The Other SensesNovember 15, 2010
Don’t get too close to it. Don’t touch it. And whatever you do, don’t lick it. Don’t you see? We’re supposed to look at art, not taste it. But what happens when we do? Artists hungry to exchange and engage have been turning to taste for decades. More recently, they’ve been opening businesses, founding organizations, and building monuments in the name of flavor. Artists and collectives such as Michael Rakowitz, the National Bitter Melon Council, and Sanjit Sethi implicate the senses as playful—and meaningful—agents of disruption and social engagement. But what does it mean to engage the senses? And what do these senses tell us about our perception of difference?
The primary sense associated with food—taste—doesn’t rank high in the sensory hierarchy. Since antiquity, the senses have been identified as exactly five. No more, no less, and in the following order of importance: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. This conception of the senses went largely unchallenged into modernity.1 While the order of the senses may shift slightly within the hierarchies established by different European philosophers, sight always remains supreme.2 Our proximity to the object determines our objectivity. Distance allows us to exercise reason, and vision requires distance in order for us to know the object.3 Descartes identified sight as “the noblest and most comprehensive of the senses,” and Hegel championed it as “the aesthetic sense.”4
Hegel split the senses into two categories. He considered sight and sound to be the “theoretical” senses concerned with aesthetics, and smell and taste to be the “practical” ones, necessary for survival but unconcerned with aesthetics. Hegel proclaimed, “The organs of smell and taste are already beginnings of a practical relation," and later adds, "For we can smell only what is in the process of wasting away, and we can taste only by destroying.”5 He goes so far as to say that taste, smell, and touch “cannot have to do with artistic objects.”6 The practical and nonaesthetic positions of smell and taste are ones of inferiority.
Nineteenth-century scholars identified taste and smell as “primitive, infantile, and animalistic, even neurotic and perverse,” a description eerily similar to ones of the racialized body.7 Early-nineteenth-century scientist Lorenz Oken, considered to be the most important German “nature philosopher,” even identified a racial hierarchy of the senses: the European “eye-man,” the Asian “ear-man,” the Native American “nose-man,” the Melanesian “tongue-man,” and the African “skin-man.”8 The hierarchy of the senses inscribes structures of power and value onto Othered bodies, placing non-Europeans at the bottom. The “lower” senses of taste, touch, and smell are left to the “lower” races, “lower” classes, and the “lower” sex.9
When it comes to difference, we sense it as often as we picture it: “What do those people eat? What do they smell like?” In Enemy Kitchen (2004–ongoing), artist Michael Rakowitz collaborates with his Iraqi-Jewish mother to cook Baghdadi meals. In one Enemy Kitchen project with middle school students, a student complained, “Why are we making this nasty food? They (the Iraqis) blow up our soldiers everyday, and they knocked down the Twin Towers.”10 The comment prompted dialogue among the students about wartime perceptions of the enemy. In another project, Rakowitz barbecued with Chicago chapters of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When it comes to taste, we must risk contamination in order to experience the thing itself. What does it mean to eat kofta on Memorial Day instead of hot dogs and hamburgers? As a marker of difference, food can be too close for comfort. The Other senses of taste, smell, and touch produce Other anxieties.
Food is ephemeral, necessary, utilitarian. The National Bitter Melon Council (NBMC), a collective consisting of Hiroko Kikuchi, Jeremy Chi-Ming Liu, Andi Sutton, and Misa Saburi, is an earnest investigation that bridges art, food, and utility. The NBMC defines bitter melon as such:
A long, warty, and very bitter fruit used in global cuisine, healing practice, and art. A member of the gourd family, it possesses qualities that can be used as food, medicine, and as instigators of situations that promote conversation and community.11
As the NBMC, the artists have planted gardens, formed lesson plans, built resources, and hosted dinners around a food relatively unknown in the Western world. Rather than replace one hierarchy with another, social performance artists such as Rakowitz and the NBMC engage the senses as a new strategy entirely. In other words, artists are interrogating our perception of strange things with strange senses.
Projects like Sanjit Sethi’s Kuni Wada Bakery Remembrance (2008) lure us in with a subversion of sensory signifiers. In a Memphis parking lot, Sethi installed a device that emitted the aroma of baked cookies and doughnuts twice a day. If you were to follow your nose, you would be led to a plaque on an industrial box that reads:
On December 9, 1941 in a climate of fear and distrust from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kuni Wada Bakery located at 1310 Madison Avenue was shut down. The two Japanese families, the Nakajimas and the Kawais who ran the bakery were arrested and forced to leave Memphis. This Remembrance attempts to honor the Bakery, the contributions of the Nakajimas and Kawais to Memphis and to those whose lives were touched by a small bakery known for its exquisite doughnuts.12
How do we sense what is both strange and familiar? What happens when the smell of the enemy and the smell of doughnuts exist in one aroma? The senses are seductive. We have to get close to experience them. Sethi's Remembrance uses scent and food, with their powerful ties to memory, to evoke a forgotten history.
As artists interrogate difference through multisensory experience, we—as participants—are asked to question where and how we ascribe power through aesthetics. We fill our bellies and scratch our heads; if these senses exist as marginalized senses in marginalized bodies, what is their subversive power? It is precisely because these senses have been overlooked that they can catch us off guard and leave us hungry for more.