Our perception of the physical world is dependent on our sense of touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. Neurosurgeon Don Katz proposes that, in effect, they are all one sense, as the impressions gathered simultaneously combine in the brain, to help us understand what is before us. Not only do they combine, but often different senses cross over. For example, we can hear what we see — when we see a photograph of waves crashing on the beach, we also hear it in our imagination.
Artists have always used this ability in the viewer to awaken many senses at the same time. We can imagine the smell of the flowers in a painting, feel the texture of a rough piece of wood and visualise the galloping of horses in a musical composition. While sense of touch is an obvious aspect of a sculpture, a two-dimensional painting can also present an impression of texture by breaking up a flat surface with brush strokes or marks. Wassily Kandinsky systematically codified colours as musical notes, equating his paintings with musical symphonies. Picasso said, “Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels.” The art critic Achille Bonita Oliva calls it ‘the art of trespassing’.
Installation art is experienced using all the senses, as we walk through, or interact with, the created environment, seeing, touching, smelling or hearing and sometimes even tasting, as in Meret Oppenheim’s 1956 ‘Spring Banquet.’
Adding to Aristotle’s naming of the five senses, Ibn-i-Sina identifies seven inner senses or Hawaas al-Batin, including al-hiss al-mushtarak (common sense), al-khayal (imagination) and wahm (premonition or sixth sense). In recent times, neuroscientists have identified as many as 21 senses and are still counting.
Touch is the first sense that develops in newborns and remains one of the most intimate and emotional of the senses throughout our lives. The most mysterious and evocative is the sense of smell. It is the most primitive of the senses, with a direct pathway to the brain’s long-term memory.
Wassily Kandinsky systematically codified colours as musical notes, equating his paintings with musical symphonies.
A smell can trigger some of our deepest memories and feelings. How instantly the aroma of food or a particular scent can take us back to childhood. We cherish the smell of the first rain on parched earth, the smell of old books, water sprinkled on a khas ki chatai and the smell of freshly mown grass. The smell of pine needles, rather than a photograph, is more likely to bring back memories of a holiday in Nathiagali. Equally, unpleasant odours can bring back memories of distress or fear.
Humans may be able to smell over one trillion scents, which may explain the enduring industry of perfumery. The art of perfumery has been practised for at least 4,000 years. Ibn-i-Sina was the first to develop the art of distilling essential oils in the 10th century, which remains the basis of perfumery till today. The incense and perfume trade generated great wealth for merchants from Arabia, exceeding that of gold and precious gems. Aroma therapy has been used for centuries to cure many mental and physical illnesses.
Incense was, and still is, an essential part of religious rituals all over the world: ambrosia, myrrh, frankincense, sandalwood and musk. Greek feasts had pigeons flying overhead whose feathers were doused in perfumes.
The rose became associated with Islam — the Damask Rose of Syria — which is believed to be a cultivar of our desi gulab or rosa moschata (the musk rose). In Sufism, the rose is the ‘Queen of the Garden’ and the flower of Heaven. Rose water is sprinkled or rose petals aretrewn on religious occasions, at weddings or on graves.
As Rumi said, “If you can’t smell the fragrance, don’t come into the Garden of Love.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 16th, 2020