Grace Boyle is an artist working at the intersection of art and science. During the residency, she measured the wind and the humidity and, captivated by the scent of Japanese hinoki cypress, she collected scent samples everywhere she went.
The things that we are chasing after through technology already existed here
I am a multisensory artist. I founded a group called The Feelies to investigate how we are using our physical senses and how they can be bought in for immersive story telling. Since a few years ago, I have been looking into the sensory elements of the design and practices of indigenous culture and what we can learn from that both in a more general modern-day context and specifically about developing multisensory, immersive experiences. I applied for this residency as a continuation of this work.
All the experiences in the programme have been really extraordinary, and hugely varied - from witnessing the sun come up at Naiku at five a.m. to attending the night time Kan’name ritual, where the priests offer the first rice of the season to the gods. We’ve taken part in many special rituals. Of these, the Okabiki ritual during the Hatsuhobiki festival, where we pulled a cart piled with the first sheaves of rice to the shrine to offer them to the gods, was an intense experience. We pulled two long ropes together with more than 800 people in identical white clothing, and the ropes were kind of vibrating with the energy of all those people. It was really a first for me.
None of the disciplines of the seven artists in this group really overlap with each other, so I think we've been able to have conversations from these different perspectives. I think that all of us, as artists working with different kinds of expression, have learned and benefited from this time together.
I wanted to investigate the physical and sensory components of worshipping at one of the Shinto shrines and how people who visit have an experience of the divine and how they feel that through their senses. One aspect that I've been looking into very carefully is the Japanese hinoki cypress trees. All the shrines are made of this. When you examine this from the standpoint of Western science, you learn that the scent of hinoki has sedative effects. It's been found to calm anxiety, decrease heart rate, and so on. This hinoki wood is used in the places of worship. What’s more, by rebuilding the main sanctuaries every 20 years, the intention was maybe to sustain those effects. This ancestral wisdom was extremely interesting.
I also looked at how the layout of the shrines involves the senses, measured the wind and humidity, and collected samples of scents from all around Geku and Naiku. I have also been looking at the olfactory journey the visitors to the shrine will encounter.
This was my first trip to Japan, but I was moved by the fact that the practice of rebuilding Ise Shrine has been going on for more than 1,300 years. I grew up in London and still live there now. As someone from an urban and an increasingly digital and secular culture, I was surprised by the idea that there is value in maintaining something through the ages, and in the repetition required for that maintenance. Listening to the priest’s explanation that “Ise Jingu is repeatedly reborn through its rebuilding every twenty years, so the scene in front of your eyes now is the same as the one seen by people 1,300 years ago. It’s as though you were in a time-slip, experiencing the same thing as people 1,300 years before,” I learned there is a concept that eternity is achieved through repetition.
That is an extraordinary concept and part of the reason why I am interested in studying indigenous culture. These are concepts we continuously chase after, currently through our digital technologies and through our computers and our machines, but I think a lot of time we make the mistake of being blind to answers that are already existing in cultures that we don’t know. I also learned the Japanese word kehai which can be interpreted as a “feeling of presence”, that you don’t necessarily have to confirm the existence of kami by seeing them, you can feel that they are present without seeing them. I felt that this is a key aspect not just of Shinto but of the Japanese culture more widely. I think that the value of cross-cultural exchange is in being connected to experiences like these, which are important both to life and to art.