The taste of tree? (2012)

Deborah Harty, Phil Sawdon (co-author)

About this exposition

The taste of a tree; the connection of [the] senses, the transference of sensations to smell a colour or hear a drawing… Walking around a tree, observing the colour, texture and outline, sitting to draw, to document the actualities of the object … this presents no interest … Walking around [the tree] observing the colour, texture, outline, breathing, mind and body absorbing tree, drawing through sensation the memory of the encounter … that presents the interest. The exposition considers whether the senses are connected and transferable in memory sufficiently to draw the taste of tree through the association of recalled sensations. Adopting Merleau-Ponty’s (2004, p.61) suggestion in The World of Perception, that, ‘[…] every quality is related to qualities associated with other senses. Honey is sugary. Yet sugariness in the realm of taste […] constitutes the same sticky presence as honey in the realm of touch.” humhyphenhum seek to uncover whether it is possible to draw the taste of tree through the association of recalled sensations; are the senses sufficiently connected to be transferable?
typeresearch exposition
affiliationNottingham Trent University/Loughborough University
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 3 (last entry by Madalina Diaconu - 11/11/2012 at 11:21)
Juliet MacDonald 05/11/2012 at 16:13

The taste of tree? addresses connections between senses, and the manifestation of sensory experience in drawing. This topic has relevance to current academic debates of drawing as a means of phenomenological enquiry. Taking as their instigation a quotation from Merleau-Ponty, the authors, ‘the hums’, adopt a collaborative approach to drawing that includes discussion, text, charcoal drawing, moving image, audio and the layering of all these elements. An expanded definition of drawing is in operation here.

The way in which drawing addresses more than purely visual experience is a topic of interest both artistically and academically. The authors approach the topic from the various angles, creatively and vividly describing their experiences of trees, through drawing. The choice of trees is particularly interesting as the materials traditionally used for drawing (paper and charcoal) are derived from trees, although the authors do not stress this material connection. Choosing to focus their enquiry on the taste of ‘tree’ (here ‘tree’ becomes singular and generic) might seem strange as the authors do not, in the course of this research attempt to lick the bark, chew the roots or ingest in any other way the trees they encounter. However, a consideration of taste opens the possibility that experience may be transferred between senses (as in synaesthesia). Merleau-Ponty reports Cezanne as saying ‘you should be able to paint the smell of trees’ and the authors very reasonably set out to test this bold claim and its implication that any sense (even those not immediately evident when encountering a tree) may become operational in the recall of such experience.

The taste of tree turns out to be rather elusive but the hums’ collaborative ‘first person’ investigation finds that smells and sounds of trees were made evident through ‘equivalent marks’ in their drawings. The authors do not speculate on whether other artists, for example synaesthetes, might have a gustatory experience of trees just by looking at them, instead they limit their discussion to their own experience.

The value of the submission lies in its caution regarding blanket assertions of the multi-sensory nature of the experience made apparent in drawing, and its intriguing endeavour to test which senses are actually engaged. A further appeal of this submission is that rather than producing a theoretical discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s text, the authors enact their own sensory exploration which is made evident in the images, texts and moving image that accompany the submission.

The research shows up the open-ended nature of artistic research. The ‘phenomenological data’ produced by their activities is not limited to the five sensory modalities that the authors set out to investigate; the recollections that emerge during their discussions, for example childhood memories of games of hide and seek, involve players and encounters other than the tree. However, the staging of their drawing activities as research is consistently followed through in the authors’ description of their methods and in their frank (if rather disappointing) finding that ‘the sense of taste did not directly appear in any of the drawings.’

Sue Gollifer 06/11/2012 at 12:39

There were a number of serious significant research questions, that can be found within their critical text. These identifies the link with research into practice based work and also demonstrated that there is a gap in the drawing research/phenomenology i.e. in developing the relationship of the senses from a collaborative perspective.

The submission shows evidence of innovation in content, form or technique in relation to this genre of practice. It is well contextualized and organised into a series of discussions as to the nature of that drawing that could be phenomenological capable of recording the connection of the senses as they appear to consciousness. It also draws on the analogy of Cezanne Quote: ‘that it is possible to ‘[…] paint the smell of trees’.  It provides and identifies a number of different approaches to drawing, to help capture and record the experience of the tree. To then create collective memories of the experience of tree and to develop a collective experience through a shared encounter.

Within the development of previous research into drawing, there appears to be little or no evidence of work based around the idea of synesthesia and capturing the sensory approaches to the activity of drawing in its broadest terms, and also drawing with memory. So this essay provides new light and insight to articulate the collective experience of tree.

The research seems sound and the analysis of the data collected seems rigorously scrutinised.  The senses of sight, sound, touch and smell were all considered to be evident in the drawing with discussion and memory: sight through the recorded visual image, sound through the audio recording of the environment, touch through the close-up recording of texture, and smell through the recorded dialogue. The sense of taste however they identified was not thought to be directly present in the drawing either within the visual or audio recordings.

I think its strengths were around the nature of the practice, which covered a variety of experiences to enable them to draw it to a conclusion.

Madalina Diaconu 11/11/2012 at 11:21

The subject of the exposition is of both intellectual and artistic interest, since it addresses the issues of the communication between the senses, of the genuine “synaesthetic” character of our sensory experience, and of the relationship between experience and reflection. Also the main phenomenologist the experiment relies upon has proved to be a valuable source of inspiration for several art practitioners and theorists. In addition to this, the authors succeeded to develop a new approach to drawing on the basis of the phenomenological theory, which goes beyond the usual focus on issues of representation and corporality.

The selected subject has on the whole a high potential, given that the communication of the senses has lately been subject to research in several disciplines (anthropology of the senses, neurosciences etc.). However, the use of “phenomenology” might be considered problematic by practitioners of phenomenological philosophy. Both artists specify that in their artistic research phenomenology is restricted to the first-person-approach to sensory experience; this meaning is weaker than in philosophy, where it designates a specific body of knowledge and a particular method which has various field of application (including, for example, the imagination, in contrast to the authors of the submission). Nevertheless, the authors make efforts to adopt a critical, reflective stance towards their own experience and do not avoid raising difficult questions or even confessing the failure of their experiment.

The strengths of the exposition consist of the topic, the developed method and the critical reflection on these. Also the solution to exchange drawings in the second stage, in order to counteract the tendency of the drawing to impose its own rules of making and ignore the subject’s real experience, is innovative, confirms the authors’ effort to maintain a high level of reflection on their practices.

As a general remark, it seems problematic that drawing has never been described in the paper as a visualisation and the conducted experiment as an attempt of translating (also) non-visual data into visual clues. This omission leads to the – according to me, false – distinction between two categories of sensory experiences in the discussed case: sight, hearing, and tactility, on one side (which can be reproduced by drawing), and olfaction and taste, on the other side (which may be apprehended during the first stage of discussion, but cannot be reproduced as such). The interpretation of the presence of olfaction and taste during the described experiment lacks sufficient clarity and occasionally leaves the impression of contradictory statements. As a matter of fact, also the auditory experience is only evoked or suggested by means of visual clues; the olfactory experience of the tree is less obvious, in spite of the authors’ statements; as for the “taste of the tree”, the experiment had to fail, given the selection of an inappropriate object of observation, the authors (and most of us) having no such previous experience and thus no memories of a taste of the oak. Nevertheless, it may be presumed that the experiment would have led to different results in a orchard in autumn.

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