From the Hideous to the Sublime

olfactory processes, performance texts and the sensory episteme

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The intention in this work is to discuss olfactory processes in terms of what I refer to as the sensory episteme, i.e. the way individuals within given cultures are socially inculcated in specific ways to make use of their senses, in this case particularly smell. In other words, I suggest that the methods individuals acquire to make sense of their sensory environment and to apply the information they receive to their sociocultural lives in specific ways are particular to given cultures or historical eras, as is clearly demonstrated in the recent work on the subject Aroma by Classen, Howes & Synnott. These assumptions require on the part of the reader an acceptance of the notion of sensuous knowledge and of the possibility to discuss the ways this knowledge is both taken in and applied as belonging to a set of rules and conduct which together make up the episteme, a notion initially introduced by Foucault. Our discussion will cover a brief revision of these theoretical ideas, although the ultimate intention of the work is not in the case of Foucault to demonstrate how the gradually changing winds of time have brought about changes to epistemes, but that the way we are inculcated to experience smell and to actively make use of that information in vital ritualised processes contrasts highly in cultures today. Our discussion will included sensory epistemes and traditions as diverse as Western European, Balinese and Chinese culture, particular ritualised or performative practice that involves olfaction and in particular contrasts and conflicts that can result from misunderstandings based on conflicting norms resulting from the sensory episteme. Beginning with notion of episteme, I introduce briefly a number of theoretical assumptions about human practice and its inculcation in cultures, and the potential methods or ‘textualities’ individuals make use of to help them comprehend their sensory environment (or give them methods to inialate or avoid it some way as taboo). In order to understand this episteme, however, we have to find our own way to understand its complexity. To do this, I present three major factors which can provide us with an insight into the different ways we can use or abuse smell to particular sociocultural advantage in specific situations we confront as part of daily existence, many of which are ritualised or performative acts. These three methods are as follows:

[1] Olfaction as a form of enunciation of the present;

[2] Olfaction as a dynamism of the past; and

[3] Olfaction as an active tool in performative and ritualised practice as observed in specific cultures such as the Balinese, Taiwanese and European.

In doing this we question the pervading approach to cultural practice that does not consider these non-verbal aspects of the human episteme, in attempting to present a model which considers smell in terms of a broad epistemological and ontological setting. As will be demonstrated, Western European culture very often inculcates a negative attitude towards smell where ritualised and constant ‘purification rituals’ result in uniform smells, where smells refers to social class rather than an individual, and where clashes result from conflict between contrasts epistemes which may emphasise the olfactory episteme allowing smells to express individualism. As Classen, Howes and Synnott suggest, the success of Susskind’s work Perfume is partly attributed to its demonisation of the sense of smell, where it’s anti-hero who has unique olfactory skills is ultimately a maniacal killer, fetishing and in a sense reaffirming the culturally inculcated notion of olfaction. In conclusion I will suggest the importance of viewing these aspects of the sensory episteme, and also some uses we can make of these aspects of the sensory episteme that realise olfaction in terms of the episteme and the ‘textuality’ it is realised within in a cultural context.


The word epistemology itself has had different shades of nuance throughout Western history because it refers to the whole field of ‘knowledge’ and how it can be experience or perpetuated by a culture. Western philosophy has kept itself busy exploring the ultimate conditions for the ‘truth’ of this knowledge. Foucault, however, provided a contrasting platform for viewing knowledge in his work Les mots et les choses by presenting it not in terms of truth, but instead in terms of particularly culturally inculcated fields for the perpetuation of knowledge; its borders, suggested, are nuanced by the way a culture teaches its uses to treat knowledge, and not therefore knowledge alone. This provided us with a new impetus for looking at knowledge and understanding the conditions in which knowledge is perpetuated in culture, accepting as a given the fact that many different kinds of ‘truths’ can and do exist in human culture. Foucault refers to the conditions a culture provides individuals with which they can use to help them conceive of their environment as an episteme. Foucault’s meticulous demonstrations of different epistemes in Western culture and how they have coloured our understanding have brought about a kind of crisis in Western philosophy, one which questions the very environment in which we now live. In this paper I’d like to discuss what I refer to as our sensory or musical episteme, a socioculturally inculcated set of habits, beliefs and actions towards non-verbal sunsual information communicated to us via our senses, particularly smells. In this paper, then, we’ll be looking at contrasting olfactory epistemes and in particular special ways our culture teaches us to experience such sensual knowledge, and the way we use smells as active tools to interact with and make sense of our environment. This departs from the assumption that the way sensuous knowledge is experienced, or rather the way this information signifies to an individual, depends primarily on a scheme of rules, habits, assumptions and undertsandgs whichindividuals are provided with by their culture. It is this scheme for the interpretation of knowledge that I refer to as the sensory episteme as suggested above. Classen, Howes and Synnott refer to the way that olfaction depends on “social and historical phenomenon” to create signification (Classen etc.: 3). In pointing out the cultural contrasts inherent depends on “social and historical phenomenon” to create signification. In poiting out the cultural contrasts inherent in experiencing smell, we view an age where odurs were thought of as intrinsic ‘essensces’ and revelatory of iner truth, in contrast to a present where such an ‘olfactory consciousness’ is “considered threatening to the social order” (Classen: 3). This contrasting way of experiencing sensuous knowledge evokes the comparison Foucault made between the act of signification as experienced by people during the Renaissance and the classical era in his groundbreaking work mentioned above. This demonstrates how the processes involved with cognition of sensous knowledge are culturally inculcated.


In this paper, the central subject does not revolve around the parameters of such a sensory episteme or the argument of whether or not such an episteme should be recognised. The intention is instead to view actual textual realisations of olfactory processes and how these texts reflect specific aspects of the episteme. I refer to patterns of human behaviour which demonstrate an aspect of the sensory episteme as dynamic or sensuous texts, and the systems individuals use to conceive of cultural texts as textualities. Such textualities are in effect specific activations of the sensory episteme. A ‘text’ then in the context of this paper can refer to any repeated, symbolically engendered interaction with the outside world, many of which involve some element of ritualisation. In much academic writing, the concept of text has been restricted to its realisation as action and/or sound; in western musical writing, for example, olfactory processes are rarely considered as part of either a musical text or its possible textualities of the audience members. In Balinese musical performance which often takes place in a ritualised environment, the use of incense and other means of colouring the olfactory environment certainly plays a role in the significative process. Classen, Howes and Synnott’s important work on this subject demonstrates how powerful this aspectg of communication can be in colouring many sorts of significatives, and similarly Stoller demonstrates the important aspect of taste in understanding certain types of ethnographical information. Tactility in musical processes is discussed in his article on African Mbira thumb-pianos is also interesting. Our model of the performance text, then, includes all possible forms of ‘sensuous’ knowledge. In the following paragraphs we look at specific way olfaction can enunciate the realisation of texts.


In significative processes, smells function to enunciate experiences, functioning to enhance the realisation of performance texts in specific ways. The end result of this enunciation is a deictical one, pointing specifically at the event taking place; the message is often ‘you are taking part in a ritualised event’, among any other significative overtones they may provide the individual participating in given cultural texts. Smells, sounds and other sensory information fill a place, functioning to learly transform a given space into one in which all those present can atl least to an extent feel that they are in a recognisable environment.Examples include the smell of smoke, drugs and/or sweat pointing deictically to a disco, or the pungent smell of incense and burning wax pointing towards Russian Orthodox church rituals. Most rituals are complex structures which function to make sense or provide an alternative to the exigencies of everyday existence. Particularly noticeable in most Balinese rituals and performances is the strong sense of joy they achieve while performing them, whether as performers or audience members. By experiencing of a temporal and spatial environment enunciated by an olfactory sign or text, individuals can go through transformations which function to demonstrate deictically certain givens which may or may not be already true, such as reaching manhood or celebrating a continued event. Multisensous texts of this kind often function to close the distance beween the Self and the Other through creating a sense of communal joy, emotions which are shared by others. It seems to me that Bateson sums up this experience in his description of certain Balinese performative rituals:


"The God will not bring any benefit because you made a beautiful structure of flowers and fruit for the caendrical feast in his temple, nor will he avenge your abstention. Instead of deferred purpose there is an immediate and ammanent satisfaction in performing beautifully with everybody else, that which it is correcto perform in each particular context.” (Bateson, 1972: 117-118).


The sensual experiences the Balinese go through in a day of worship, performances, rituals and meetings are very much a statement concerning one’s phenomenological presence, saring beauty and communally enjoying the scents, sounds and movements performed. Joy of music and pleasur in all sensory experience including smell and touch is an important part of Balinese life; the smells become a ritualised enunciation or deictical marker giving dynamic signification to performance texts such as dances which are so important to Balinese existence. The Balinese have a term they use to refer to such experiences, where they achieve some level of joy. Importance to mention here Barthes and his jouissance which is involved with the dynamic level of textual realisation.


The power of their presence, however, cannot be underestimated; their enunciation of given events can be enormously powerful, functioning to turn any given moment into a ritualised one, a moment of time which differs particularly to everday events. Ritualised performance texts are complex multimedial environments which are realised in particular spatial and temporal contexts, bringing to life the existential moment experienced during the performance. These complex texts communicate something which is not possible in any other way, and as a result they can only be considered in a performative context; they don’t really communicative anything until they are performed. One is able to use adjectives to describe the experience, but the only way to really communicate the ‘knowledge’ inherent in the performance is through realising it. Smells, like musical sounds or other ‘sensuous information’ are difficult to find words to describe. As Classen, Howes and Synnott note, odours can only be alluded to “by means of metaphors” (Classen etc. 3). By taking advantage agreed upon structures either actively as performers or passively as listeners, we gain a unique insight into the space and time the smells fill. By recognising olfactory textual environments we are familiar with we gain a unique insight into the space and time that is filled. By recognising common olfactory environments, individuals often achieve a sense of familiar communion with those around them who may be undergoing a similar significative process; this part and parcel of the textual enunciation these smells realise. Olfactory textualities provide us with the cognitive apparatus to recognise something in a non-verbal ‘musical’ discourse. In Bali, both textualities and texts are quickly changed to suit new circumstances should they require it. The well-known Balinese dance Panyembrama, for example, demonstrates this ability to adapt. It is indeed a sensuous feast for the individuals involved in its realisation, especially the dancers themselves. Complex non-verbal structures involving the union of musical sound, smells, dynamism between the dancers as they turn to gaze upon one another and communally enjoy they sounds and smells surrounding them are communicated during the textual process. Panyembrama, a Balinese title taken from the Balinese word sambrama which means welcome, was initially composed for a non-sacred context, largely to welcome foreigners in a secular context. The movements, sounds, smells and ritualised activities involved in the choreography, however, are familiar to the Balinese dancers as they recognise them from dances they do in the temple. Thanks to the dances very particular textuality, it has been taken back into a sacred environment and is now performed sometimes as part of temple festivals (odalan).


The way smells are used in this way are an important part of the sensory episteme, where the ability to respond to smells is dependent on complex sociocultural processes of inculcation; the way Balinese people react to the presence of hideous and pleasant smells at the same time would be very different to the way a Western European would react because the Balinese have to learn to live with both the hideous and the sublime whereas in Western Europe the idea is to suppress unpleasantness in any possible ways. The relationship between the sensory episteme and other areas of knowledge classification such as religion, but that will be discussed in more detail further on.


First, however, it is important to look at another major process in human practice that is influenced by olfaction: the dynamic relationship of sensory information such as smells and the evocation of the past, especially when experienced in the form of ritualised events. On receiving strong sensual data such as smells and tastes, we are often led to reflect on the past. Through enunciating given acts which involve the senses in the present, therefore, can evoke the past in a potentially powerful way. Such sensory information exist as as memories in conscious and unconscious minds become strong tools when we experience them live, bringing with them the potential of the past, a unique evocation in which both the pat and the dynamism of the present are united. It is unfortunately impossible to define exactly when the past finishes and the recontextualisation starts, or how much of the past is recontextualised at a given moment. Although the past may be evoked I the performance of music, there is always a little bit of the present, and repeated listening of courses changes the structure; sensual texts become representative of a new time, or a number of different periods. The human mnd and memory work in mysterious,--and sometimes quite exasperating—ways. Heidegger’s notion Dasein relates to an individual’s understanding of his/her perception of being.


" Dasein involves itself in all kinds of projects and plans for the future. In a sense it is always ahead of itself. At the same time it must come to terms with certain matters over which it has no control, an element that looms behind it, as it were, appurtenances of the past of which Dasein is projected or ‘thrown’.” (Krell: 24).


Our sense of presence, then, is a result of the past. Although every new moment we experience may be indeed new, we understand it of course only through our previous experience. And music is very powerful in this regard: it ‘throws’ us into the past, and yet at the same time provides us with a sense of understanding abut the here and now. Another important factor in this regard is the Balinese notion Taksu which at one and the same time refers to the realisation of a tradition—a Balinese mask or mythical character—and also the special performance which is unique to the individual, and which the audience can relate to. Here we have both tradition and innovation. By being at one and the same time both traditional and innovative, the Balinese are able to constantly develop their ‘traditional’ performance texts so that the border between avant-garde, classical and new theatre, at least in Bali, is quite vague. As George notes: “ …every dance, every play is always subtly expanding, changing, becoming more sophisticated: that is how and when the spectator can say ‘ah, there is Taksu'." [GEORGE, David, Balinese Ritual Theatre, Cambridge, Chadwyck-Healey, 1991: 11] In Bali, Taksu is a realisation of the importance of musical processes in providing members of a culture with dynamic means of creative expression which simultaneously provide the participants both with access to their traditional culture, and with pleasurable sensuous activities which connect them to the here and now. This phenomenon can probably be found in any culture, most certainly the many variants within our own borders, although in Bali the emphasis on sensuous pleasure on the moment of performance sets the culture apart. The message here is clear: one of the main reasons for performing rituals is because of the recycling of cultural information in a form which can be understood by the participants in the performance event. Taksu implies, through its connection with the past and the present, that cultural templates are not things which are perpetuated constantly in the same form. Instead, Taksu demonstrates that the performer gains an insight through performance which is both unique for the moment and eternally ancient. Here we see tradition and innovation becoming one. Music, then, in the context of this discussion, provides meaning through its enaction: as Bourdieu says, the body plays at what it believes. It is by experiencing music in a given temporal spatial environment that individuals literally ‘enact’ musical meaning. Therefore, Taksu involves both the present and the past, and the method to attain Taksu involves sensory data to make a connection. Just like sound, smell is a potent way for us to interact dynamically with the past. Personal experiences include the powerful participation in Russian orthodox rituals, and on a more humorous note, the naction of experience working with a theatre group in Moscow by seeing performance of Uzbekistan theatre and afterwards musing over the fact that a strong smell surrounding the performers (perhaps a cleaning spirit unique to Russia) evoked powerfully our experiences there.


Finally, broaching the topic of some areas of interaction involved with both smells and the ‘sensory’ episteme introduced earlier. The intention is to present some examples of cross-cultural misunderstandings and mutations from the perspective of ritualised performance texts in the context of both social and ritual life. The olfactory episteme introduced earlier is a theoretical notion, nothing more. The intention is to use this notion to help us better understand how cultures perpetuate themselves and how they can sometimes bring about intercultural misunderstandings. Basically the olfactory episteme is the set of socially inculcated rules, beliefs and habits that relate to how we make use smells as tools to understand or make sense of our environment, or how individuals make use of smells in cultural practice and why. Smells, in other words, can be seen as sociocultural tools which influence the way we experience our environment. Classen etc. demonstrate in a method similar to Foucault the different ways Western European culture has made use of smells for things as diverse as magical powers and cosmological understandings, becoming the building blocks of cosmologies and even political orders. They demonstrate clearly how smells can be used to enunciate important performance texts such as funerals, marriages, courtship rituals and healing (Classen etc.: 123). They also demonstrate, however, how smells are repressed in many aspects of contemporary Western European practice. In the past I have suggested that we have idealised and normalised a complex set of ‘rites of purification and cleanliness’ such as brushing our teeth and washing ourselves regularly, often going out of the way to ensure that we are not discernible from others thanks to unique smells that our bodies make. Although the hygienic advantages of such rites demonstrate their worth in supporting some aspects of health, our absolute acceptance of this neutralised odourless state causes unfortunate intercultural misunderstandings. The bastions of British cleanliness present in protestant white culture in the Australia of today is a clear example of such blind acceptance of odour nullification; I have witnessed in discussion of the aboriginal culture of Australia blatant epistemic contrast when the aboriginals are considered ‘dirty’ and hideous when the protestant epistemic sense of cleanliness being godliness and the simplistic dichotomy of cleanliness and dirtiness. Because aboriginal culture believes that personal smells are important to one’s individual identity, the two cultures clash in a potentially unpleasant way; what the one party believes to be a healthy part of their sense of well-being is considered by the other to break cleanliness codes, explaining why Aboriginals are so badly treated in a neat and clean protestant environment which uses this epistemic contrast as a way to denigrate another folk. As a result of this aspect of the Western sensual episteme, visiting other cultures can often be a horrifying experience. Smell is therefore ritualised as a method to control it; the repression of smell is way social institutions control their environment. It also makes visiting other countries which celebrate olfaction a difficult task; in Taiwan and other parts of Asia, being assaulted by the amount of smells there is sometimes difficult to deal with immediately. Taiwan even celebrates its bad smells; one of the delicacies of Taiwanese food include the well-known and loved ‘stinky tofu’ around which a whole mythology has developed. In interviewing Taiwanese people about the origin of the smell which assaults with western visitor on almost every corner in many Taiwanese cities, answers to the origin of the smell included the mixing of tofu with horse urine or rotting flesh. The second of which is closest to the actual origin of the smell (it is actually made, at least these days, from fermented vegetables). The senses, especially the olfactory, a wide range of smells from the hideous to the pleasant seem to be celebrated at most and tolerated at least. There are contemporary theatre groups which use smell [find out from Shanlu]. The relationship between smell and cultural parameters can be explained in the context of the sensory episteme [explain how this is difficult]. A particularly good example for this is the Balinese culture where both good and bad smells are celebrated and tolerated in a simultaneous way, as will be discussed in the following paragraph.


Relating specific sets of smells as realised in performance texts to a sensory episteme is a complex task which requires some guesswork. Dynamic performance texts are important cultural tools in South-East Asia, as Peacock states in his book concerning Javanese Ludruk. When Peacock published his work in 1968 there were at least twenty times as many professional drama troupes per capita as in the unites states (Peacock: 4). Bali also sports an amazing amount of performance ensembles and an equally remarkable amount of complex multimedial performance texts. The living text includes spatial, visual, aural, sensory and olfactory elements of performance, factors which affect the way the performance signifies. This includes the place in which a performance occurs, i.e. if the performance is ina small theatre or in the open air, how one experiences the performance visually, how one hears the music, the way physical sensations are experienced, and the sort of smells the audience have access to such as incense, fruit, flowers and rotting flesh and sewers are typical of Bali. These elements are considered by the Balinese to be extremely important in practically all Balinese semiosis. In discussing Javanese performance texts, Peacock demonstrates a contemporary tendency in Javanese culture where sets of Javanese terms are compared; two alternative sets for dichotomous relationships, one of which is pervading over the other in a gradual process of modernisation (Peacock: 7). Alus and kasar refer to cultural distinctions made between ‘refined’ or ‘clean’ and ‘crude’ or ‘dirty’ thoughts actions or things. In contrast the madju/kuna distinction refers to ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’. According to Peacock contemporary Javanese performance is actively plays a role in perpetuating as a pervading cultural given the madju/kuna distinction above the Alus/Kasar distinction because “the alus-kasar cosmology served to make sense out of a traditional society that is no more, while madju-kuna ideology imbues the process of modernisation with meaning and ligitemachy.” (Peacock: 7). Throughout the twentieth century Balinese culture has also been imbued by a similar set of changes, but as I intend to demonstrate through the sensory episteme, both contexts have been allowed to exist simultaneously rather than in opposition to one another, in other words, the concepts of clean/dirty, good/evil, high/low and so forth exist in the same way that conservative and progressive do; one can be progressive but still accept the importance of the other divisions as are embodied by the sensory episteme in many different forms of Balinese ritual and practice. As is a given in Balinese society, attaining a sense of balance positive and negative forces, between the demons and the gods, is a preferable ontology. This need for balance is reflected in the way the Balinese surround themselves with both beautiful and hideous objects, some of which they go to a great deal of trouble to prepare. For the goods, enormous offerings are constructed which radiate smells, whereas for the demons equally as much trouble is made building enormous structures out of rotting flesh as offerings to the demons who also have to be appeased. The interesting factor is that as far the Balinese are concerned, the results sensory data which emanates from objects and performances are also intended for those who are involved in their performance. Part of rituals involved with the laying of offerings and the lighting of incense sticks involve the wafting of the scents towards the nose of the offerer rather than away, so that both the gods and the individual can enjoy the smells and the unique colours of rice, plants and spices that go to make up their colourful settings. In Chinese Buddhism, the laying of incense is at least symbolically meant purely for the gods. Living with the Balinese one can’t help noticing the constant presence of hideous and beautiful odours that are present in the enclosed and small quarters they live in. Although to Western visitors who are used to a static and uniform olfactory environment this clashing of odours may frustrate and disgust, the Balinese, whose sensory episteme allows them to accept this duality as part of their daily life, this does not seem to bother them. In Balinese performances which are multisensuous such as welcoming dances during Odalan (such as Panyembrama or Puspawresti), the choreographies are specifically designed so that the performers have a chance to enjoy each other’s smells and colours. In an interview, one of the dances explained the section of the dance where they turned to face one another and ‘played’ to enjoy the beauty of each other’s costumes, make up, and of the virtual dance space the performers have created: “we begin to play with one another – oh, you’re so beautiful, we enjoy the pleasure of each other’s beauty, the lovely scents, they smell so good…” Then the dancers have to return to the welcoming task, and invite their supernatural guests in a more official way. The influence of the aspect of the Balinese sensory episteme which encourages a celebrate both the unpleasant, and the pleasant aspects of olfaction as well as a multimedial attitude to performances they participate in has had an enormous influence on the way contemporary Balinese composers create their works. We will take a look at two important works in this regard composed by I Nyoman Astita and I Wayan Sadra, both of whom work at Indonesian art’s colleges, educating young artists.


One of Astita’s most important works, which was awarded in a major national composer’s composition and displayed in Jakarta and broadcast across the nation, is based on the important Balinese ceremony which also shares the name of the composition itself: Eka Dasa Rudra Interview with Astita, 16 August 1998, held in Denpasar (Bali).. Eka Dasa Rudra is actually the name for one of the biggest ceremonies held in Besakih, the most-temple of Bali, which only takes place once every one hundred years. In 1979 such a ceremony was held in Bali, and Astita was able to participate. He was influenced by the impressions he picked up while at this event: the sounds, the smells, the colourful costumes and the dynamic spiritual level of the of the rituals. It made a big impression in him, which led to the composition of this work. Asitita describes the composition and follows:

".what impressed me is the situation of the ceremony is the situation of the ceremony, the prcess strats maybe six months before already. And, you know, what is very attractive is the performance of sound. People sounds, walking sounds, and gamelan from many, many different ensembles that we have in Balin including the sacred instruments performance,, enternatinments and secular instruments… All going on. That situation gives me one idea… to ut it together, to perform all different kind of activities also.” (Interview held between E. Barkin and I Nyoman Astita, August 29 1990). Eka Dasa Rudra is actually the name for one of the biggest ceremonies held in Besakih, the mother-temple of Bali, which only takes place once every one hundred years. In 1979 such a ceremony was held in Bali, and Astita was able to participate. He was influenced by the impressions he picked up while at this event: the sounds, the smells, the colourful costumes etc. It made a big impression on him, which led to the composition of this work. This resulted in the composition of such works which are indeed multisensous, creating performance which celebrate all aspects of our sensual beings, rather than the restricted aural environment which Western composers tend to produce, resulting from their restricted paradigm. The work of another Balinese contemporary composer who currently teaches at the STSI [1] in Surakarta (or Solo, situated in Java) demonstrates this aspect of the Balinese episteme. He refers in the following excerpt from an interview held with the artist to the enormous sensual input a person is confronted with regularly in Balinese life during elements of Balinese performance practice such as rituals and other formalised performance texts. He describes the influence of aural, tasteful [?], visual, olfactory and tactile influences as follows:


"It actually reminds me of my own cultural past in Bali. This perception resembles experiences I had when I was very young, when I went to temple festivals, a ritual that I cannot forget. How could I!? The moment I entered the temple, my ear was tempted by the sound of gamelan, my eyes were stimulated by the colourful offerings. When I began to pray, the priest sprinkled me with holy water, my mouth tasted the yellow rice and holy water that seems to only make us thirstier. [I could smell] the smoke of the incense and probably the smell of rotten food that had been cooked for the offerings days before. All othis opened my senses, the feeling in my skin, ear, eye, nose, so I would be more engrossed in the rritual, and become one with god.” (Diamond 1990: 15)


He relates these influences to a contemporary composition of his which involves similar sensual dynamics in the same interview with Jody Diamond. The performance of his work Lad-lud-an has the audience members moving to different places as the performers move, smell, visual aspects as well as sound and smell as the audience is tempted with both pleasant and horrible olfactory characteristics:


"The beginning of my piece Lad-lud-an [1981] was not actually on the stage, but outside the theatre. The musicians began playing when they were about 250 metres away. The audience only heard the faint indiscernible sound of the gamelan as it gradually approached, finally entering the hall… In one section of the piece, a performer stood up. In his hand he held an egg, as if to drop it, high above a black oval shaped stone. Very slowly and with full attention the egg was dropped and, paykk! … the egg crashed onto the stillness without sound as the egg trickled across the stone. This create a visual effect that was contrasting yet harmonious, against the black of the stone, [we saw] the white of the egg shell and yellow of the egg yolk, and the rest that seemed transparent. Then, the air circulating in the theatre spread a foul smell. I had deliberately chosen an egg that was rotten—and the audience reacted by holding their noses.” (Damond, 15).


As is clear from the cultural examples presented above, contrasting sensory epistemes influence the way we interact with our environment. This is reflected in the work of contemporary artists, as demonstrated in the work of contemporary Balinese artists I Wayan Sadra and I Nyoman Astita, but also in the sensual performance texts we use to interface with our environment every day. Western European culture has the tendency to suppress the senses, resulting in on the one hand a complex set of ritualised ‘rites of cleanliness and purification’ which we apply to ourselves during our daily lives to neutralise any odours which could distinguish us from others, but also in the way we ritualise smells in other of social discourse such as sexual acts. The whole olfactory system is repressed in such a way, that those that revel in it often consider themselves to be ‘dirty’ and thus ritualised sexual acts tend to exaggerate the contrast between scatological and clean references to bodily smells and behaviour. In a similar way, the act of smell is demonised; people who revel in smells are associated with deviance and as such are demonised. One of the most popular novels of the twentieth century by the German writer Susskind presents an individual who has a unique olfactory skill… but who is essentially a maniacal killer. The highly catholic notion of pleasure being associated with evil is realised in this way; Western behaviour and thought reflect this aspect of the Western sensory episteme. Balinese behaviour, however, treats this element of the human sensory in a different way where the senses are celebrated, and both the hideous and the sublime are allowed to exist in harmony together. The dance medium is especially effective for this celebration; as Hanna notes, it “has communicative efficacy as multimediaal phenomenon codifying experience and directed toward the sensory modalities – the sight of performers moving in time and space, the sounds of physical movement, the smell of physical exertion, the feeling exertion, the feeling of kinaesthetic activity or empathy, the touch of body to body or to performing area, and the proxemic sens – has the unique potential of going beyond many audio-visual media of persion.” (Hanna, 1979: 29). The intention of this article has been to explore aspects of cultural practice which are often ignored by Western academia because of a specific set of beliefs which are reflected in our own culture which actively function to restrict the set of tools we have to comment upon the practice of other cultures. I hope that I have been successful in presenting this to the reader, and I would like to end with a comment by Wirjati who describes the joy she feels as she performs in dances for both tourists and the gods:


"I look at my fingers and with a heartfelt movement I welcome you . With this situation I feel great satisfaction, and I explain this joy by using my whole body."







[1] Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia; ‘college of the arts’






May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
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September 27 2013.



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