When your work is so intrinsically tied to one sense, it does inevitably make you think about people who singularly obsess about other senses. I’m not referring to the visual sense: compared to hearing, vision seems like a precocious child: look at my new filters, lenses, colours, 4k whatever!?! Our visual sense is so overloaded with information that engaging with it likely takes more filtering than even hearing does… But what about the other senses?

Back when I lived in Auckland (+/-1991-1995) at a certain point I found myself needing to relocate, and since a decade prior had always loved the idea of living in warehouse spaces. I lived in an abandoned Spiritualist Christian Church for a year or two in Christchurch (it was presumably first abandoned by the Christian Spiritualists, then by the multi media collective Tinnitus… & had a tap in the corner of the big room, a divine feed, I always wondered, when earthing my outboard to it..)

Anyway I stumbled across a fantastic building in downtown Auckland previously used by a spice importer/distributor… And for a few deluded weeks I dreamed about the idea of my new studios inherited aroma, until it became apparent yuppification had already started… I think its also known as gentrification, & along with cancer is one of those modern/aspirational corruptions that will hopefully eventually be eradicated/become ancient history…


Anyway, I’m sure that warehouse space is related (in my head, at least) to a blog I very much enjoy reading: What we do is secret – a side project for a company who create perfumes, and while their blog is more broadly design & architecture focused, their primary business is fascinating, as is the language of describing, discussing & working with something as invisible as a scent.

What smells do you remember? I don’t mean Smell-o-vision but like some pieces of music, to re-experience them is to effectively experience time travel. For a moment you are back there, feeling it for the first time. But there is also something deeply mysterious about the sense of smell that (like music on a good day) can transcend explanation.

Apart from the odour of food preparation, incense would be one voluntary smell that I still enjoy. Back in my youth it had hippy associations, and/or was used as an attempt to mask other, more illicit smells, but a year or two ago on a trip to Japan we visited the fairly remote temple town of Koya-san. It was quite a drive up into mountains, with temples & endless shrines amongst vast cedar forests…


In the main street was a small shop selling exquisite varieties of incense. It was quite magic to experience a range of smells & to encourage such behaviour I bought a couple of small boxes of incense. It may be due to my personal history & the range of options & the context of purchasing them but I perceive them as being so much refined than the generic incense of my non-hippy youth…


More recently, while I was living on the island of Shodoshima in Japan last year I met & filmed a priest from the beautiful temple of Nishnotaki and after I showed him my finished short film & gave him a copy, one of his presents in return was a small bag of brown powder. I didn’t know how to react to this present at first, but he showed me that it was hand incense, something I never knew existed until that moment. He spilled a small amount on to his hands & then rubbed them together. The smell was intense, intensely beautiful & musty, but also intensely transporting.


I put the tiny bag in my camera bag & forgot about it…. until I got home & unpacked. Kind of interesting that border control didn’t notice it & demand an explanation, but then again if you have nothing to hide I guess you don’t draw attention. My innocence would have been genuine & proven to be valid, no matter the accusations of importing an unknown powdered substance… But that hand incense instantly transports me back to Shodoshima, turning off the main road & driving up through forests… until eventually turning in the driveway to the temple… & then driving another few miles up steeper narrow roads until eventually arriving at the temple carpark. Walking up all those steps, meeting that priest, experiencing the beautiful quiet of such a beautiful temple, high in the mountains of Shodoshima… & then filming him perform a fire ceremony…. all brought rushing back from a single inhale.

All of which reminds me, I must rewatch this really beautiful film, with a great soundtrack: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer directed by Tom Tykwer

3 Responses to Sensoria

  1. Michael Manzke says:

    I have thought about the sense of smell lately and realized that it is the only of my senses that doesn’t have a memory that I can recall whenever I want to. I can recreate sounds inside my head, I can recreate pictures, re-feel how wood or skin feels and I can recreate taste. But for some reason I can’t re-smell something in my head. But it works the other way around: as soon as I smell something it takes me back to places or persons.
    I also asked some friends of mine and they had the same issue with recalling smells.

    A small side note:
    a few days back I learned about the channel capacity of the human senses. Theoretically the human vision can handle 10^7 bits per second, the nose 10^5 bits per second and the ears can also handle about 10^5 bits per second.The conscious perception though is a different thing.
    The conscious perception of the eyes is about 40 bit/s, of the nose about 1bit/s and the conscious perception of the ears is about 30 bit/s… much filtering and so many informations that are transported directly to the subconscious.

    • tim says:

      fascinating, thanks Michael!

      another smell (& word) I love is Petrichor (although simairly not sure I can actually recall the smell) – Dan posted this on FB:


  2. Marcel Bellve says:

    This reminded me of another post I recently stumbled across. Apparently the least of our noses may be able to smell around 80 million different scents while the more acute can perceive into the trillions!
    …and I thought my ears were good 🙂

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