Aromatic Realities – a portrayal of narratives via multimedia and multisensory experiences by Artist-in-Residence Beatrice Glow

3 March 2021

By Billy Tran

Have you ever wondered how smell could be used to trace your history?

On 24 February 2021, Yale-NUS’ Artist-in-Residence (AIR) Beatrice Glow conducted a public lecture about her work on multimedia, multisensory experiences and how they portray narratives of people, culture, and objects. The one-hour session also covered her research on trade goods, such as Bandanese nutmeg, Chinese gunpowder, and Native American Tobacco, and the way they shape cultural and environmental narratives in both the past and the future.

“I titled this talk Aromatic Realities to evoke what is often unseen, yet pervades our lives,” Ms Glow shared. “I also wanted to signal all the ‘AR’s in our lives. ‘AR’ is known as augmented reality technology, but what does it really mean to augment our realities? It’s not just a new technological experience, it’s also about expanding our senses,” she added, noting all the ‘ARs’ that she’s fascinated by including ‘Asian/Americas relations’ and ‘archives reimagined’.

She began the lecture by discussing the various migration waves from Asia to the Americas, most notably 19th-century Chinese labour in Peru. Centring around the metaphor of the Chinese Perfume Tree (aglaia odorata), she explained, “I was using smell as a metaphor for things you can’t put a finger on, that are the underlying undercurrents that motivate us to do things that we don’t even know why we do until certain years later”.

From Ms Glow’s studio at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Gillman Barracks. Image provided by Beatrice Glow.

Explaining the inspiration behind her work, she said “It made a lot of sense to me, after many years of experimentation and working within communities, that the power and impact of art lie in multisensory and multimedia experiences that people from different walks of life can all find access points to.”

During the lecture, Ms Glow also shared her work-in-progress, a multimedia installation called “Smoke Trails”. The project uses VR-generated videos, olfactory art, and 3D models of both real and pseudo artifacts. Using tobacco’s social history, the installation explores the impact of capitalism on our environment in the future.

The lecture was moderated by James Jack, Assistant Professor of Practice in Humanities (Visual Art) and Director of the AIR Programme. Professor of Social Sciences (Urban Studies) Chua Beng Huat and Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Civilisations Museum Ms Kan Shuyi also joined the lecture and engaged in dialogue with Ms Glow.

Ms Kan mentioned during the dialogue that “likewise to what the Asian Civilisations Museum does is to highlight the connections between different cultures and across time”. She said that the metaphor of smoke that Ms Glow had introduced was wonderful, adding that “as we start to unpack it, it’s so rich and has so many layers to take apart”.

Diya Kundu (Class of 2021) and Zhai Qiutong (Class of 2023) on a field trip to the Botanic Gardens. Image provided by Beatrice Glow.

During her residency, Ms Glow also teaches a course titled Media Arts For Just Futures, exploring how students can leverage experiential media art to tackle the pressing issue of environmental injustice, especially within the context of our modern-day world. They’re exposed to new ways of creating art, such as virtual reality sculpting. “We’re using virtual reality headsets to create projects combining theory, creativity, and research with new media to try to reshape or respond to existing cultural items,” she said.

Students also benefitted from experiential learning through field trips. Reflecting on her trip to the Botanic Gardens, Dawn Lim Gin (Class of 2023) said, “Personally, the biggest takeaway from the class so far is the historical significance that materials and nature hold. Trees, food and colour alike all hold their own segment of history that reflects political power dynamics, social realities and even deeply personal stories.”

Moreover, Dawn appreciated the fact that she could learn directly from a practising artist. “Being in constant interaction with a practising artist who is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about her interests truly inspires and brings a fresh perspective in my academic life,” she added.

For Ms Glow, one of the highlights of her experience in the College has been working with students. “I enjoy talking to the students and getting to understand the challenges they face as we think about how we can build just futures together through art,” she said. Ms Glow is also looking forward to the creative works that the students will create at the end of the semester as they challenge the dominant narratives about environmental justice.

Watch the Yale-NUS Artist-in-Residence Public Lecture: Aromatic Realities: