China Underground > China Views > Yuqing Liu: The Power of Scent in Artistic Memory Preservation

Yuqing Liu: The Power of Scent in Artistic Memory Preservation

Scent Researcher & Artist Moving Between Multiple Invisible Realities, Connecting with the Deepest Memories Through Fragrance

Yuqing Liu, a renowned olfactory interaction artist and sensory immersion designer, is known for her revolutionary research into human olfaction and memory. Using advanced multisensory technologies, Liu investigates how fragrances impact memory preservation and development. Liu chose scent as her medium because of its powerful capacity to evoke memories and emotions. Her path began during her postgraduate studies, when she pioneered innovative olfactory interaction design approaches, which culminated in a highly regarded graduating project. In 2022, as an olfactory interaction art lecturer she emphasizing scent’s transforming power in memory and narrative. Liu shared her knowledge and expertise with Chinese educational institutions, solidifying her position in the art and educational communities. Liu’s work reached new heights in 2023, playing a key role in Omega’s “Every Shade of You” campaign in partnership with EcoScent. She created five distinct smells to enhance the audience’s interaction with the brand’s new watch colors. Liu’s broad experience and studies allow her to continue inventing in fragrance, memory, and interactive art. Her artistic vision continued with “VI-SCENT.Lab_Memory Archiving System” and “The Boiling Ocean,” showcased in London-based exhibitions in 2023.

Yuqing Liu’s official site, Facebook, and Instagram profiles

Who influenced you as a person and as an artist? What does art mean to you?

Art for me is a profound way to communicate and connect deeply, allowing individuals to express their thoughts and convey them in a personal form. My personal experiences and close relationships have shaped the way I express myself artistically, with my works deeply rooted in the desire to connect with loved ones suffering from memory loss. My grandfather’s gradual forgetfulness due to Alzheimer’s disease left me with a strong sense of helplessness, prompting me to seek a way through art to explore how humans can evoke and preserve memories. My pieces often revolve around scent and memory, as I believe human memory is a symbol of existence, and scent is a sensory stimulus that can directly link to memory, leading me to embark on the practice of interactive art involving scent and memory. Another person that influenced me a lot is Sissel Tolaas, a pivotal figure in the scent art field. I am consistently inspired by her work, which uses scent to explore urban memories, environmental history, and human activity in fascinating ways. Her ability to integrate olfactory materials into spatial structures to create unique scent-dominated sensory experiences captivates me. Her background as a chemist adds a rational beauty to her work, continually motivating me to develop innovative scent-based interactive experiences.

Yuqing Liu’s interactive installation “Awakening: Scent Archive” encompasses performance and workshops to delve into the profound relationship between scent and memory

You grew up in China and now you are working in the U.K. What cultural differences and what common points of view did you find? What did it mean for your artistic and personal path moving from China to England?

Growing up in China, the culture, environment, and education there shaped my worldview. I enjoy starting from my personal sensations, first exploring how I perceive the world internally, and then expressing my unique interactions with the world through installations and digital media technology. At the age of 20, I came to the UK to study interactive art and found the educational environment here more encouraging of critical thinking and interdisciplinary research practices. This led me to explore various experimental materials and delve into theories of neurobiology, integrating human-computer interaction technologies into my creations to explore a more fluid emotional exchange between myself and the audience. My move from China to London challenged me to push beyond traditional boundaries, integrating multisensory elements into my work. This transition didn’t just change my location; it transformed my artistic approach, allowing me to connect with a wider audience and explore the vast possibilities of scent as a medium for immersive storytelling and experience.

VI-SCENT.Lab: Memory Archiving System
Human-AI collaboration in Olfactory Visualization, 2023

How did your interest in the sense of smell arise? What drove you to create the combination of art and smells? How do you keep your inspiration alive?

My journey in olfactory interaction art is deeply personal, drawing inspiration from my grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s. His fading memories, preserved in sketchbooks filled with maps and stories, ignited my passion for exploring human memory through scent, a potent medium for triggering emotions and recollections. In a world dominated by visuals, I chose scent for its strong emotional and mnemonic connections, aiming to design experiences that resonate deeply. My work is a blend of love, loss, and the pursuit of preserving the ephemeral threads of memory. At the heart of my practice is the belief that olfactory senses are crucial for perceiving environments, recording emotions, and signaling danger. I believe that the key to maintaining my inspiration lies in the continuous study and exploration of new technologies. I am convinced that scent remains an underexploited sensory trigger within cutting-edge technologies like virtual reality and mixed reality. My artistic mission is to access deep-seated memories and emotions through olfaction. I envision a future where technology encompasses all senses, expanding the boundaries of sensory interaction and memory preservation.

On a practical level, what were the biggest challenges you encountered in the realization of your artworks?

One of the primary challenges in my work has been transforming the transient nature of scents into tangible art installations. This involves not only ensuring the longevity and consistency of scents but also integrating them seamlessly with visual and auditory elements. The process requires a delicate balance between technical innovation and artistic vision to preserve the essence of my ideas. My practice involves crafting intricate scent compositions that go beyond mere aromas; they embody complex memories and emotions, offering an alternative sensory experience in a visually saturated world. This endeavor to harness olfaction as a medium not only reconnects people with their primal senses but also bridges the gap between the ephemeral world of smells and tangible human experiences.

Yuqing Liu, is the artist who seeks to unravel the intricacies of human senses, focusing on how scent can awaken deeply entrenched, emotionally rich memories, an idea rooted in the Proust effect

By leveraging technology and extending your art beyond traditional visual engagement, you immerse your audience in a deeper experience. What do you enjoy most when creating art?

In my art creation, which integrates technology to extend beyond visual art, I particularly enjoy witnessing the diverse and profound emotional reactions elicited by the scent samples I present. The personal and unpredictable nature of olfactory memories brings unique challenges and opportunities, enriching the interactive experience. It’s fascinating to see how the same scent can unite people through shared recollections or evoke entirely different emotions in others, underscoring the subjective power of scent. This variability in responses not only highlights the intricate relationship between humans and smell but also what I cherish most in my art: the ability to facilitate deeply personal experiences and connections among my audience.

The Boiling Ocean, Memory Tea Bags, 220 cm L x 80 cm W x 100 cm H, 2023

What is your starting point? What is your creative process? How do you ‘translate’ your ideas into an art installation?

My creative journey begins with capturing a moment’s sensation in life, triggered by various conditions. For instance, walking through London’s alleys on a rainy day, the scent of damp rain mixed with concrete in the air and the shapes of buildings and lights reflected in puddles on the ground make me think of reflections in water as memories, stored and mirrored by a medium, yet fragile, easily blurred by a single footprint. This leads me to associate water and memory’s shared characteristics as unique materials for developing olfactory experiences. This is how my creative ideas emerge, always in a special form. This initial spark is transformed through sketches, notes, and experimental setups into a concept. In translating these concepts into art installations, I pay close attention to the selection of materials and technologies to ensure that the final work accurately conveys the original ideas and emotions. For example, in the early stages of creating ‘Awakening: Scent Archive’, I developed a set of interaction design guidelines for scent-triggered memories through experimental design and extensive literature review. Throughout the creative process, I continually test and adjust to ensure that each artistic presentation resonates emotionally with the audience.

Smells and scents can stimulate a rich emotional response connected to forgotten childhood, or adolescence. The senses are doorways to lost memories. What do you want to explore? What do you hope to inspire in your audience? What are your most important findings, about the sense of smell?

As the Proust effect, scents have the unique power to immediately transport people back to a specific moment or awaken a deeply buried memory. Through creating olfactory interactive experiences, I aim to explore how scent memories resonate across different groups and individuals. Given the personalized and unpredictable nature of scents, crafting these experiences poses a significant challenge, as it’s hard to ensure the conveyed concepts and emotions are precise. Rather than accurately transmitting subjective memories and emotions, I prefer to create a platform that encourages exploration and sharing, where the audience can experience scent scenes from my memories, potentially triggering their own, which might be similar or vastly different. This unpredictability is what makes scent memories fascinating. I hope to spark curiosity and a desire to share among my audience, often hearing intriguing life stories and inspiring new ideas during my exhibitions. I wish for participants to gain varied experiences and share their feelings with others. Regarding olfaction, I’ve discovered it to be a potent, yet often overlooked, sensory capability with strong signal recognition and information processing abilities, playing a significant role in narrative-driven immersive experiences. Furthermore, the concept of public olfactory memories, reflecting local culture, climate, cuisine, and even entertainment, is an aspect I find indispensable in my exploration.

Photo courtesy of Yuqing Liu

Last Updated on 2024/03/19

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