Garden of Nirvana

Garden of Nirvana equates women and flowers, with odour being the experiential link. Steele cites the writer Octave Uzanne, who compared a woman in lingerie to a flower, “whose innumerable petals become more and more beautiful and delicate as you reach the sweet depths of the innermost petals. She is like a rare orchid, who surrenders the fragrance of her mysteries only in the intimacies of love” (p. 117). Interest in the “fragrant mysteries” associated with women’s clothing is classically known as “perversion” in the sexology and psychoanalytic literature. Freud, for instance, conceded the vital connection between sexuality and olfaction in the animal kingdom, yet relegated it to an inconsequential status in humans. In the evolutionary scheme of development, humankind had risen up onto two legs, thus diminishing the role of smell; to link sex and smell again carries with it the danger of regression, of the re-emergence of the animal, in short, the threat of psychosis or neurosis. (5) Neglecting to distinguish between the proper objects of disgust and desire elicits condemning nomenclatures such as infantilism and coprophilia. Yet, as Steele and others have argued, defining conclusively what constitutes “normal” and “deviant” behaviour is an impossible task, one hopelessly compromised by ideological and other biases. Not the least of which is the sexist rhetoric used to situate and enforce gender relations: women who fail to live up to the fragrant mystery of Uzanne “are traitors to the ideal of femininity and objects of disgust.”

Historian Alain Corbin traces the contemporary intolerance towards odour back to the Enlightenment and the development of an “olfactory vigilance” in regards to bodily emanations and civic space. The project of modernity has also involved a rationalization of the senses, according to Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott, in which vision was prioritized to such a degree that “olfactory silence” was a direct outcome. The conflation of desire and disgust promulgated in Garden of Nirvana thus taps into two centuries of odour anxiety, both in the personal and public realms. Hirakawa violates not only the assumed predominance of the visual in the ideology of the gallery, but also one’s sense of private space and identity. The enforced intimacy is confrontational – the odour is unavoidable, one cannot help but to breathe it in. In some ways the piece positions itself as a litmus test of sensitivity and sensibility: How quickly does one react? Is it prudishly or pruriently? A decision based on instinct or intellect? Regardless of the response, odour is the key element in confusing the segregated domains of the biological and the social, the sensory and the semiotic.

Besides the allusions to fetishism, one might also be inclined to reflect upon Garden of Nirvana in the context of Buddhist practices. Does the installation trivialize nirvana as a ribald “heaven” of “getting-into-women’s-pants” or does it have more subtle implications? Nirvana describes the state of final emancipation, a state beyond attachment. Literally the term means “blown out,” a combination of the Sanskrit “van” (to breathe or blow), with “nir” (the negation). It encompasses a blissful experience of knowing the absolute, which is distinct from quotidian consciousness, yet undefinable. Being “blown away” thus evokes the obliviousness of care, induced by intoxication, joy or ecstasy of the state of nirvana.

Relevant to this installation are Buddhist spiritual practices that have deployed the outrageous to collapse dualist distinctions between the sacred and profane. A popular Zen story illustrates a method of seeking enlightenment in the most repugnant of objects: when a master was asked “What is the Buddha?,” he answered “That pile of shit in the courtyard.” There is a tradition within Buddhism of meditation on what is “disgusting” – corpses, skulls or feces – in order to cultivate dispassion. Yet at the same time, nirvana, in Tantric and Zen traditions, can be found both through the deliberate heightening of the senses as well as through the ascetic control of them. In bringing the focus to what is conventionally “disgusting,” Garden of Nirvana can be contemplated as a clash of tasteful and distasteful objects, ugly and beautiful experiences, desirable and repulsive sensations. The Buddha, reputedly, never articulated what nirvana was, only what it was not. Both underwear (by being concealed) and odour (by its ethereality) are provocative metaphors for the state of nirvana, which exists everywhere yet is invisible. Scent thus constitutes an intense sensory presence that circumvents iconographic prohibitions within Buddhist tradition.

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