the nose

Seán Vicary

‘nose song’ by Sam Lee & Llywelyn ap Myrddin

The Body of Songs project brings together major musicians and scientists to create a songs inspired by the body’s organs. A select number of artist-animators have also been invited to collaborate with the musicians and scientists, undertaking their own journey of discovery.

When I first heard a rough mix of Sam Lee & Llywelyn ap Myrddin’s nose song I was transported. It was literally a sonic version of that all-consuming experience of smelling; of surrendering to a moment…and then, the intensity impossible to hold or maintain, it slips away and fades.

In this animation I have aimed for the visual equivalent: exploring the poetic landscape evoked by the physiological process of olfaction, fusing the scientific and the lyrical whilst also suggesting a fictive/autobiographical subtext drawn from my personal experience of coping with my Mum’s dementia.

While researching the work I visited genetics and smell expert Dr Darren Logan at the Wellcome Trust Sanger institute and was impressed with his step-by-step description how we smell. I expanded upon this as the structure for an impressionistic journey through a composite dreamscape of smell and memory.

When we smell ‘something’ the volatile molecules travel up the nose, triggering olfactory receptor neurons which send signals on a long journey into the brain’s olfactory bulb and out into the olfactory cortex, which passes information to other parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus where olfaction-memory processes occur.

I was visually inspired by striking electron microscopy of various parts of the olfactory system which possessed a fabulous abstract quality, reminding me of other natural forms; corals, roots, trees, hills etc. I used these as a guide to construct animated visual metaphors for different parts of the process.

The olfactory sensor neurons are the only part of the brain that touches the outside world, and smell is the only sense that bypasses the logical mind, avoiding the cortex (where we make decisions) and feeding straight into the sub-cortical regions where we experience emotions. This is how molecules of smell can act as a key that momentarily unlocks the door to deeply experienced forgotten memories.

The past few years I have watched the slow decline of my Mother into dementia:
She had once been a passionate gardener constantly filling the house with the scent of flowers from her garden, and now as I sat with her in the care home, among the thick odors of disinfectant and urine, I thought about the transportive quality of smell.

I recently acquired a bag of decaying 8mm films containing footage of my Mum’s childhood in India, all shot by my Grandfather from 1935 -1944. These flickering snippets of Himalayan picnics provided the source material for my animated olfactory signals, triggered on their journey by molecules of Balsam and Jasmine.

The provenance of other materials was paramount and I constructed the animation out of site-specific objects manipulated through stop-motion (e.g. flowers collected from my Mother’s abandoned garden), collaging them together to create an inner composite landscape through which my animated ‘molecules’ could travel.


Body of Songs project
Sam Lee more from musician Sam Lee