, the smell stayed on me. I have no idea how, because I haven’t done an Occasion very recently, and all my clothes have been washed since then. But it really stays. I had a meeting with Nicola, the curator of Frieze projects recently, and I wanted her to listen to something on my headphones, and she was like: I smell it, I smell it, you still smell like the garden. And I said, come on, it is impossible, there is no way. But then we realized the headphones still carried that smell.

Isabel gives me another vial to smell.


“I learned to delve deeper into smell.”


CB: Sweet and citrusy. A fruit in a bowl, on a white table, in a very clean space. Could be a conference room.

IL: This one is from the intellectual site, a variation of it: I ended up liking two very much. A lot of people really liked this one, even as sort of a perfume. It is a nice clean smell. Very open and friendly.

CB: Do you see scent visually? Or is it just a feeling? How do you construct it in your head?

IL: I still have an emotional response to smell. But I am more sensitive to it, more articulate, and I can delve deeper into the smell. There is an aftertaste, too. But it is nowhere close to the level that Sissel is operating at: it is completely intellectual for her. She breaks it down and analyzes it immediately.

So this is the other intellectual smell.

CB: This is interesting: sweet, but sleek. A very light lavender color. Welcoming. I don’t feel intimidated by the intellectual variation.

IL: Yes, for me it is open, and sort of airy. It is light. And has a little bit of a chemical sort of cleaning product feeling to it.

CB: Yes, but an expensive one.

IL: [Laughs] there was one molecule in here that smelled to me like building materials. You know, when you enter a building, and it is just newly built and still has this kind of smell. Wet cement or something.

CB: The smell of a space that is not yet inhabited.

IL: Exactly.

CB: Thank you, Isabel!


In between the formats — Isabel Lewis. Photo: ©Joanna Seitz.

Name: Isabel Lewis
Occupation: Artist
Location: Berlin

This interview was first posted on Aug. 24 2015.

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