I am pleased to present you with the 3rd issue of Tangible Territory. It comes out in tandem with my exhibition called Ophelia in Exile, which, unlike TT journal, has a physical manifestation. The joint theme for both is a questioning of the role of all the senses in giving us a unified experience of the world, while also exploring what happens when this finely tuned interplay of sensory impressions becomes unbalanced, for whatever reason.
The concept of the exhibition – and by extension also the narrative thread of this issue – is centred around Ophelia, a woman who has been in a quarantine for an indefinite duration of time. Her isolation has caused her to feel unreal, detached, unsure of who she is, where she is and why. Through catching Covid she lost her sense of smell and later developed parosmia, a strange distortion of her smell perception. Even her sense of touch became affected: she became clumsy, she easily burns and constantly drops things.
Ophelia is in a kind of exile from the sensory world. She is in grief for what she can no longer access and feel. In order to keep connected to the world outside, she surrounds herself with screens, little windows into other realities: here a familiar face speaking to her, there a green meadow with blades of grass moving in wind, confined inside her Instagram account. There is a comfort to be had through these screens but they also reinforce her sense of disconnection. Every time she reaches out and tries to touch what she perceives she encounters the same flat surface. The window is closed.
Through her isolation Ophelia’s existential sense, to use the architect and scholar Juhani Pallasmaa’s words, has become disrupted. Her sense of reality, a finely tuned state that is normally being constantly calibrated by a contact with the living world through all the sensory channels, has been weakened. This weakening is creating a confusion in Ophelia: what did she dream, imagine and what actually happened? Is she really here? Does she belong to her body, or is she elsewhere? Where does the boundary of herself actually lie? It is as if her sense of self is slowly dissolving, spilling out and merging with the walls of her confinement…
What I wanted to do is start a conversation with various specialists in their field, to get an insight into how Ophelia might be feeling and why. I have spoken to philosopher and cognitive scientist Anna Ciaunica whose research is focused on depersonalisation. It is obvious that Ophelia suffers some aspects of this fractured self. Professor Barry Smith, a philosopher focused on studying and understanding the senses has enlightened me on the effects and manifestations of loss of smell and taste. Bompas and Parr architect Anne-Heloise Dautel has shared some fascinating insights into her own personal experience: Through Covid she has had suffered both anosmia and parosmia while her sense of touch has also been affected by the neurological damage caused by the virus. With Professor Ophelia Deroy, philosopher of mind and cognitive neuroscience we spoke about why our Ophelia might be feeling as if she were losing her mind, unable draw a line between her internal and external realities. Philosopher Carsten Friberg considered whether Ophelia, after such a prolonged period of isolation, might have to find a way of recombining impressions and memories in new ways. With dance researcher and choreographer Katja Vaghi we spoke of the kind of movements Ophelia might perform, as a form of self-soothing. Sculptor Rosalyn Driscoll reminded me of the role kinaesthesia and proprioception and how these senses can be utilised to feel more free. With astrophysicist and data scientist professor Roberto Trotta we discussed the parallels between Ophelia’s life in isolation with a life on Mars and wondered what kind of psychological features are required to sustain such an existence. And with a perfumer Sarah McCartney we spoke of how to create a perfume for Ophelia which captures her situation: her grief and her longing.
You can watch a trailer of these conversations here https://vimeo.com/603856088 and later a longer film will follow.
But beyond speculating on and analysing Ophelia’s state, I also wanted to see how Ophelia might be helped: What might she need and from whom? Will reading some of these articles which I have assembled here give her reassurance, comfort, help her intellectualise her predicament? Make her smile? Make her feel involved? Intrigued? Understood?
This is not to say that all the contributions of this issue speak directly to Ophelia. Some of them have a far looser connection to her situation. They are about human creativity, curiosity, imagination, about the spirit of collaboration, the spirit of place, about caring and sharing and finding moments of stillness amongst all the commotion.
In a way we have all experienced elements of Ophelia’s predicament, having been in some form of quarantine for the past year and a half: Perhaps deprived of smell by the virus, perhaps isolated at home without much travel or encounters with others. However, Ophelia doesn’t just stand for what has been. She is the avatar of our future selves in the brave new world we are unwittingly creating. Because it is clear enough that technology’s role in our lives is only becoming more dominant, with our experience of reality increasingly more often mediated through various devices. As Roberto Trotta points out in our conversation: A new breed of disembodied human beings is being trained right now.
And this is where I’d like to invite you to send Ophelia a message of support, which can take many forms: a simple email, a voice message, a handwritten letter, a book, a stone, a driftwood, whatever you’d like to share with her and for whatever reason. You can attach a note of explanation and your name or leave the object speak for itself.
If you are in London between 8th October 2021 – 15th January 2022, you can even come in person to visit Ophelia. Her temporary address is Vitrinka Gallery, 30 Kensington Palace Gardens, London, W8 4QY, UK and she is opening her doors to visitors from tonight, 6pm.
Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org
All the contributions will become part of the exhibition.
In any case I really hope you enjoy the latest crop of TT journal contributions which are here to spark your imagination, whet your curiosity, make you feel connected, inspired and sensorially tuned.
8th October, 2021, London